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Originally coined by Ernst Jentsch (1906) and explored further in Sigmund Freud’s essay Das Unheimliche (1919), uncanny is the concept and experience of how something is strange, mysterious or unnatural. While technology has progressed over the years, so has our ability to anthropomorphize current technology. We see this through children's adoration for Tamagotchis and Furbys (Turkle, 2005). We also witness this through advancements in animation and CGI in movies and TV shows. Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, originated the concept of the Uncanny Valley in the 1970s, a theory that something could be off about a human-like robot or character. There’s a sweet spot where the more human or realistic that robots seem to appear, the more disturbing they appear to the human eye. That descent into an eerie spot is the Uncanny Valley.
The Uncanny Valley graph, Masahiro Mori, 1970
Attempting to avoid the creepiness of the Uncanny Valley has been an issue for animators and artists across the world when creating movies. For example, when the movie Shrek was being made - an early screen test caused children to cry because Princess Fiona was too realistic. Similarly, The Polar Express achieved mixed ratings because of how real-life the characters were. The struggle for realism while not scaring the audience and entering uncanny territory is what I believe is one of the biggest challenges artists, scientists and roboticists might face in the twenty-first century, as we attempt to seamlessly integrate digital avatars, AI and social robots into our society.
The Polar Express
Created by Epic Games as part of Unreal Engine, the MetaHuman Creator, has the capabilities of creating realistic, 3D, digital humans. The detail within creating a MetaHuman, from the pores and wrinkles on the skin to the veins in the eyes, can be customized. The huge jump in the technology has been stated by Vladimir Mastilovic, vice president of Digital Humans Technology at Epic Games, "Up until now it has taken very sophisticated teams weeks or months to create just one high-quality digital human, and now that massive amount of time and process is being compressed into minutes. That's new for the entire industry, not just Epic." The speed and accessibility of the MetaHuman creator can allow anyone to create their photorealistic digital human.
Can MetaHumans Overcome Uncanny Valley?
Although research has yet to be conducted on this topic, one can ask the question, has Epic’s MetaHumans escaped the Uncanny Valley, or does it have the possibility to do so in future as their technology progresses? Some YouTubers attempt to recreate human facial expression and movement using LiveLink and Unreal Engine, but is it possible to recreate human expression or emotion through MetaHumans without entering uncanny territory?
If this can be possible, what does it mean for the future of digital avatars in gaming, entertainment, virtual reality and digital communication? Will MetaHumans become so life-like they could replace Hollywood actors? In virtual reality, social spaces might become even more realistic, eventually competing with the realism of our current reality. It could open opportunities for other industries like healthcare and education, and of course, forge a new avenue for digital identity and the self. I argue that right now we might be witnessing the beginning of a revolution in digital communication where avatars and digital humans (MetaHumans) will become the everyday norm. The next point of call should be escaping uncanny territory and attempting to advance artificial expression by replicating human subtleties and micro-expressions (Ekman, 1975). Once this is achieved it might be possible to overcome Uncanny Valley.
Ekman, P., Professor of Psychology Paul Ekman; PH D, & Friesen, W. V. (1975). Unmasking the face: A guide to recognizing emotions from facial clues. Prentice Hall.
Freud, S. (2018). Das Unheimliche. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.
Jentsch, E., & Surprenant, C. (1995). On the psychology of the uncanny (1906).
Mori, M. (2020). The uncanny Valley. The Monster Theory Reader, 89-94. https://doi.org/10.5749/j.ctvtv937f.7
Turkle, S. (2005). The second self, twentieth anniversary edition: Computers and the human spirit. MIT Press.