Reality Bytes

Reality Bytes
Attack of the Uncanny Valley

Haasim Mahanaim | 18 Aug 2009 13:02
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Consider the current class-action lawsuit against the NCAA and EA Sports for the unauthorized use of player likenesses in video games. Students sign over the rights to their likeness to the NCAA while playing college-level sports, but, long after they graduate, the NCAA continues to use their likenesses in lucrative merchandising deals like video game licensing. This wasn't a problem twenty-years ago when video game characters were barely-indistinguishable clumps of pixels on a screen, but today, companies like EA Sports pride themselves on being able to push the boundaries of video game photorealism. In doing so, they are also pushing the boundaries of ownership and legality.

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"A case could be made that such uses should not be restricted because games are fictional works and the depiction of real persons in games is simply a matter of free speech," says Brey. "On the other hand, such depictions can be very defamatory and invasive of the privacy of persons. Imagine that a photorealistic copy of you is found performing disgusting or embarrassing actions. I think you would feel violated and would worry that your character is being assassinated."

One doesn't have to simply imagine such things. There have already been instances of celebrity faces (sometimes convincingly) inserted into pornographic images by mischievous computer nerds and the media is frequently caught "adjusting" images to meet editorial objectives.

For a story on ABC News journalist Elizabeth Vargas, Marie Claire magazine featured a photo of Vargas breastfeeding in-studio at her newsdesk. It was a composite image meant to illustrate the balance between work and parenting. But the photo was convincing enough; one could be forgiven for wondering if Vargas really takes her baby to work.

When tennis player Andy Roddick was featured on the cover of Men's Fitness, his biceps were digitally enlarged. When Roddick saw the magazine at a newsstand he did a double take. "I'm not as fit as the Men's Fitness cover suggests," said Roddick. "... little did I know I have 22 inch guns and a disappearing birth mark on my right arm." A spokesperson for the magazine replied, "I don't see what the big issue is here."

And in 2006, an Ohio Republican Party newsletter featured a picture of Al Franken dressed like a bunny in adult diapers while clutching an oversized teddy bear. In reality, the photo had been doctored by transplanting Franken's face into a scene in which he never participated. The deception was so convincing, years later (July 2009), well after Franken had been seated in the United States Senate, the image surfaced in the Cincinnati Enquirer. In a caption next to the forged image, columnist Peter Bronson asked: "Is this who you want making decisions about your health care?"

The advent of trick photography and digital photo-editing has changed the veracity of photographs and forced people to become more skeptical of images. But photo-editing technology can only manipulate still images that have already been captured from real life.

No such limitations exist with CGI. Images can be conjured-up out of thin air.

As CGI becomes increasingly realistic, the distinction between fantasy and reality will only blur further. Video games like The Sims already allow players to create their own virtual worlds populated with simulated friends, family and even pets.

"Increasing realism could expand that," says Melanie Beisswenger, assistant professor of digital animation at Nanyang Technological University. "[CGI] technology could blur the line between real humans and virtual humans ... real life and virtual life."

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