Reality Bytes

Reality Bytes
Attack of the Uncanny Valley

Haasim Mahanaim | 18 Aug 2009 13:02
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"There is only a finite amount of time and resources that people can invest into their surroundings," says Brey. "As people invest more of their lives in virtual worlds, they have [fewer] investments to make into the real world. Virtual worlds are often more attractive, more exciting and more controllable than the real world. This may cause people to lose themselves in them, to such an extent that they start neglecting their 'real' life. They may even emotionally invest in affectionate relationships with CGI characters at the expense of such relationships with real people."

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It's not hard to imagine such a world when there are already people emotionally invested in inanimate objects. The New York Times recently ran a story about a Japanese sub-culture in which men use the 2-D images of anime characters as surrogates for flesh and blood human beings. "As long as you train your imagination," says Toru Honda, a 2-D lover featured in the Times piece, "a 2-D relationship is much more passionate than a 3-D one."

Long after Nuveen's Christopher Reeve Super Bowl commercial aired, pundits and columnists admonished the use of photorealistic CGI in depicting fantasy as reality. It seemed almost cruel that that Nuveen had gone through so much trouble to convincingly depict something that doesn't exist when so many paraplegics are waiting for a very real cure. If the voice-over hadn't established the hypothetical premise of the ad, many more people would have been fooled.

Then again, isn't fooling people the point? Don't we want to be fooled? After all, achieving computer-generated photorealism appears to be the driving force behind the computer graphics industry. According to Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games, photorealistic CGI is no more than 10-15 years away. That may be true for producing still images, but creating interactive, photorealistic CGI characters is a different matter.

"Some CGI characters are already quite realistic," says Brey. "However, in spite of the impressive advances in realism over the past thirty years, I believe it will still take a long time before CGI characters will be truly indistinguishable from real humans. This would not only require further improvements in computer graphics and physical modeling, but also major advances in artificial intelligence that would enable the modeling of highly realistic behavior by CGI characters."

Depictions of real people may present even bigger challenges.

"A perfect posthumous computer generated version of a famous actor would probably be eerier than the exact match to someone living but unknown," says Stephanie Lay. "Our knowledge and expectations of what the famous figure should look like, how they move and what they sound like, would drive whether or not we're able to accept the facsimile."

For now, Lay's research is focused on finding that "something" that makes uncanny faces so unsettling; the missing link that creates the disconnect between fantasy and reality. But are we ready to cross the uncanny valley?

Christopher Reeve couldn't really walk. Al Franken didn't really pose as a diaper-wearing bunny. These were lies. So, naturally, we were unsettled by their existence. But who is to say whether or not a person's love for an anime character is real?

And that's where the trouble of photorealism begins. If that Super Bowl ad had offered nothing more than the sight of Christopher Reeve walking; or if that Al Franken photo had been a perfect forgery, all we'd have to discern fantasy from reality is our feelings. And when we're at the sole mercy of our feelings, we're liable to believe in anything.

Haasim Mahanaim is a freelance writer based in Ottawa, Canada. He also keeps this blog.

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