CES 2007: Attack of the Uncanny Valley


The television is supposed to be comforting. It’s supposed to hum quietly, bring friends (and enemies) into your home, entertain you with colorful stories, share news and generally keep the house from sounding empty while you unwind from the day. It is a trusted friend, a confidant and a comforting connection to the rest of the world. Yet for all of the warmth, comfort and support it provides, it is just a device, and we like it that way. Aside from pre-millenium paranoia about embedded cameras and two-waycable, most of us are convinced that the television is not watching us when we’re watching it, and that suits us just fine. We can look at it, in other words, but it is not supposed to look back.

Unfortunately LG didn’t get that memo.

Many of the new HDTVs from LG feature their XCC, eXtreme Contour Compensation, technology, which is supposed to smooth out the color and contrast gradients of complex textures like the human face, which other TVs over-compress, causing the image to lose clarity and definition. The good news: It works. Extremely well. The bad news: it’s the creepiest (expletive) thing I’ve ever seen.

As we wound our way through display after display of TV after TV, all showing one of three separate display loops (car movie, penguins, girl getting a massage interspersed with vegetables falling into water), I got the eerie sensation that someone was watching me, which, at a show as crowded as CES, is something I’d gotten used to. But this was different. This person looking at me was hanging on the wall. I looked up, our eyes met and for a second I was convinced that there was a person staring at me through a window. When I realized she was on TV, and pre-recorded, a single chill ran up my spine.

The XCC technology apparently removes all of the digital artifacts that we have learned to use to discern true from false. It creates a startlingly clear, true image, and when watching David Caruso take off his sunglasses, saying “Murder hurts, Frank. Murder … hurts.” it’ll probably be pretty awesome. But when watching an extreme close-up of a lady staring back out at you, it’s something else entirely. Uncanny, perhaps.

Also uncanny: watching a child-sized, anthropomorphic robot crouch down, and, with a whirr, launch itself in your direction, arms outstretched, at running speed. It’s the kind of thing they specifically add to movies about killer robots, going for that “fear” effect, and when Honda’s otherwise adorable Asimo robot took a deep digital breath and propelled himself into robotics history yesterday, I was less awed than shocked.

Honda has been developing the Asimo technology for two decades, and each year they parade the latest prototype around the world, at various conventions, to display how far they’ve come. This year that includes the ability of the robot to walk up and down stairs unaided (but not without the occasional mishap ((VIDEO))) and the ability to run at near-human running speed, with both feet actually leaving the ground for a fraction of the second, just like our feet do when we run.

Asimo is an amazing device, and Honda promises that the finished product will be marketed to those in need, whom the robot can help by fetching things or leading them across busy streets. It has on-board stereoscopic visual receptors (like we do) and downward-looking infrared sensors (better than us) which help it adjust to its environment and avoid mobile and immobile obstacles. It also adjusts to stimuli, balancing itself if pushed or pulled. One assumes that weapons can be easily added to its plastic frame, and that it can be programmed to emit a loud keening anger noise as it runs directly at your midsection with its twirling arm-blades deployed. Or at least I assume that. Because the thing honestly freaked me right the (expletive) out.

From deep in the Uncanny Valley at CES 2007, this is Russ Pitts reporting.

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