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But what about Monkey Polar Express?
November 2, 2009 6:54 AM   Subscribe

The uncanny valley effect (too many previous posts to list) has been blamed for poor acceptance of human-analogue robots (YT) and computer simulations (not to mention the box office results for The Polar Express, Beowulf, and other computer-animated movies). But did you know that humans are not the only primate species to experience this "too close for comfort" effect? A recent behavioral study in macaque monkeys suggests (pdf) that the uncanny valley may be hardwired into our brains at a deeper level (i.e., earlier-evolved) than previously thought.
posted by supercres (40 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wait...the theory was that only humans would be interested in identifying mates or diseased individuals? Isn't that a little anthropocentric?
posted by DU at 6:58 AM on November 2, 2009


WIRE MOMMY IS HUGGING YOU NOW.
posted by Artw at 7:06 AM on November 2, 2009 [14 favorites]


Proof that scientists just like to scare animals.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:11 AM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


The uncanny valley fascinates me, as well as creeps me out. A question, though, involving Terminator 4, and possible SPOILERS:

When the skin covered T-800 comes out of the mist, and there's young Arnold in all his nekkid glory, how did they get that to look so perfect? Granted, there wasn't a lot of lingering, there were lots of cuts and smoke, but when I first saw the face, I thought, wow, that's done really well. Is that in the same realm as uncanny valley, or is it a different thing all together?
posted by Ghidorah at 7:12 AM on November 2, 2009


And here, I thought it was Beowulf's script that fell into the uncanny valley between action-adventure cheese and pretentious fantasy.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:14 AM on November 2, 2009


Ghidorah: That's because they used a real person for a body double.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:18 AM on November 2, 2009


This is the first time I've seen the Uncanny Valley effect linked with a (hypothetical) reason, but it would make sense that living organisms would want to avoid disease carriers like corpses and the seriously ill. It'd be interesting to see this test carried out to other species as well. As DU pt it, why would this be limited to humans? Why would it only be people that are creeped out by Tom Hanks doing a virtual one-man show as some sort of disturbing rendition of a charming children's book?

Fun tangent: in (some era of) ancient Egypt, the corpses of dead women were allowed to putrefy (to some degree) before mummification to prevent acts of necrophilia. At least, that's what I learned from TV.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:19 AM on November 2, 2009


Interesting. I had not heard of the "uncanny valley" concept before and instantly identify, to a pretty extreme degree. For instance, I have yet to see single PIXAR film in its entirety.

On the flip side, I had no problem with all the CGI in the Lord of the Rings films. Why emulate "reality" when you can augment it?
posted by philip-random at 7:20 AM on November 2, 2009


...how did they get that to look so perfect?

It was a mold. so passes through the valley.

For some reason Dakota Fanning triggers the uncanny valley response in me.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:20 AM on November 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also, as I've heard it said, Satan is an imitator.
posted by philip-random at 7:20 AM on November 2, 2009


leotrotsky, thanks. I didn't know that, but, well, I'm thinking more about the face. It pretty much was young Arnold, at least to me.

And really, who wouldn't be creeped out by every person you see being Tom Hanks? I mean, I like him as an actor and all, but that's pretty much nightmare fuel from the getgo.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:22 AM on November 2, 2009


For instance, I have yet to see single PIXAR film in its entirety.

Pixar don't really stray into Uncanny Valley territory. Their human characters aren't anatomically accurate renditions; they're 3D cartoons, exaggerated and charicatured to whatever degree fits the film. The only time (I think) they used a 'real' human was in Wall-E, and that was actual footage of Fred Willard, not CG.
posted by permafrost at 7:23 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


The new Christmas Carol movie looks just as bad. Zemeckis wants so much to fix what he thinks gave that effect in the last movie, but he just can't do it. It's depressing to me that he keeps trying.
posted by hermitosis at 7:24 AM on November 2, 2009


I have yet to see single PIXAR film in its entirety.

Have you watched any Looney Tunes?
posted by DU at 7:27 AM on November 2, 2009


For some reason Dakota Fanning triggers the uncanny valley response in me.

I get this too. Creepy.
posted by knapah at 7:30 AM on November 2, 2009


Part of the problem is that I can't think of a single movie that falls into this category that isn't also just bad. Polar Express? Final Fantasy: Spirits Within? Beowulf?

Maybe when they make otherwise good movies that creep people out, it'll be worth examining, but for now, the movies are already cringe-worthy.
posted by explosion at 7:32 AM on November 2, 2009


Pixar don't really stray into Uncanny Valley territory. Their human characters aren't anatomically accurate renditions; they're 3D cartoons, exaggerated and charicatured to whatever degree fits the film. The only time (I think) they used a 'real' human was in Wall-E, and that was actual footage of Fred Willard, not CG.

I find Pixar's humans, especially in WALL-E, to be Uncannyish Valleyed. Something about the contrast between Fred Willard (real), the robots (not real, but look it), and the cartoonish humans with preternaturally smooth skin really skeeves me out, though I love the movie otherwise.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:51 AM on November 2, 2009


A recent behavioral study in macaque monkeys suggests (pdf) that the uncanny valley may be hardwired into our brains at a deeper level (i.e., earlier-evolved) than previously thought.

In case some other cylons find us.
posted by biffa at 8:05 AM on November 2, 2009


I'm thinking the two things which probably cause the effect in us are eye movement and facial expressions. At 6 days old, we've already started recognizing emotional states in others, so I think it's pretty early that we figure out how much eyes express, along with facial animation.

Someone who lacks the constant tiny eye motions is "looking through you" even if they're looking at you- which probably weirds us out on a primal level. Then add in the lack of micro expressions that people go through in any expression and you've got something which comes across as doing strained attempts at expressions.

Something that looks through you and has a plastic smile? Yeah, there you go.
posted by yeloson at 8:20 AM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Explains my revulsion at Obots.
posted by HTuttle at 8:32 AM on November 2, 2009


Pixar don't really stray into Uncanny Valley territory.

Perhaps. I can only report what I've always felt about their product (all the way back to the short featuring the cute little table lamp). It creeps me out. It just does. It may not be your Uncanny Valley ... but it's definitely mine. For instance, I loved Brad Bird's IRON GIANT. But I got maybe half an hour into THE INVINCIBLES before I switched it off and went for a walk.

Have you watched any Looney Tunes?

You mean the original Looney Tunes? Bugs and Daffy and Sylvester and Tweetie and Foghorn Leghorn (et al). I grew up on them. They're some of my oldest friends. What on earth have they got to do with Pixar's style of computer animation?
posted by philip-random at 8:33 AM on November 2, 2009


You see similar low level perceptual issues with animals that completely fail to detect non-biological motion. The Canada Geese on the Birmingham canal paths don't seem to even see cyclists approaching on bicycles at all and yet they will hiss at pedestrians who give them a wider berth.

That kind of detection has to be pretty low level since only about 60% of the geese in the UK get A's on their A levels.

I'm curious if dogs or cats experience the uncanny valley effect with humans such as people who have severe facial burns given that they have evolved a sensitivity to human emotional expression.
posted by srboisvert at 8:46 AM on November 2, 2009


As DU pt it, why would this be limited to humans?

Well, evpsych gabba gabba tends to place most things in the paleolithic, making it's particular brand of pseudoscience very human-centric.

But I'm skeptical of both disease and corpse explanations because, well, how can you distinguish them experimentally?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:48 AM on November 2, 2009


How do we know that the uncanny valley isn't just a response of unfamiliarity - such as the way that electricity and automobiles were first perceived as slightly spooky?
posted by bigmusic at 9:40 AM on November 2, 2009


Great post! Thanks, supercres!
posted by jason's_planet at 10:03 AM on November 2, 2009


cjorgensen: "For some reason Dakota Fanning triggers the uncanny valley response in me."

Me too, generally, but especially the Hounddog poster. *shudder*
posted by brundlefly at 10:27 AM on November 2, 2009


It seems obvious to me that the uncanny valley evolved to protect us from zombies. Why else would we immediately recognize and kill zombies, even if they are reanimations of our loved ones?

It's just bad luck on the part of robots that they remind us of zombies.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 10:33 AM on November 2, 2009


I really do wonder if there's a disparity between what the Japanese consider to be unappealing on the Uncanny Valley curve vs. everyone else. They seem so much more robot-friendly than the rest of the population, or at least it appears that way to me.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:39 AM on November 2, 2009


When the skin covered T-800 comes out of the mist, and there's young Arnold in all his nekkid glory, how did they get that to look so perfect?

Arnold actually is a robot. We've just gotten used to it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:53 AM on November 2, 2009


Wait...the theory was that only humans would be interested in identifying mates or diseased individuals? Isn't that a little anthropocentric?

Think about the complexity of emotions evolved. The phenomenon as I understand it is associated with a feeling of unease, not something primal like fear, which we can surmise that all animals feel. If the standard human response was shock, fright, or dread, then you're right-- a clear fear response in the macaques would not be interesting or surprising. But that's not the case, is it? There's just something a little... off about that Final Fantasy movie. Our behavior reflects that we'd just rather not look at it, and that's mirrored in the macaque. That does surprise and interest me.

I would be just as excited (okay, perhaps a bit more) if it were shown that nonhuman primates experience, say... ennui.
posted by supercres at 11:16 AM on November 2, 2009


I heard a talk by Oliver Sacks where he mentioned that cartoons are processed in a different part of the brain to normal visual images. That makes the valley a natural outcome. If the animation passes a threshold it is processed in a different area and suddenly looks like reality gone wrong instead of a cartoon.

A quick look at the monkey study and there "Unrealistic" images are pretty strange.
Maybe the monkeys are just scared of the b&w monsters with red eyes.
posted by bhnyc at 12:52 PM on November 2, 2009


supercres: I suspect that caution and unease are emotions that are fairly broad in the animal kingdom. Both cats and dogs in my experience sometimes respond to a stuffed toy with eyes with a mixture of caution and curiosity until they realize it's just something that looks like it could be alive.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:02 PM on November 2, 2009


If the animation passes a threshold it is processed in a different area and suddenly looks like reality gone wrong instead of a cartoon.

This explains why cartoon characters must always have three fingers + one thumb.
posted by philip-random at 1:03 PM on November 2, 2009


"not to mention the box office results for The Polar Express, Beowulf"

What? Polar Express has earned over 300 million dollars and was made for 165 million. Beowulf has earned nearly 200 million and was made for 150 million.
posted by Kattullus at 7:22 PM on November 2, 2009


I feel fantastic. Hey hey hey.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:58 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I do not feel fantastic after watching that video. That is perhaps one of the creepiest Youtube videos I have ever seen Rhaomi.

I now fully understand the uncanny valley.
posted by Defenestrator at 9:28 PM on November 2, 2009


EH. EHH.
posted by lucidium at 8:09 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is probably my favorite MeFi topic, mainly for the chance to wonder at the gawking acceptance of a 'theory' with a graph attached to it. The Uncanny Valley does not exist. It is not a theory. It is only an idea about perception. You do not have to agree. I happen to think the grey robot in the dentist chair is by far the scariest of the bunch in the video, because it is simply weird. Warhol would have loved a plasticated humanoid robot, because compared to him, it is perfect. It depends how you receive it. Imagine them to be soothing, and viola the Uncanny Valley has become a fucking hillock.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 11:27 AM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks gorgor, This is a wonderful typo:

viola the Uncanny Valley has become a fucking hillock.

It just suggests so much that is weird and incongruous. Beautiful.
posted by philip-random at 11:42 AM on November 3, 2009


New findings shed light on a century’s worth of bizarre explanations for the eerie feeling we get around lifelike robots.

"Novel things (situations, actions, objects) elicit an emotional reaction, often discomfort. As the novel thing becomes old and the perceiver inured, the thing becomes part of the background, the idea internalized, the physicality automated. Symbols become mere icons, startling meaning becomes mere expectation, overtly conscious action becomes subconscious reaction." — Perfect Strangers
posted by netbros at 1:34 PM on November 22, 2009


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