The Xbox 360 and the Uncanny Valley: My latest Wired News gaming column

Wired News just published my latest video-game column — and this one’s about one of my fave topics: The “Uncanny Valley” effect. It came out of me spending a week playing the lineup of Xbox 360 launch titles, and realizing that even though the humans are more realistic than ever, they’re also creepier than ever.

To read on, you can see the whole piece at Wired News, or via the copy archived below!

Monsters of Photorealism

by Clive Thompson

My hat is off to whoever designed the new King Kong game for the Xbox 360, because they’ve crafted a genuinely horrific monster. When it first lurched out of the mysterious tropical cave and fixed its cadaverous eyes on me, I could barely look at the monstrosity.

I’m speaking, of course, of Naomi Watts.

Not the actual Naomi Watts. She’s heart-stoppingly lovely. No, I’m talking about the version of Naomi Watts that you encounter inside the game.

In some ways, her avatar is an admirably good replica, with the requisite long blond hair and juicy voice-acting from Watts herself. But the problem begins when you look at her face — and the Corpse Bride stares back. The skin on virtual Naomi is oddly slack, as if it weren’t quite connected to the musculature beneath; when she speaks, her lips move with a Frankensteinian stiffness. And those eyes! My god, they’re like two portholes into a soulless howling electric universe. “Great,” I complained to my wife. “I finally get to hang out with a gorgeous starlet — and she’s dead.”

What’s the culprit here? Ironically, the blame falls partly on the Xbox 360 itself, and its bleeding-edge graphics engine. Sure, the 360 can generate the most photorealistic human avatars of any game console in history. But that is precisely why they look so creepy.

This paradoxical effect has a name: the “Uncanny Valley.” The concept comes from the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that simulacra of humans seem lively and convincing so long as they’re relatively low-resolution. Think of history’s best comic strips: With only a few quick sketches on a page, Bill Watterson can create vivid emotions for the characters in Calvin and Hobbes. When an avatar is cartoonish, our brains fill in the gaps in the presentation to help them seem real.

But when human avatars approach photoreality? Something weird happens. Our brains rebel, and we begin focusing on the tiny details that aren’t quite perfect. The realism of our avatars suddenly plunges downward into a valley — and they begin to look like zombies.

The telltale flaws are almost always in the skin, because as many animators have told me, the physics here are damnably hard to master: When light hits real-life skin, it penetrates a tiny bit and bounces back out. The eyes are an even nastier hornet’s nest of math; you have to replicate subtle nuances of moistness and “all these tiny movements of the eye,” as animation expert Henrik Wann Jensen notes. Even today’s best Hollywood animators — who have far more processing power at their disposal — have shattered upon these shoals.

That’s why the Xbox 360 — and the whole oncoming new generation of superpowered consoles — kind of alarms me. With all this hot new rendering power, game publishers are more than ever indulging their Hollywood envy and trying to produce increasingly photorealistic people.

Yet all they’re doing is tramping deeper and deeper into the muck and grime of the Valley. Don’t believe me? Just play any of the Xbox 360’s release titles. Many of them are quite terrific games, in terms of play. But aesthetically they are A Land Where The Dead Walk Among Us. The gang members and guards in Perfect Dark Zero look like an army of cadavers. In Quake 4, my fellow Marines looked like the victims of thoroughly botched face lifts.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate the Xbox 360. It produces sheerly gorgeous graphics so long as it’s rendering things that aren’t human faces — such as scenery. At one point in Perfect Dark, I peered through a zoom scope and noticed that tiny imperfections in a distant brick wall were casting microshadows from a hazy phosphorus lamp, while ships bobbed gently in the nearby bay. It was a perfect postcard of noir menace.

Indeed, this is why the most aesthetically un-jarring 360 games are those that explicitly avoid attempting realistic human faces — and stick to a cartoony style straight out of Disney or Nintendo. My favorite 360 title so far is Kameo, where the star is a magical elf rendered in anime-lite, with big eyes, a teensy nose and soft-focused skin. Sure, the backdrop environments are masterpieces of gothic realism, but Kameo herself is drawn in broad strokes — a blend of styles that, not incidentally, was innovated by Japanese manga. Surreality, as it turns out, is more seductive than incomplete reality.

At least for now, anyway. It’s possible that one day we’ll climb out of the Valley. The game industry is increasingly aware of this problem (and many writers, myself included, have been harping on the subject for years now). Maybe someday home consoles will approach Deep Blue supercomputing power, and designers’ understanding of skin and eye physics will vastly improve.

And someone will finally do justice to poor Naomi Watts.

Postscript: That image above is actually taken not from the Xbox 360 game — I couldn’t find a Watts screenshot — but from the PC game. (Technically, that ought to mean it looks even better than the one in the Xbox 360.) But really, it’s hard to get a sense of the true creepiness of the Uncanny Valley effect unless you see the avatar in action; that’s when the ghastly slackness of the face truly leaps out.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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