Monday, December 05, 2005

King Kong and the Uncanny Valley

The CG Naomi Watts in Ubisoft's new Kong Kong game for the Xbox 360 (photo © Ubisoft).

Clive Thompson has an article over at Wired about the new King Kong game for the Xbox 360 and the Uncanny Valley. Clive observed that the drawback of the new high-definition Xbox 360 is that it can create near life-like graphics, with the near part being the problem.

The Uncanny ValleyThe Uncanny Valley is a concept first proposed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori who observed that people have a certain level of comfort and affection towards an object that is anthropomorphic (think Hello Kitty) and resembles a human without attempting to imitate one. The higher the level of anthropomorphism, the more comfortable and attractive the object will be, but once the object too closely resembles a human people feel uneasy until the object achieves perfect mimicry of a living human at which point it becomes acceptable again. If you graph this comfort level on a chart the large uncomfortable dip in the resulting curve is called "the Uncanny Valley".

Machinima is hailed as a revolution in cinema (and I think it will be) but one of the barriers to mainstream audience acceptance it's bound to hit is the Uncanny Valley. The problem is the visual aesthetic of the most popular games used to create Machinima - Quake, Half-Life, Halo, even the somewhat anthropomorphic The Sims. Although millions of gamers have grown up on it, the video game aesthetic when it comes to humans is usually ugly and creepy and that could pose a problem if you try to reach out to large, Hollywood-sized audience.

This problem isn't unique to machinima, the mainstream computer animation industry has grappled with this too, as John Martz brilliantly documented in his now-famous blog post Pixar and the Uncanny Valley. In the puppetry world, the reason I think The Muppets are much more appealing to the mass audience than traditional marionettes is mostly because the Muppets are anthropomorphic while most marionettes fall in to the dead zone of the Uncanny Valley. I don't think that it's a coincidence that Shigeru Miyamoto - creator of Super Mario Bros. and probably the most successful game designer of all time - has consistently relied on a highly stylized, anthropomorphic design approach despite the advances in computer graphics over the past twenty-five years. Miyamoto knows what works visually and what appeals to an audience and he gives it to them.

So I think that until tools to create truly realitic humans and animation in real-time are developed, the solution to this problem is to create films and series that heavily rely on anthropomorphism. I'm in the process of modeling the first character that will be used to test Panda Puppet and it will be a very anthropomorphic, low-poly model to ensure that it will be both appealing and easily rendered in real-time.

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