When are Animated Characters Uncanny?

Psychologist Sigmund Freud came up with the idea of the “uncanny” in 1919.
The uncanny is a specific emotion of fear that is experienced when something isn’t quite as it should be. Like a taxidermied animal, or an antique doll.
In 1970, roboticist Masahiro Mori warned that robots could indeed also provoke these negative feelings of unease, if they appeared too human. Based on these findings, Mori introduced the theory of the uncanny valley, depicting a drop of attraction towards the animate object, after it achieved human features. This unsettling feeling will – according to Mori – only disappear when the robot is completely indistinguishable to an actual living human being.

But is the uncanny valley theory likewise applicable to animated digital characters, like the ones found in animation movies and video games?

uncanny_valley
Mori’s uncanny valley hypothesis. The name comes from the graph’s resemblance to a mountain range (Seyama and Nagayama, 2007 p.338)

 

Since Mori’s hypothetical theory in 1970, a lot has happened in the pursuit of photorealism. Not only in robotics, but also in the world of computer graphics.
According to scientists and scholars (Seyama and Nagayama, 2007, Scheider, 2007), not enough studies has been done in recent years to know what exactly causes the uncanny valley. As a result, they conducted their own.

4lluac
Detective Francis York Morgan from Deadly Premonition (Access Games, 2010) proving that the uncanny definitely do appear in modern video games.

 

In the first study (Schneider, 2007) 60 participants reacted to 75 virtual characters from Japanese popular culture. The more realistic the characters got, the larger the drop in attraction, exactly as Mori had said. However, the type of character the participants found the most attractive overall was highly stylised, but with clear human behaviour, (such as Snoopy or Bugs Bunny) thereby discrediting Mori’s claim that an increase in humanoid features will always be better. (Schneider, 2007, p. 548)

uncanny_japan01
Schneider’s graph of uncanny animated characters.

 

The other study (Seyama and Nagayama, 2007), worked with morphing pictures of human faces into other animate objects, such as pictures of dolls or computer graphic characters. Participants responded to these morphing images with one of five emotions, ranging from extremely unpleasant, to extremely pleasant.
The study interestingly concluded that there was no real drop in attraction the more human-like the photos became, until they added one distinct unusual feature, such as abnormally large eyes. As soon as they did, their study correlated completely with Mori’s theory.

morphing_uncanny01
Morphing sequence used in Seyama and Nagayama’s experiment, with eyes scaled to 150%

 

In conclusion, it does seem animated characters are also subject to Mori’s theory, despite them not being robotic. What exactly causes the uncanny valley is still a bit of a mystery, but according to the studies mentioned above, it does seem possible to bridge the uncanny valley without causing a massive amount of displeasure. The main culprit seems to be unnaturally sized or shaped features applied to something that should otherwise be photorealistic.

An entirely different question is if the uncanny valley effect is something that could be used to a designer’s advantage?

 

References:

Seyama, Jun’ichiro & Nagayama, Ruth (2007) “The Uncanny Valley: Effect of Realism on the Impression of Artificial Human Faces”, Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, Volume 16, Issue 4, p. 337-351 (August)
Available at: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/pres.16.4.337#.WJH6lrGcaRs

Schneider, Edward & Wang, Yifan & Yang, Shashan (2007) “Exploring the uncanny valley with Japanese video game Characters”, Proceedings of DiGRA 2007 Conference, Volume 4, p. 546 – 549 (September)
Available at: http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/07312.11004.pdf

Sloan, Robin (2012) “Why Bridge the Uncanny Valley? Photorealism vs Suspension of disbelief in Animation”, Media Education Journal, Volume 52, p.19-22
Available at: https://repository.abertay.ac.uk/jspui/handle/10373/1497

Images / Graphs:

Outlaw Gamer’s Society (2015) Deadly Premonition Screenshot. Accessed January, 2017.
Available at: http://www.outlawgamers.com/forum/m/27218095/viewthread/23920245-until-dawn-uncanny-valley

Seyama, Jun’ichiro & Nagayama, Ruth (2007) “The Uncanny Valley: Effect of Realism on the Impression of Artificial Human Faces”, Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, Volume 16, Issue 4, p. 337-351 (August)
Available at: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/pres.16.4.337#.WJH6lrGcaRs

Schneider, Edward & Wang, Yifan & Yang, Shashan (2007) “Exploring the uncanny valley with Japanese video game Characters”, Proceedings of DiGRA 2007 Conference, Volume 4, p. 546 – 549 (September)
Available at: http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/07312.11004.pdf

Ludology:

Access Games (2010) Deadly Premonition, Rising Star Games.

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