Sunday, November 14, 2004

The Uncanny Valley

Still from 'The Polar Express'

No, this isn’t a late Hallowe’en post, or a landscapes post. It’s about the reasons behind many reviewers’ distaste for the big animated Christmas movie, The Polar Express. From what you can see in the trailer (Quicktime needed), it’s been drawn by computers in the style of the original picture–book, but what really gets people is the inexplicably disturbing faces.

And why are they creepy? Because our emotional response to anything humanoid but human–created (like toy robots, cartoons, animated characters) rises steadily as the humanoid looks more human.

But there’s a critical point, just before any humanoid figure looks fully human to us, where our emotional response plummets to zero: we mistrust. We feel distaste, or fear — and that drop in the graph is called The Uncanny Valley (via Kottke). Why all this is so, nobody knows yet. But it’s interesting nevertheless, so I thought I’d share. Anyone have any ideas?

I reckon it might be that figures like the characters in The Polar Express, which look very modelled, would be looked at like disfigured or plastic–surgery people if they were human, and that’s why we feel the usual distaste.

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