Tuesday, 25 March 2008

An uncanny valley in Springfield

There is a curious effect that animators, speech technologists, and psychologists encounter called the Uncanny Valley.

Consider cartoons. A stick figure doesn't look very human, but it's also fairly nonthreatening. Mickey Mouse has more person-like features, and so elicits a more sympathetic reaction. A nice, fuzzy CG Sully can be even more appealing.

But the trend isn't all in one direction. There comes a point along the continuum of increasing realism where the emotional response drops precipitously - where looking (or moving or sounding) a little more like a human is suddenly a very bad thing. This is the uncanny valley - depicted graphically below Mickey there.

Now, astronomer Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy recently had a very unsettling experience.

He saw a depiction of a beloved cartoon figure de-cartoonified. I followed his link, and had the same gut reaction. There is something deeply, viscerally disturbing about images like this.


I'm going to give you the direct link in a moment, but you really need to brace yourself. No really. Look, I'm not kidding - see, I have my most serious, academic look of caution and concern on.

Phil is a man who has stared into the depths of space and time and come back grinning, and he said "this totally and whole-heartedly freaks me the hell out." He says he'll never watch The Simpsons again.

I study the muscular coordination of speech in the voice box, sticking endoscopes up their noses to see what's going on inside, and this image freaked me the hell out.

So don't say I didn't warn you.


Okay, here's Phil's post, and here's the original article with the disturbing too-human-Homer image.

There. Now you believe me, don't you? That'll teach you to respond to extravagant claims with cautious scepticism, won't it?

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