Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spotlight on Technology: What's So Uncanny About a Valley?

This is a story I first heard of from Colleen Crary, our marketing director and founder of Fearless Nation, the PTSD support group now based right here in SpotON3D. The story isn't so much about technology as it is psychology. Or more specifically, how a psychological principle could affect how we perceive the 3DWeb.

It’s a phenomenon called “The Uncanny Valley”, and it may help explain that bump we have in getting RL folks to try out online worlds.

The Uncanny Valley is a hypothesis in the field of robotics and 3D computer animation, which holds that human observers actually begin to feel revulsion when faced with replicas of themselves that look and move almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings. The name "valley" comes from the sharp dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot's human likeness.

The term was first used by robotics professor Masahiro Mori as Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) in 1970. The hypothesis has been linked to Ernst Jentsch's concept of "the uncanny" identified in a 1906 essay, "On the Psychology of the Uncanny.” Jentsch's conception was elaborated by Sigmund Freud in a 1919 essay entitled "The Uncanny" ("Das Unheimliche").

Mori's original hypothesis states that as the appearance and motion of a robot is made more human, a human observer's emotional response to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a critical point is reached after which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the robot's appearance continues to become less distinguishable from that of a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

The name captures the idea that an almost human-looking robot will seem overly "strange" to a human being, will produce a feeling of uncanniness, and will thus fail to evoke the empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction. Interestingly, monkeys have also been observed to respond in similar ways when confronted with near-replicas of themselves, lending more credence to the theory.

If you're interested in reading more about this phenomenon, the following articles are worth checking out:

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