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22 January, 2010

Does the Uncanny Valley exist?

Popular Mechanics questions the 'Uncanny Valley', the theory that humans can happily engage emotionally with simulated humans (robotic or CG) if the latter look rather false or perfectly human, but we respond with unease or outright revulsion if the simulations are nearly but not quite perfect.

The hypothesis is intellectually attractive, which may explain its successful propagation (a good narrative demands less proof), but it seems to have been under-researched, and most evidence is merely anecdotal. That's not to say it's bogus, of course – the effect has genuinely been reported by numerous observers – but more research needs to be done to quantify the effect and explain why. I'm embarrassed to say I accepted the standard interpretation as 'fact' a little too readily.

A new (to me) factor mentioned in the article seems to be that the sense of dissonance is only significant when a simulation is viewed remotely: CGI and video footage of physical robots can trigger the effect, but those encountering robots in person find them far more acceptable. As a commenter at BoingBoing says, the distinction may (may...) be that in viewing a CG character one notices "... the imperfections in something we are expected to believe is human/alive. Speaking to a robot, with the knowledge that it is, in fact, a robot, puts a whole different spin on things."

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