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Uncanny Valley

Wednesday April 6th, 2011

Nerds may be excited to note that the USA Today has mentioned a vitally important concept, imported from robotics to computer imaging: the uncanny valley, as it applies to the peculiar new film Mars Needs Moms. Supporting their observations is none other than our own Chicago-based photographer:

Doug McGoldrick, who took his two daughters to see the movie, said the faces of the main characters “were just wrong.” Their foreheads were lifeless and plastic-looking, “like they used way too much botox or something,” said the 41-year-old photographer in the Chicago suburb of River Forest, Ill.

This film, whose title already sounds vaguely inappropriate, relies heavily on human figures that are realistically animated. The delicate balance between realism and creepiness has been a major issue for video games, and movies are beginning to get caught up in the dilemma.

In spite of the knife and ominous expression, he makes me feel safe. (Photo by Caesar Lima/Los Angeles)

Here’s the concept in a nutshell: as the realism of a simulated human increases, so does our empathy with the figure—up to a point. At a certain fateful level of realism, empathy suddenly drops off in a steep decline, and we are fully repulsed by the image.

Nobody actually knows why this happens, but it seems there is a level of realism where the little robotic details stand out even more dramatically—empty eyes, a distorted mouth, awkwardly positioned hands—and give us a vague feeling of disfigurement. Of course, my own favorite theory, inspired by Philip K. Dick, is that in the uncanny valley we are confronted with the possibility that we may ourselves be robots with false memories implanted by monopolistic technological corporations.

Our LA-based photographer Tamar Levine has given a good photographic commentary, in collaboration with Rob Sheridan, on the unreality of robots, in the series Broken Robot Girl. The wires certainly took me by surprise—but the stark juxtapositions take us out of the uncanny valley, into a more contemplative mood.

-Asad

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