The Uncanny Valley

Friday, March 05, 2010


For the animators of films and video games, creating a truly human looking and acting character has long been the holy grail. But making characters close-to-real and yet not-real-enough leaves them in what's called the 'uncanny valley' where audiences find those characters unsettling, unnatural and zombie-like. OTM producer Jamie York looks at how the entertainment industry has dealt with this issue and what the 'uncanny valley' tells us about ourselves and our future.

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Comments [21]

Kayla Fisher

I find the whole process of facial animation totally captivating! Some people may find making animated characters to be slightly "crossing the line of playing God," but I say that the people who studied the movement of our facial expressions, by means of our wide variety of emotions deserve major props! I imagine people are just scared of what they are not used to, as well as how realistic these animated characters have evolved along with our advances with technology. Or perhaps they are against these animated characters taking the place of their favorite actors?

Dec. 02 2010 06:25 AM
Patrick Smith

Video Games and CGI movies are amazing the amount of detail that goes into the graphics. Overall people are a little wierded out with likeness of the uncanny appeal or the computer generated people. Avatar is a big progress in the whole CGI World.

Apr. 27 2010 12:51 PM
Larry Andow from San Rafael, CA

Could there be a connection between the Uncanny Valley and a delusional condition called Capgras? NPR's Morning edition via WNYP's Radiolab aired a story on Capgras on March 30th. Essentially people with Capgras -- due to a brain injury or other brain disorder -- become unable to recognize people close to them such as a spouse or sibling. For them it seems the valley has become a cliff.

Apr. 03 2010 07:35 PM
Jim Carnes from Montgomery, AL

Thanks. Found it on Google Books. Great essay.

Mar. 24 2010 10:29 AM
Peter Henderson from New York

Thanks for the great comments, everyone. Sorry that there's still confusion about the Sartre essay. We asked Paul Spade, a philosophy professor at Indiana University, and he helped us nail it down:

"The essay was originally published as "Visages" in a special issue of Verve (1939). There is an English translation of it available in Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Volume 2: Selected Prose, Richard McCleary, trans. (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press), 1974, pp. 67-71. (It's still available on Amazon.) The translation, under the title "Faces," is slightly different from the one you quote. The passage you cite is translated: "And when in turn I contemplate his eyes, I see clearly that they are not stuck over there in this head, as calm as agates. They are created at each instant by what they are looking at..."

I hope that clears things up. Our citation is from a different translation, but Professor Spade claims that one is most easily accessible.

Mar. 23 2010 05:15 PM
Jim Carnes from Montgomery, AL

I, too, have searched without success for the Sartre essay on faces. Anyone have a citation? (The title "Faces" that Bob gave on the air didn't help.) Thanks.

Mar. 23 2010 04:59 PM

completely needs video

Mar. 11 2010 12:07 PM
Ernie Garner from Lake Villa, Il

Sounds like a case of dissonance to me. I use a different model from the "two notes that sound terrible together" model we were given in highschool.

When two far apart notes are played together the brain says "no problem A, B". When two notes that are almost the same, the brain sees it as "close enough" and just hears it as one note with a changing timbre. Somewhere in-between the brain hears A and A' and rapidly bounces back and forth trying to separate the two. It can tell it's not one note but it can't clearly distinguish the two. We feel the large amount of work the brain is doing as a discomfort, i.e. dissonance. Note that anything - siblings, art, interior design, clothing - can be dissonant as long as it meets the "close but not quite" criteria.

Interestingly enough, two notes a semi-tone apart, the popular standard for dissonance, are 94.4% apart. Pretty close to the 96% mentioned in the piece.

I suspect that the behaviors resulting from the visual dissonance of nearly lifelike human faces are simply our brain's need to do something with the tension. If that's the case then there should be a few people, the cultural "jazz musicians" of the world, who enjoy the discomfort and see it as a spice, much like a flatted 9th chord.

Mar. 09 2010 03:19 AM
jim woolson from everett wa

I've been curious for some time about this subject as the technology improves and inevitably creates a convincing animated human face. I saw a presentation about this you may find interesting.

Mar. 08 2010 10:50 PM
Barbara Ziony from Richmond, VA

I enjoyed hearing your piece on "The Uncanny Valley" on March 7th. It was almost as interesting as the first time I heard what I think was the IDENTICAL piece on "All Things Considered," on March 5th. Were they the same? If not, they were in "The Uncanny Valley."

Mar. 08 2010 10:46 PM
Heather Sellers from michigan

I am looking for the citation for the Sartre essay on faces referenced in the story.

Mar. 08 2010 02:12 PM
Gerald Lame from San Diego, CA

I just happen to have been reading about the uncanny. Terry Castle has written an odd and interesting book called "The Female Thermometer: 18th-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny." In the chapter "The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho" she discusses a change in our attitudes toward death, the supernatural, and mental imagery, and a connection of the uncanny with "a breakdown of the limit between life and death." It might also be interesting to read her chapter on "phantasmagoria" with Avatar in mind.

Castle led me to the Freud essay on the uncanny (it's in volume XVII of the Complete Psychological Works), which discusses E.T.A. Hoffman's "The Sandman", a kind of horror story in which the protagonist falls in love with a mechanical model of a woman, which others can see as mere wax and wood.

There's much to ponder here.

Mar. 08 2010 01:53 PM
george from San Francisco

I have Aspergers. Imagine having the Uncanny Valley for a face IN REAL LIFE.. . . Yeah. . . It kinda sucks.

Some children really love me. Some don't so much. My face incites hostility and fear in many, if not most people I encounter.

There is no cure, according to the experts I have seen. All I can do is get help for the anxiety and depression that results from having such difficulty connecting with my world.

Great story, adds another valuable vantage point to the "mirror neuron" paradigm extant in autism studies currently.

Mar. 07 2010 11:07 PM
Alexander Hotz from Harlem

Awesome story!!! Great job Jamie.

Mar. 07 2010 09:34 PM
BC from VT

I'm going with the hypothesis that we are freaked out by humanlike figures that don't show fully human responses. I experienced what I suspect is the uncanny valley effect at two times. I'm not big on public true confessions, but I think the examples are revealing. Once, as a child, when I was looking into my mother's face while she was high on pot, I felt a sudden shock that she seemed to be looking at me as though I were an object. The other was when I was being held up by a certified sociopath-- I looked into his face and suddenly felt that he was showing no reaction to my distress (no sympathy, no glee, no attempt to restrain a response). I remember thinking that it was as distinct and scary an impression as if he had failed to show a reflection in the mirror. In both those cases the departure from a usual response was probably quite subtle.

Mar. 07 2010 02:10 PM
elon schoenholz from Los Angeles

Fascinating piece. The thought of monkeys being kept in a lab in Princeton for research of any kind, but particularly this not-even-remotely life or death study is deeply disturbing, and Mr. York's including this information makes me question his judgment and that of his editor.

Mar. 07 2010 12:12 PM
Kristin from chicago

very perceptive Julie - I agree. However, I think this gap is only temporary. Technology marches on, and this gap will be covered in the next couple of years. They just have to figure out the thousands of interactions of tiny muscles in the face. That's already being done for artifical faces for victims of accidents. This is just a temporary gap. Then what???

Mar. 07 2010 11:13 AM
julie from cleveland

2 thoughts
1. The "not quite right" could resemble a dead face, and we have a biologic revulsion of death.
2. This may explain why celebrities with too much plastic surgery creep me out. Their faces become "uncanny."

Mar. 07 2010 02:21 AM
Wes Plate

I listened first to this piece on All Things Considered and was quite interested to listen to the full piece on the podcast. I first heard of the Uncanny Valley on the NBC television show 30 Rock, and the whole time I was listening to this story I kept wishing you would have brought up 30 Rock's introduction of this concept into popular culture.

Mar. 06 2010 03:44 PM
Paula Griswold from Camrbidge

Fascinating piece. I think the likely explanation for the "Uncanny Valley" is the evolutionary one, and suggest as evidence our reactions to human faces that are not quite right. Our reactions are extreme, and more than disquiet, but disgust and horror.

I had smoke poison ivy as a kid; my face swelled to twice it's normal size (though the light glinting from my eyes remained normal!). I vividly remember the looks of horror when people first saw me. Not interest, not sympathy, not surprise - but shock and horror.

I also worked with an Ear Nose and Throat hospital, and noted the additional tragedy of abnormalities for those patients - much worse than a limb grown to a huge size from elephantiasis was something wrong with someone's face - and now I realize, it was because of the " Uncanny Valley".

Mar. 06 2010 12:09 PM
patrick from Staten Island

One person's experience:
As much as the "valley" may make one feel inferior; it could make you want to strive to be more. You almost want to watch with one eye open. You want to watch but you also want to remain in humanity's comfort zone of realism rather than the alternate real. In the end you snap out of it realizing, it's a movie and I cam to watch to be entertained. Could this "valley" be a new rush to be toyed with by producers like the newest roller coaster? Interesting news.

Mar. 05 2010 08:47 PM

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