A Tourist in the Uncanny Valley of Virtual Immersive Environments

March 15, 2010

polar-hanksOne of the more controversial aspects of Virtual Immersive Environments (VIEs) is the use of avatars to represent ourselves. That’s understandable—when we’re just icons on a WebEx menu, we don’t worry about what those icons say about us. And when we appear on a videoconference, we feel pretty good that we’re represented accurately. But avatars are unique; depending on the VIE platform you’re using, you have a chance to customize the way you look—from very accurate, to complete fantastical. So should our avatars look just like us? Should they look like what we’d like to look like? Or should they be creative interpretations of us, which may or may not resemble us at all?

A popular concept, originally applied to robotics, is The Uncanny Valley. In a nutshell, the theory says that the closer a facsimile of a human gets to reality, the more repulsed we are by it. Think about the animatronic presidents at Disney World. Creepy, no? But perhaps the easiest to understand definition of The Uncanny Valley came in an episode of 30 Rock from last season. Since this is a family blog, I can’t give you the exact context (but feel free to Google for yourself), but this snippet of dialogue between the characters of Frank and Tracy says it well:

uncannyvalley_ionine_flvFrank: As artificial representations of humans become more and more realistic, they reach a point where they stop being endearing, and become creepy.

Tracy: Tell it to me in Star Wars!

Frank: All right. We like R2D2 and C3PO.

Tracy: They’re nice.

Frank: And up here we have a real person, like Han Solo.

Tracy: He acts like he doesn’t care, but he does.

Frank: But down here, we have a CGI Storm Trooper, or Tom Hanks in “The Polar Express.”

Tracy: I’m scared! Get me out of there!

Frank: And that’s the problem. You’re in the Valley now. And it’s impossible to get out.

Most VIEs use a simplified version of a human being, ranging from extremely cartoonish to moderately cartoonish. If you’ve spent much time in Second Life, you’ll see extremes in every direction, from tools to make your avatar look and move as realistically as possible, to completely non-human avatars such as animals, mythological creatures, and aliens. But even the most realistic avatars don’t look very real. Right now, that’s a technological limitation. But do we really want our avatars to look just like us?

Why do we need avatars at all? Well, part of it is to help us enjoy the 3D aspect of VIEs, But another part is to tell the rest of the citizens of the VIE who we are. Just like we carefully consider in real life how we dress, how we wear our hair, what jewelry we do (or don’t) wear, we use our appearance to communicate. So, too, can we do that in VIE. The only difference of course, is that in real life, we have some limitations—it’s hard to change our height, weight, gender, or age. But in VIE we can change anything, if we want—even our species! So in VIEs, we can tell the world who we want to be. In fact, one of the early wins with VIEs was with people who have physical limitations; a woman who I met early on in Second Life has extremely limited mobility due to illness; she was thrilled with her ability to walk and dance in Second Life, something she cannot do in real life anymore.

rich_in_protosphere_smallSo should our avatars look just like us? The Uncanny Valley would seem to suggest otherwise, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t trying. My Second Life avatar looks nothing like me (try buying curly gray hair in SL), but my ProtoSphere avatar is pretty close. And VenueGen, a 3D virtual conference platform, allows you to upload photos of yourself in order to create a photorealistic avatar. I’ve never been able to get it to work properly, but feel free to try it for yourself.

Time will tell if we’re able to travel out of the Uncanny Valley in VIEs. But for the time being, I’ll enjoy the fact that my avatar seems to work out just a little more often than I do.

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