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Uncanny Valley…

I’ve heard people say that they prefer the graphics in World of Warcraft [1]over those in EverQuest 2 [2]. The discussions I’ve had with people about why they feel this way seem to boil down to a description of the characters in EQ looking “plastic”, “like corpses”, or “not cool”.

I like the graphics in EverQuest 2. But I’ve heard reference in the past to something called the “Uncanny Valley [3]“, and now that I’ve spent all of five minutes reading up on it, I think I see how this applies to this discussion.

The basic premise behind the Uncanny Vally goes like this: at one end of a scale lies something which is somewhat human like but obviously artificial (E.G.: the characters in World of Warcraft). Such characters tend to inspire empathy in people: we feel “sorry” for them, or overcome their limitations by filling in the blanks between their obviously artifical nature and something “human”. At the other end of the scale are things that look and act truly human: we feel empathy for these things as well, since, well, they are “us”. Somewhere in between are things that look very human, but are subtly wrong: corpses or the seriously ill fall into this category. They move wrong, or don’t sweat, or have skin tone that is a bit “off”…such characters make us uncomfortable.

I think its possible that the characters in EQ2, somewhat like the characters in the movie Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within [4], are somewhere in that “valley” of empathy. They look just a bit too realistic for some people, and the things that are “wrong” (skin tone, motion, lack of sweat…) are disturbing. Although this makes sense to me, it does raise a question: why didn’t Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within bother me? And why do I like EverQuest 2? I know the characters aren’t “real” people, yet I appreciate their proximity to reality. I don’t find the flaws jarring: I think I would find it more jarring if they were so perfect that I couldn’t distinguish the real from the machine generated.

And that difference between the way I perceive things in regards to this so-called “uncanny valley” and the way some others do intrigues me. My threshold is at a different point, I guess. The day I watch a movie with a computer generated character that is so human that I can’t believe it isn’t human is the day I’ll feel a bit spooked out. I wonder why other folks feel that discomfort at an earlier point than I do?

Technorati Tags: Computer games [5], Graphics [6], Uncanny Valley [7]