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Dr Angela Tinwell on The Uncanny Valley

Dr Angela Tinwell

Dr Angela Tinwell.
The University of Bolton.

Increases in technology for simulating realism combined with the skills and expertise of professional VFX artists have allowed for ground breaking new feats in creating virtual characters with a realistic, human-like appearance. However, this technological advance and digital craftsmanship spark the question if we can we achieve a realistic human-like character that suspends disbelief for the viewer? As well as a highly realistic graphical appearance where a virtual character may be mistaken for a human photograph, my research interests lie in creating a behavioral realism that is authentically believable.  Images of human-like virtual characters may pass a Turing-Test and persuade us that they depict a human yet, once they animate and emote, they can be in danger of falling into the Uncanny Valley.

The Uncanny Valley occurs when we sense there is something ‘not quite right’ about a human-like character due to imperfections in their appearance and behavior from the human-norm. In a game, animation or e-learning application we are presented with a character with a human-like appearance that we expect to behave as a human would – but then we may detect something odd and strange in their facial expression and speech. We experience an eerie sensation so that the character makes us feel uncomfortable to the extent of rejection.  I am looking at how aspects of facial expression and speech may exaggerate uncanniness in human-like synthetic agents so that we may escape the Uncanny Valley.

My research has identified that we can fail to understand what emotion a character may be feeling due to a lack of nonverbal communication in the character’s face. This is especially crucial in the upper-face including the eyes, brows and forehead. For example, a character may be trying to convince us that they are caring and kind, but if we cannot see the visual facial markers that we rely on to communicate this information then we may doubt the integrity and intentions of that character. This may work against characters who are intended to be perceived as empathetic if we are actually reading more anti-social traits in that character due to their abnormal facial expression. Rather than genuine happiness and kindness in a character we may perceive false happiness and that they are hiding more negative emotions. A character’s facial expression may fail to communicate fear and shock, suggesting a more stoic and Machiavellian personality.

A summary of my research on the Uncanny Valley so far, possible psychological causes of the Uncanny Valley and my thoughts for the future can be found in my book, ‘The Uncanny Valley in Games and Animation’.

This opportunity of working with the shared skills, expertise and experience available in the Digital Human League provides the best possible opportunity for climbing our way out of the Uncanny Valley.


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