I’ve seen only the trailers, but the movie Tron Legacy, still in theaters at this writing, has not impressed critics with anything other than its graphics, which are admitted to be excellent. These are enough to make the film notable, however, whether or not it is worth seeing as entertainment. In particular, a digitally created younger version of Jeff Bridges, playing opposite the actual older Jeff Bridges, is so well crafted that the animation isn’t perceptible. Virtual Jeff lives in the hills on the far side of the Uncanny Valley.
The existence of the Uncanny Valley was proposed in 1970 by roboticist Masahiro Mori. It refers to a peculiar variation in human emotional response to human-like images and figures. Mori notes that people generally respond positively to cartoon characters, robots, or dolls if the figures have some human features – think of Bugs Bunny, Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet, or Teddy bears. Human response gets more and more positive as more anthropomorphic features are added to the figures, but only up to a certain point. Then something happens. Past that point, as the images continue to get closer to the appearance of authentic humans, human receptivity plunges. We think they are creepy. If the images continue to improve in realism, however, we reach another point where the creepiness starts to diminish. Human receptivity rises again. The zone of verisimilitude in which humans respond negatively to the images and figures is the Uncanny Valley. The trick for roboticists, dollmakers, and animators is to keep on this side of the valley or get all the way to the other side. Reaching the other side is so technically difficult that only in recent years has it even become possible. Examples of imagery that didn’t make it to the farther hills can be found in Polar Express (2005); the animation is very realistic, but off by just enough that critics dubbed this visually disturbing movie Zombie Express.
The most common explanation for our negative reaction to “close but no cigar” anthropic images is that they evoke our instinctive revulsion in the presence of sickness and death. The images look real but not healthy, and we don’t want to catch whatever is wrong with them.
CGI is now capable (barely) of creating images of people indistinguishable from live actors, and which therefore don’t creep us out. I’m an old fashioned guy, however, and stuff made only of electrons and photons doesn’t impress me nearly so much as stuff with plenty of nucleons, i.e. real solid objects, robots in particular. The future of android robots is visible, even if it is not yet here. The very best Disney animatronics jump the Uncanny Valley, but only within the context of their specific displays and rides. The Japanese firm Kokoro manufactures much more versatile “actroids” that, if not yet out of the valley, at least have reached the far foothills. Nevertheless, I suspect I still have a long wait before I can order my Cherry 2000 (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkOfriUsB6A ).
Actroid Robot Manufactured by Kokoro