Have you ever looked at a humanoid robot, cartoon, or 3D render and felt an eerie chill creep over your skin? If you’ve experienced this unsettling feeling looking at something not quite human, you aren’t alone. This phenomenon has been well documented and studied, and has come to be known as the Uncanny Valley Effect.
This feeling is most pronounced when you look at a not-quite-human face, and it can leave you feeling uncertain, though it may be difficult to pin down exactly why you felt that way. At Daz 3D, this topic is right up our alley. And as 3D artists, the last thing we want to do to our viewers is send a chill down their spine (depending on context).
This post is all about what the uncanny valley is, examples of it, and how to avoid it in your own art.
The Uncanny Valley Effect
The concept of the uncanny valley effect was first introduced in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe his observation that as robots became more human-like they seemed to reach a point — an uncanny valley — where their realism was no longer appealing but caused a feeling of strangeness and even unease.
It’s basically people’s seemingly natural dislike and reaction to realistic human robots. Masahiro took it a step further and created a graph showing that as a robot’s appearance approached closer to true human likeness, the more likely people were to respond negatively to them.
In his groundbreaking essay on this psychological phenomenon, Mori states:
One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on par with false teeth. However, when we realize the hand, which at first sight looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.
Mori also explores the idea that this effect applies to more than just robots. The same can be experienced with wax figurines, statues, and even 3D characters.
Uncanny Valley Examples in Art and Pop Culture
Examples of the uncanny valley can be experienced plentifully as you explore pop culture, science, and art.
You may or may not be familiar with Square Enix, the video game company based in Japan, and the creators of the worldwide popular video game series Final Fantasy. What many people don’t know, or try to forget, was Square’s foray into cinema in 2001 with its release of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Despite introducing an intriguing story on par with their best-selling video games, this movie ultimately was a flop at the box office. Many attribute its failure to the uncanny valley effect. Despite showing off some of the best graphics of the time, viewers still just couldn’t look beyond the subtle unsettling feeling accused by the animation and the glossy lighting and graphics.
Another great example is a 3D animated movie that wasn’t quite striving to be as lifelike and realistic, yet still, perhaps even worse so, walked that fine line that borders acceptable and uncanny. Tom Hanks’s 2004 adaption of the famous Christmas story The Polar Express, may have been impressive to you as a kid, although the animation left many adults wanting. Looking back on it now, nearly two decades later, the uncanny valley effect is very apparent in the characters’ stilted movement and sometimes lifeless eyes.
3D and CGI capabilities have come a long way since the early 2000s, however, we still find ourselves sitting in the theater from time to time wondering how the movie we’re watching has such uncanny animations. For many, that was the case while watching the 2019 live-action (sort of) version of Cats. If a star-studded cast with big names like Taylor Swift wasn’t enough to get you into the theater to watch this one, it’s worth it to at least take a gander at the official trailer. There’s something eerily creepy about anthropomorphized felines that most viewers just can’t forgive.
Uncanny Valley in Robotics and Science
The uncanny valley is no doubt at its creepiest when it comes to advancements in AI and robotics. Here are just a few examples that are sure to send chills down your spine, or, for the most unfortunate, possibly even star in the lead role of your next nightmare.
This one is without a doubt absolutely creepy. It only just resembles a human and looks like a person wearing a strange mask more than a robot. Created by a Japanese Roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, this communication device lacks a certain charm and appeal that most users would appreciate in a helpful tool. Needless to say, we’re left to wonder what the creator of this robot was thinking when he created this awkward alien-humanoid robot.
From the neck down, Diego-san looks like an impressive feat of engineering, with all of its many wires and inner parts available for everyone to see. Not so impressive, however, is the clay-like head that appears far too uncanny for many’s liking, and looks more like a broken baby doll head than anything else. It may have been designed to help parents better communicate with their infants, but this uncanny design is sure to leave people wanting.
Sophia has a lot to say, and numerous appearances on TV sparking millions of views online has made this humanoid robot one of the most famous in the world. Designed by David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Sophia displays a range of emotional expressions and is equipped with natural language processing capabilities, allowing her to have conversations on a variety of topics.
Why the Uncanny Valley Is Important to 3D Artists
We’ve touched on this a little already, and looking at examples probably makes this all the more obvious. As artists, we want people to enjoy our art and partake in our creativity, mastery, and skill. So unless your goal is to send shivers down someone’s spine, you’ll want to be aware of the uncanny valley, how to recognize it, and how to avoid it if at all possible.
How to Avoid the Uncanny Valley in Your Art
Perhaps the most important thing to be aware of is how often unintentional uncanny valley effects occur in art, especially 3D. Here are our three biggest tips to help keep an eye out for the uncanny valley.
1. Strive to use natural human proportions as much as possible.
As a default, you should always use correct proportions when modeling your human figures. While many video games have begun to popularize anime and toon characters that are very stylized, it’s important to watch your proportions closely. While artists often successfully get away with cartoon-style proportions, inexperienced or unpracticed artists could easily find themselves unintentionally in the uncanny valley.
Study popular, widely accepted 3D art such as the work done by Disney. You’ll notice, if you look closely, that popular heroines, such as Elsa from Frozen, seem to have similar proportions to a young girl, despite also being presented as a young adult. Somehow, the artists make it work, accentuating the cartoon elements in acceptable ways, such as her big eyes and small nose.
2. Avoid atypicality at higher levels of realism
Piggybacking off the first point, understand that a major reason why Pixar animation is rarely seen as uncanny, is because the world is very clearly separate from our own. While they find ways to improve their graphic fidelity, they always stay true to the stylized look that keeps things comfortable and allows them to pull off the many cartoony tropes found in their art styles.
Atypicalities are substantial deviations from the human form. While these deviations work in cartoony, stylized settings, the more realistic your lighting, textures, and materials — especially if you are overlaying a CGI character into real-world footage — the more likely you are to wander into the uncanny valley. (No offense Alita: Battle Angel.)
3. Avoid “dead eyes” at all costs
The eyes are the window to the soul, after all. There have been times when we were almost fooled, such as while watching a CGI young version of Mark Hammil reprising his role as Luke Skywalker, only to see something lacking in the character’s eyes. Studies have shown that people look a character in the eyes first when assessing whether or not a character is real, and our brains are really good at spotting inconsistencies when something appears off. People also rate the eyes as the most important element of whether or not something appears real. Special attention and care should be put here when creating your characters.
Upgrade the Realism in Your 3D Art With Daz Studio
We hope this blog has been entertaining, and thought-provoking, as you explore the uncanny valley in robotics, pop culture, and art. We also hope we’ve inspired you to take a look at your own work and recommit to improving and learning as a 3D artist.
If you are not already a part of our amazing community, we’d love for you to check out our free software, Daz Studio. Daz Studio takes a lot of the legwork out of creating 3D characters and scenes and makes it easy for beginners and experienced users alike. You don’t need any modeling expertise to get started using our HD Genesis figures.
We’re confident that with dedication and practice, you’ll be able to reach your goals as a 3D artist and create amazing, stunning imagery viewers will love and appreciate!