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July 13, 2010 / Joe Osborne

Coffee Talk: Where is This Valley (and Why is it Uncanny)?

Supposedly the brief specs on Nvidia’s yet-to-be released GeForce GTX 470 and 480 video cards have been leaked and boast video RAM levels of up to 1536 MB. Another year, another release of a ludicrously powerful graphics processor. One can’t help but think, “Doesn’t this stuff have to plateau at some point?”

To answer the question I asked for you, why yes. Yes it does. A theory has been floating around for a long time dubbed The Uncanny Valley that seeks to explain why no matter how hard we try, The Matrix will never happen (sorry folks).

A chart depicting how as movement emulation increases, it plateaus at a point.

A roboticist by the name of Masahiro Mori discovered while working on humanoid robots (read: androids) in the 1970s that the closer androids get to emulating actual humans, there is a point where people psychologically reject them. In other words, the closer a robot inches to looking like a real human being, the less similar it appears.

This is due to the current inability to emulate human motions and behavior with 100 percent accuracy. Go watch a film like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within or the recent rendition of A Christmas Carol featuring Jim Carrey and you’ll see what Mori means.

“But wait, those aren’t robots, Joe!”

Alright, before you get your knickers in a bunch, let me explain (again with the injected questions?). In the past five years as graphics processors have become more powerful and engineers more effective with the technology, the less real in fact the visuals appear.

For example, take a look at the Heavy Rain tech demo shown a few years back (it’s somewhat NSFW). There’s something about it that just rubs me the wrong way. While incredibly impressive, the actress’ facial expressions — especially her speech — are robotic at times and her eyes have no focus.

It should be said now that The Uncanny Valley theory, when applied to video game visuals, refers to the emulation of humans more than anything else. Regardless of how well the Locust are rendered in Gears of War, how could someone psychologically reject something that doesn’t exist? At that point, you’re just rejecting them because you don’t like them. Poor buggers (see what I did there?).

Now that we know what The Uncanny Valley is and how close it is to becoming a common reality in video games (you know, what really matters), what do you think? Perhaps this is a psychological explanation as to why many are demanding a return to our 2D and 8 bit roots. Just take a look at the Mega Man reboot series and a large portion of the indie game scene.

Is it possible that many gamers are subconsciously rejecting the level of reality — or lack thereof — in modern titles? When video cards can put out these visuals with minimal effort (and minimal price), how will designers, developers and players react? Perhaps we’re seeing the beginnings of that right now.

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