Saturday, March 22, 2008

Uncanny Valleys, Unlimited Budgets and The Mystery Box

"The Uncanny Valley"

Earlier this week, a friend posted a link on the Tater Board showing "Big Boy," a new robot with deer-like legs, which the amazing ability to walk over difficult terrain, recover from slips on ice, and stay standing when someone tries to kick it over. Really, it's quite impressive. Look!

After watching the video, I made a comment to the effect of "Wow, that's creepy! What is it about robots that creeps people out? Is it naturally born into us, or is it just a byproduct to of having seen too many robots-take-over-the-world movies?"

And, in response, my friend introduced me to the concept of the "Uncanny Valley."

Mori's hypothesis states that as a robot is made more human like in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.[2]

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a "barely-human" and "fully human" entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is "almost human" will seem overly "strange" to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction

What I think is interesting about this (beyond the fact that they include "zombie" on the chart above), is the fact that it dovetails nicely with a theory that Scott McCloud proposes in his Understanding Comics.

In Understanding Comics, Scott discusses how more abstract illustration styles (like Peanuts) will often be more successful than the realistic illustration styles (like what you might find in your typical Marvel or DC comicbook) at gaining the readers empathy. He maintains that the more simplistic or abstract the illustrations style is, the more the used has to activate their imaginations. And that by engaging the viewers imagination, it actually allows the reader to put themselves "in the characters shoes." Thus creating a great sense of empathy with the character.

On the flip side, the more photo-realistic an illustration is, the more the person evaluates it on a technical level. This, in turn, actually creates a greater degree of emotional distance from the illustrated character; as the viewer spends their time thinking "y'know, that one detail doesn't quite look right!"

I don't know, maybe McCloud's theory and the Uncanny Valley aren't related. But, at the same time, there just seems to be too much of a parallel. Abstraction and impression seem to lead to more empathy and connection than duplication and realism, anyhow.

Unlimited Budgets

Meanwhile, over on the Bad Genious, I found myself in an interesting discussion with a couple other members of the board. Basically, it ended up being a fairly candid conversation in which a bunch of comic fans were more of less admitting: Even though we all love comics, in many regards they aren't the best option for telling most stories.

Because that board is a private board, and because I'm fond of patting myself on the back. I thought I'd copy and paste one of my posts from that blog, so that maybe more people out in the Interweb might read it and weigh in:

Yeah, I think that every media form has its fair share of crap out there. For every good show on TV, I'm positive there are dozens of awful ones, and the same with movies, novels and... well... comics.

I think my complaint lies with the fact that each form of media has its strengths and weaknesses. But I feel like a lot of comics these days don't play toward their formats strengths. And, here's the two strengths that seem immediately apparent to me.

1) Unlimited budget - Unlike, say, TV or movies, you can do anything in comics without massively effecting the budget to produce it. You want a giant guy in a purple suit who eats planets? Fine. It's no more expensive than having two people standing around talking in their apartment. There aren't many forms of media that allow you that flexibility's.

2) Singular Creative Vision - While most comics we (on the Bad Genious) collect are produced by Marvel, DC, Image, etc. The reality is that it's one of the few media that can be completely produced from start to finish by one person. If a comic like Cerebrus proved anything its that one person can effectively make a comic that is his or her personal vision without creative interference from others. That one person can control everything, and with some time and money, get that personal vision and one-of a-kind story produced and into the hands of an audience.

What I think is unfortunate is that those two strengths are rarely combined. Rarely to you get a "singular creative vision" that also happens to involve the "unlimited budget" capabilities of a comic book. The "big budget" stuff seems to be mass produced, corporate comics. While the singularly created stuff ends up all being autobiographical stories about neurotic 20-somethings.

(Edit ted for clarity, but not content.)

So, yeah. I'm sure that other people out there have made the point better, but I figured it was worth repeating because it's something I've been thinking about recently. And, it's the type of discussion I'd like to continue at some point.

Also, it allows me to harp on another point that I seem to keep coming back to these days: That I feel like a lot of comic creators these days don't seem as interested in that sense of "out-there" wonder that previous generations of comic creators have been. Actually, creators started moving away from the overtly fantastical back in the early 80's. But still, where are the the planet-eating giants in purple headgears, teleporting bulldogs with tuning forks coming out of their heads and over-sized, world-conquering starfish of today?

Where have all the Lockjaws gone?

The Mystery Box

Feeling a little grouchy about the down-to-Earth nature of today's comicbooks, it was nice stumbling across this lecture by JJ Abrams for TED. TED stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design," and the TED website is dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading."

Most of those ideas come in the form of what appears to be an ongoing lecture series. And, since all three of those topics interest me, I've been finding myself checking out their videos more an more.

JJ Abrams, as I'm sure you all know, is the creator and director of TV shows such as Lost and Alias. And, in his discussion, he talks about where he gets him inspiration for the mysteries and intrigue that run through his work.

Most of that discussion hinges on a "Mystery Box" of magic tricks that his grandfather bought him. To this day the box, which is a blank box with a big question mark on it, has remained unopened. The mystery of what it may contain being more fascinating than whatever cheap tricks it might actually contain if opened.

Who says you can't box wonder and mystery.

A wonderful and intriguing image. And one that you can't help but be inspired by.


Austin said...

Does the robot have to make that creepy sound? Aggwwaaggwwaaggwwaa

The General said...

Actaully, that's the same sound that REAL deer make. That's why they are so popular for hunting... they're easy to track.