Freddie Laker: How To Make People Accept Avatars

Freddie Laker: How To Make People Accept Avatars

How to get over the uncanny feelings that digital versions of humans create.

Freddie Laker,
  • 12 may 2013

In August 2012 I left my job to build a new company and spend time an inordinate amount of time with digital avatars, including humans, robots, anime characters, and even pets. Over the course of a year-long clandestine love affair, I’ve come to learn quite a bit about the uncanny valley—the technical and conceptual hurdle that has troubled digital designers and robotics engineers for more than a decade. The theory states that when human avatars or replicas look almost human, but not quite perfect, the observer will be left unsettled, or possibly repulsed.

The idea of the uncanny valley has almost become conventional wisdom in tech circles, one of those factoids people like to throw out to demonstrate insider knowledge. But an important part of the theory is often overlooked: The so-called valley is only a dip. Time is our best ally in getting out of the valley; as digital and physical worlds converge and each generation gets more and more comfortable with the overlap, there will be a cultural shift.

When I first confessed my secret avatar love affair to friends, colleagues, and investors I had to communicate my deep-seeded belief that with the rapid advancements in facial recognition, motion detection, voice recognition, and text-to-speech capability, avatar-led interaction with computer operating systems was right around the corner. Then with my usual enthusiasm I showcased my prototype Guide avatars, of which I was quite proud. Responses to my presentation came in two distinct forms: Awed admiration or awkward rejection.

Similar reactions to Activision’s absolutely bleeding edge avatar technology finally made me realize that there are two core mindsets that affect how people perceive human life recreated in pixels:

  1. Some people look at human avatars, for example, and compare them to what a real human should look like. Against this high standard, avatars will always appear lifeless and creepy.
  2. But another group of people assess human avatars as virtual digital entities, and then marvel at how close we’ve come to mimicking human features. They don’t conceptualize these avatars as real or measure them against a human face — they’re content to perceive them as incredibly sophisticated digital avatars, without trying to force a living human identity upon them.

No matter which of the two camps you fall in, the overarching takeaway is that uncanny valley is real—but it isn’t a universal disposition. Why, then, do people have these two, divergent mindsets?

Background might have something to do with it. For example, I grew up reading science fiction books, watching science fiction movies, and playing video games — all of which are considered fairly mainstream things to do these days, but in those days still seemed a little leftfield. I’ve been thinking about the future my whole life, so I tend to measure tech advances a little differently. In addition, I have spent my entire professional career in the digital marketing and technology field.

However, comfort level with the technology may ultimately come down to acclimation and continued technical advances. The more time you spend with avatars, whether in video games or computer operating systems, the less “creepy” they feel. In part this is because the current state of the technology is light years ahead of where we were five years ago.

What’s more, developments in the next five years are sure to be equally exponential. Remember, the uncanny valley theory states that as a avatar or robot’s appearance becomes less distinguishable from a real human’s, the observer’s emotional response becomes far more positive. If the theory is correct, then it’s really an opportunity, not a hurdle.

As interactive technology continues to advance—especially via voice, sight, motion, and avatar-based operating systems—I think our dialogue about the technology will shift.

But the two divergent mindsets about avatars in particular will likely remain rooted and intractable. And while I do believe they will converge at some point, I still feel like I’ll be having this conversation again and again for quite some time into my future.

Freddie Laker is CEO and Founder of, a stealth startup looking to transform the social TV experience.


Bringing Food Innovation To America's Crowded Milk Market

Work Today

Editorial Roundtable: The Arrival Of The People-First Workplace

Managed By Q, Soma, Workbar, Primary, AltSchool and thinkPARALLAX enumerate the reasons why companies need an employee-embracing workforce in order to exist

Financial Services Today

Device Makes Digital Currency Feel Tangible

The concept gadget wants you to experience the highs and lows of spending money


Get PSFK's Related Report: Future of Automotive

See All
Advertising Today

Lyft Gives Free Rides To Those Who Have Had Too Much To Drink

Thanks to a new partnership between the ride sharing service and Budweiser, drunk passengers are able to receive free rides

Design & Architecture Today

Why Building Better Offices Is The Key To Employee Engagement

Interaction Designer and Audio-visual Technologist at ESI Design illustrates the value in creating environments filled with surprise and delight

Related Expert

Catherine Balsam-Schwaber

Brand Storytelling, TV Entertainment

Augmented / Virtual Reality Today

NBC Is Planning To Stream The Presidential Debates In Virtual Reality

Partnering with AltspaceVR, the broadcaster offers another way for Americans to engage with the election season

Travel Today

What Happens When An Entire Airport Terminal Rebrands Itself?

JFK's Terminal 4 underwent a dramatic design facelift to guide and delight travelers

Home september 23, 2016

Watch This Fire Pit Dance Along To Your Favorite Song

Music City Fire is a system that is designed to flicker in time to ambient music


Future Of Automotive
Scenarios Driving The Digital Transformation Of An Industry

PSFK Op-Ed september 21, 2016

Creative Agency Founder: Using VR As A Race Relationship Tool

Maurice Bernstein, CEO and Founder of Giant Step, explores the value in transforming headsets from high-tech entertainment tools into empathy machines

PSFK Labs september 22, 2016

The Future Of Work: Why Innovation Is Every Employee’s Job

PSFK Labs sits down with management at Johnson & Johnson to learn how the company comes up with their next ‘big idea’

Automotive september 23, 2016

Slick GPS Navigator Gives Directions To Moped Riders

This small, round device attaches to a sideview mirror to display maps for safer traveling

Home september 23, 2016

A Clock That Beautifully Manages Your Information Overload

The wall-mounted timekeeper is made to help people maintain focus and stay up to date with their appointments

Arts & Culture september 23, 2016

Performance Piece Blends Dancers Into Folds Of Light

The work provides commentary on the increasing connection between programmed and analog dimensions

Design & Architecture september 23, 2016

Design Firm Adapts Childhood Homes For Unemployed Young Adults

The studio has unveiled three prototypes of transformed living spaces for people forced to move back in with their families

Health september 23, 2016

These Chocolate Squares Claim To Reverse The Aging Process

A group of researchers from Cambridge University have developed a candy bar that promises to give you a youthful glow


Future Of Work
Cultivating The Next Generation Of Leaders

Cities september 23, 2016

Food-Producing Architecture Competition Seeks To Better Feed Cities

A design challenge in Copenhagen highlights the need and beauty of urban farming

Health september 23, 2016

Wearable Monitors Sun Exposure To Prevent Sunburn

The clip monitors UV rays to make sure you're not receiving too much sunlight

Op-Ed september 23, 2016

Productivity Expert: The Magic Of The Five-Hour Workday

Stephan Aarstol, Founder of Tower Paddle Boards, explains why the modern notion of office hours needs to evolve

No search results found.