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:
- 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.
- 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 Gui.de, a stealth startup looking to transform the social TV experience.