OnQ Blog

Escaping the Uncanny Valley

11 Apr 2012

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

“I’ve stopped viewing my body as a set of legs, arms, head, feet, and hands. I’ve started imagining myself as an energy field that interacts with the world around me. I feel liberated. There’s a lot to discover. It’s a completely new language that nobody is teaching you.”

That statement remains stuck in my head. It was made by a participant in danceroom spectroscopy (dS), a project of mine that is part video game, part interactive physics visualization, part art project, and part sociological experiment.

During summer 2011, a physicist (myself), a choreographer, a programmer, and a musician initiated a set of collaborative development workshops. We hooked a group of dancers up to what looked like a motion-capture gaming system, like the Xbox Kinect. But our system was different. Instead of using the motion-capture data to animate little virtual people on a screen, our system transformed an unlimited number of human “players” (in this case, dancers) into body-shaped energy fields. As the dancers moved about the space in real-time, their energy fields ebbed and flowed, shifted, and interfered—like the ripples made by pebbles dropped in a pool of water. The dancers used their energy fields to manipulate an interactive ensemble of otherwise invisible atoms (hydrogen, helium, carbon, iron, and oxygen).

As the dancers use their energy fields to manipulate the atoms, their movements cause them to vibrate in crazy ways, and these vibrations are translated into sounds that the dancers can hear. So within our portal to the atomic world, there is a tight feedback between the energy of the dancers, the motion of the particles, and the emergent sounds.

Not your typical video game, that’s for sure.

Roboticists and 3D animators know that people often respond negatively to robots that look too literal…too “human”—the so-called “uncanny valley of virtual reality.” But there’s another aspect to this valley: it’s an easy place to get stuck chasing an elusive goal of accuracy. Jorge Luis Borges famously wrote a story, “On Exactitude in Science,” about a society so obsessed with accuracy, people made maps with the same dimensions as the lands they were mapping. Needless to say, these giant maps never caught on. Their makers missed the point: maps are most useful as simplified models. 

Similar to Borges’ map-makers, motion capture gaming tends to animate increasingly accurate virtual humans. But this too misses the point: much of a game’s appeal relies on its simplified representation of reality. Think the brothers Mario. Or Angry Birds.

And this, in part, is what puzzles older generations about video-gaming youth. They appear to be stuck in the valley. Older folks wonder, “What’s the point of a world-sized map when a world-size world is already there? Is a console or mobile phone really more fun than exploring the nooks and crannies of a neighborhood? Why not go outside and play real baseball?”

The point is not whether these are answerable questions, but rather that they are legitimate questions. Which means that games will always be subject to criticism as lame imitations of what already exists.

In dS, the “mapping” of the virtual onto the real is a spark for the imagination. For example, in virtual reality, dS might show two fields fusing to create an energy tunnel that shuttles atoms back and forth. In actual reality, two people are touching their heads together. Nobody asks “Why not go outside and pretend to be ‘real’ energy fields?” The question is absurd because the experience is so obviously impossible without the video game technology.

And I suspect that this accounts for the broad appeal of dS. Retirees, teenagers, and pre-schoolers happily inhabit the same virtual space. As energy fields, they’re on equal footing with one another and with every other particle in nature. As gamer-explorers, they investigate mysterious properties of an unfamiliar reality. As a group, they uncover surprises, sensitive to their own collective time scales, moods, feelings, and spirituality. With neither rules nor pretences of what things should look like, cooperation is the rule, and real-time social evolution happens before our very eyes. Watching the gamers is as fun as playing the game.

And what of the workshop collaborators with whom this article began, who relinquished their bodies to plunge into uncharted territory? Many claimed that the experience heightened their dreams and interpersonal awareness.

Now that’s what I call a video game. Something that plays with you as much as you play with it. Something that transports you from the prison of the uncanny valley and leaves you buzzing with possibilities on the horizons of imagination. Out there, new worlds await discovery.


This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.