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The not so Uncanny Valley

The uncanny Valley has been a well established concept that is drilled into us at early stages of our careers or our education (mostly education). But I am curious as to why it even occurs in us people, and why it doesn't occur in others.

Ishraf Uddin, Blogger

April 6, 2017

6 Min Read

Quick Recap

The uncanny valley phenomenon is the idea of artistic features that are close to resembling human like features causes a sense of disgust and eeriness in the beholder. This idea is taught through most art courses and has almost been drilled into me for the past couple years in my education.  

The famous robotics engineer Masashiro Mori, to try to define the effect more clearly, created the graph on the right.  The graph displays the relationship between human likeness in a subject and the familiarity felt by the viewer. The relationship is such that as human likeness is more accurately achieved, the familiarity of the subject is more accepted by the viewer. This continues approximately a bit further that 50% of human likeness and begins to plateau a little bit thereafter. The famous Valley that is always referred to is the steep decline of familiarity in the viewer just right after the plateau point. This point is where the viewer will feel a sense of repulsion, disgust, or just an uncomfortable sensation just by looking at the subject matter. Right after the fall into the valley begins the steep climb back into the realm of familiarity. Something to notice is that the graph that is changing never reaches 100% human likeness. This is because there will always be improvements that can be made to try to match the likeness of human and since humans are always changing, the factors of likeness can differ over time as well.

Now the points at which the initial plateau is reached is usually the spot where many characters from children’s movies reside. For instance, Russel the Pixar character from the movie Up, is a human child that is made to look similar to humans but still gives off a warm loveable feeling when looking at him. The same can be said about Wall-e, however the character is not human in the slightest but still portray human like behavior’s and emotions which makes him seem cute and adorable.


These characters are good examples of the plateau point found just before the uncanny valley. Nevertheless, to understand what I mean when I say repulsive and uncomfortable to look at, one must see the problem for themselves.  Below we see a frame from the movie Mars Needs Moms and the character Gribble. I am not sure about anybody who reads this but for me, that picture sends shivers down my spine. On the left, we see a screenshot of Lebron James from the 2K series of basketball games. He does not look repulsive, but he still seems off and it is still eerie to stare at him for too long.


Now that I we are all on the same page I can finally get to the meat of the article and why I began talking about this idea.

Why does this effect occur?

I find it hard to believe that we find realism in other human like characters off-putting but realism in other objects and living creatures to be acceptable. The answer could not be that simple and there had to be an underling reason why this phenomenon is shared amongst a large amount off us. I decided to do some digging into research into graphical advancements in the field and research improvements and I came across two different theories that try to explain the reason for such occurrences.

The Evolutionary Perspective

Scouring the internet, I found a research paper written by Randolph M. Nesse, Natural selection and the regulation of defenses a signal detection analysis of the smoke detector principle and it discusses the idea that certain defense mechanisms were developed in humans through Natural Selection. It explained how throughout most human civilization or existence, disease was common and prevalent no matter the era. It was not until very recently that hygiene and health standards have improved but even now, diseases still strike at large populations of humans. The point trying to be made here is that our ancestor had to have found ways to avoid and survive through any epidemics that they may have come to close encounters with. Those among the past civilizations that survived these experiences were able to quickly identify diseased individuals through observation or other factors. This trait was then passed on to offspring and as time went on, evolved with every pandemic afterword’s. The theory here is that our cognitive process are fine-tuned to quickly observe human characteristic for faults that may attribute to disease,  which is what may cause this feeling of eeriness when we see something that resembles a person but still doesn’t look quite right. The next few sample picture can be disturbing so to the faint of heart, get ready.

The zombie shown above clearly is meant to look scary and gruesome to try to invoke discomfort in the viewer. This can be an example of how people have evolved cognitive reasoning skills in our minds too quickly understand that something is wrong with that person and we should avoid them. That being said zombie culture is a large part of pop culture so it is also understandable if people are intrigued by zombies as well. The other photo is an example of something that can instill fear and unease into people suffer from trypophobia (fear of holes or repetitious bumps and patterns). First, I want assure people that that is slightly wet pancake batter that is placed on top of a hand, so if this still affects you I apologize. Nonetheless, this fear is proof of an instinctive defense mechanism to help identify diseased symptoms that can be found on a person. I’m being very broad when I say this since there are many diseases out there with many different types of physical symptoms that can appear on a person skin. This idea is idea of evolutionary defense mechanism is still under research and I recommend anyone to read more into it if they are curious. 100 of years of conditioning have kept us alive and are what might cause the unease we see when human like features in art are just not similar enough to the original.


Even though it might be scary for some artist to try to push for a more realistic style, since pushing to far can result in falling into chasm that does not mean we should stop trying. Strides are being made today into realistic graphics in both movies and video games and they only way to get better is to move forward even with failure sneaking up behind us. Rogue One: A star wars story had remade general Tarkin from nothing but CGI and it was well made in my honest opinion. So to any aspiring artist, or veterans out there that think aiming for realism is asking for failure, well that might not be the case. Design for creepy can be just as effective as creating realistic work, like how zombies are made to scare people.  

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