VR

Total Recoil: The Uncanny Valley Is an Uncanny Cliff

This is part two of a series on what uncanny and the uncanny valley mean and how to accurately use them to describe experiences (in VR or otherwise).

TL;DR

  • The Uncanny valley is specifically about the relationship between being human-like and likability. 
  • Every act of perception involves an act of categorization

  • Science shows that toy non-humanoid robots (think WALL-E) are preferred to human-like ones (and actual humans!)

Background

1919 – Sigmund Freud published an essay called The Uncanny” (translated from the German unheimlich), defining it to mean weird/eerie/unfamiliar.

1970 – Valley of Eeriness (translated from the Japanese bukimi no tani) was coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori to model affinity for androids as they become more humanlike.

1978 – Uncanny Valley first appeared in English inside a book by Jasia Reichardt called "Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction.”

2007 – Uncanny Cliff was introduced to more accurately reflect the shape of the curve.   


What Is the Uncanny Valley?

The uncanny valley is a very precise feeling of weirdness or fear that nearly-humans (but not quite humans) evoke. The uncanny valley is elicited when a robot or AI has some human likeness, but isn’t human. Long time art director and VR/AR insider Spencer Lindsay uses “creepy corpse” in his definition of the uncanny valley.

You can see the valley in the graph below:

Image credit  here

Image credit here

It’s assumed that liking of a robot increases the more human like that it is, until it crosses into the valley (the grey area). Lindsay’s creepy corpse would appear to be at the nadir of the valley – with zombies! 

It is likely that the uncanny valley response is evolutionarily adaptive. Studies done with rhesus monkeys show a similar pattern of likability. Monkeys will look longer at the unrealistic (left) and real (right) faces below, rather than the realistic one in the center. 

Monkey visual behavior  falls into the uncanny valley

Monkey visual behavior falls into the uncanny valley

The Uncanny Valley Confuses Categories.

To categorize is a fundamental psychological process that happens automatically. The very act of perception involves an act of categorization. You haven’t completed the process of perception until you have categorized it and matched it up to other things that you know about. That is, “this object is the same as other things I know about and different from these other things.” We judge new things based on their similarity to previous things. And a human-like puppet easily confuses our judgment process. 

“It’s the process that grinds away constantly and generates much of our understanding and response to the world,” says Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner.  “First of all, it’s how do you categorize things? And that’s everything. Do I sleep with him or not? Is that a boy or a girl? Is that predator or prey? If you solve how this process works, then you solve how you know things. It’s how knowledge about the world is organized. It’s like the thread that is woven through everything in the mind.”

"Do I sleep with him or not? Is that a boy or a girl? Is that predator or prey? If you solve how this process works, then you solve how you know things."

Encountering a creepy android from the trough of the uncanny valley leads to conflicting perceptual cues. Is it human or not? It interferes with the automatic, System 1 processing that we rely on to get through our day.

The Uncanny Valley Is an Uncanny Cliff.

Lastly, there have been empirical studies that map the uncanny valley since Mori originally theorized it. Researchers show 11 different images as an object morphs from a thing to a human, and there is a decrease in liking midway through. 

It’s actually more like a cliff, because likability doesn’t fully recover:

Image source  here

Image source here

"The uncanny valley appears to be more of a cliff than a valley since even pictures of humans do not reach the level [of likeability] of pictures of toy robots. It has to be acknowledged that there is a small upwards trend again towards highly human-like entities, which results in a small valley. However, the most dominant feature in the graph is not the valley, but the cliff preceding it."  – Bartneck et al.

Takeaways for designers:

  • Avoid anything related to the uncanny valley by populating your experience with non-humanoid avatars. People prefer non-humanoids to humanoids
  • The uncanny valley doesn’t actually exist. It’s more like a cliff.  Once you get too humanoid, liking decreases dramatically and never fully returns. 

 

Additional info

 If you are interested in the uncanny valley, you’ll like Kimberley Voll’s interview on the fidelity contract. Listen to her full interview with @VoicesofVRKentBye here.

Bartneck, C., Kanda, T., Ishiguro, H., & Hagita, N. (2007). Is the Uncanny Valley an Uncanny Cliff? Proceedings of the 16 th IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication, RO-MAN 2007, Jeju, Korea, pp. 368-373.

H/T to @spencerlindsay for letting me quote him here. 

Sigmund Freud: The Original VR Designer

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   Loss of one’s eyes is the source of uncanny feelings - Freud

Loss of one’s eyes is the source of uncanny feelings - Freud

TL;DR

  • Freud wrote an essay in 1919 arguing that the origin of the uncanny is the loss of one’s eyes. If you are covering a person’s eyes with an HMD, no wonder it brings up feelings of strangeness.
     
  •  Uncanny is an adjective best used to describe something weird or unexpected.  It is defined in relation to the familiar or expected. 

I’m over the uncanny valley.  When I hear people describe a VR experience by saying, “It’s super uncanny valley,” my first response is usually:

People are overgeneralizing and applying this very precise term to any VR experience that they don’t like. It’s like using “epic” for anything that is even mildly interesting, or “interesting” to describe, well, anything. To elevate discussions of VR, I am going to dissect the meaning and use of “uncanny” in the context of current experiences, so people can confidently describe their subjective experiences of VR & AR with a richer vocabulary.

Let’s Get Freudian

 "The Uncanny” is an essay from 1919, written by Sigmund Freud. While most of Freud’s work has been discredited, this essay remains relevant to VR creators who are making new experiences. The first third of the essay describes what uncanny means in terms of aesthetics and psychology. He states that the uncanny is the aesthetic of anxiety and fear, rather than the aesthetic of beauty.

Freud (being who he is) argues that the origin of the feeling of uncanny is a revival of repressed infantile memories or the return of primitive beliefs of the human species. He also spends a long time giving a psychoanalytic perspective on a story from 1817 called “The Sandman” wherein a man who was traumatized in childhood by almost having his eyes removed falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a doll with unusual eyes. At some point he sees the doll’s eyes on the floor, loses it, and is committed for insanity. Freud believes that the origin of uncanny is the loss of one’s eyes. What does this mean for someone creating for an HMD?

The uncanny has to do with our feelings of what is familiar. Digging into the German words of heimlich (canny/homey) and unheimlich (uncanny/unhomey), you find distinct meanings:

heimlich

1. belonging to the house; friendly; familiar; tame (as in animals); intimate, comfortable; i.e: secure, domestic(ated), hospitable.

2. concealed, secret, withheld from sight and from others; secretive, deceitful = private.

>>> 

unheimlich

1. unhomey, unfamiliar, untame, uncomfortable = eerie, weird, etc.

2. unconcealed, unsecret; what is made known; what is supposed to be kept secret but is inadvertently revealed. (BTW - This would be related to a Freudian slip, saying something accidentally that reveals a hidden truth).


For good measure, I’ll include the Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions of uncanny:

1.  seeming to have a supernatural character or origin :  eerie, mysterious

2.  being beyond what is normal or expected :  suggesting superhuman or supernatural power

Given these definitions of uncanny, I believe that most of the time that people use the phrase “uncanny valley,” they likely mean uncanny. They want an adjective to describe something unfamiliar, eerie, or unexpected. In my next post, I’ll write about the meaning and use of the term Uncanny Valley, coined by a robotics professor in Japan in 1970. Until then, feel free to use “inconceivable” as your general VR adjective. 


Takeaways for designers

  • Uncanny is an adjective best used to describe something weird or unexpected. It’s about the relationship to something familiar or expected. 
     
  • If you don’t want your VR experience to feel quite so uncanny, amp up the heimlich elements of your experience. What can you do to make it more familiar, tame, or hospitable? 
     
  • With current devices, you lose sight of your own surroundings, plus you cannot see the eyes of others, or what they are looking at. If Freud was right and the loss of eyes is the source of the uncanny, we might have to resign ourselves to VR being perceived as uncanny for the near future.

 
Further Reading:

Freud, S. (1919). The uncanny.

Lecture Notes on Freud’s The uncanny.  University of Washington. 

H/T to German scholar Elizabeth Bridges who pointed me to Freud’s essay and patiently answered my questions. You can find her writing on the Uncanny Valley here. 

The Dark Side of Empathy

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   A viewer watches the process of factory farming as part of the 360 VR documentary series iAnimal.  Photo Credit: Laika Magazine

A viewer watches the process of factory farming as part of the 360 VR documentary series iAnimal.  Photo Credit: Laika Magazine

Empathy is a real buzzword in the world of VR. VR filmmaker Chris Milk has said he aspires to build the ultimate empathy machine. The purpose of the iAnimal series seems to be to raise people's empathy for animals in order to activate their moral reasoning that animals deserve better treatment.

However, while empathy has a role in our lives, I don’t think it should be the end goal of any VR experience, because empathy does not necessarily lead to the fair treatment of others. One study on empathy for blind people woke me up to this.  Adam Waytz summarizes in HBR:

Participants were asked how capable they thought blind people were of working and living independently. But before answering the question, some were asked to complete difficult physical tasks while wearing a blindfold. Those who had done the blindness simulation judged blind people to be much less capable. That’s because the exercise led them to ask "what would it be like if I were blind?" (the answer: very difficult!) rather than "what is it like for a blind person to be blind?" 

People are so egocentric that even empathy tasks get reframed to be first person perspective. Humans are not terribly good at predicting how others feel. Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom wrote an entire book called Against Empathy that advocates using reason rather than empathy.

Consider learning about a ten-year-old named Sheri Summers who had a fatal disease and was waiting in line for treatment that would relieve her pain. Research participants were told that they could move her to the front of the line. When simply asked what to do, they acknowledged that she had to wait because other needy children were ahead of her.  But if they were asked to imagine what Sheri felt, they tended to choose to move her up, putting her ahead of children who were presumably more deserving.  Here, empathy was more powerful than fairness. – Against Empathy, p. 25

While there is certainly a role for empathy and compassion in life, it can sometimes narrowly focus us on the wrong details. And empathy does not appear to be a reliable way to activate people’s moral reasoning. 

Another example of the underbelly of empathy is its ability to give people a reason or motive to be hurtful toward others.  In a study where people were primed to empathize with someone (Person A), the research participants assigned Person A’s competitor (Person B) to eat more hot sauce as a punishment. It appears that creating an intervention that increases empathy toward Person A increased aggression toward Person B.

Rather than relying on empathy to guide fairness, ask people to make judgments based on logic and reasoning.  Gather data by actually speaking with people about their experience, rather than just imagining how they feel. 

Lastly, here’s a link to Paul Bloom speaking on how empathy blinds us to the long-term consequences of our decisions.

 
Additional reading:

Does Empathy Guide or Hinder Moral Action?  The New York Times.  December 29, 2016.  http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/12/29/does-empathy-guide-or-hinder-moral-action.

Waytz, Adam.  The Limits of Empathy.  Jan-Feb 2016.  https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-limits-of-empathy.

Bloom, P. (2017). Against Empathy. Bodley Head Limited.

Shamoon, Evan. Virtual Immersion into the Reality of Farm Animals. Feb 24, 2016.  http://www.laikamagazine.com/reality-animal-suffering/.

 

How Social Placebos Boost Performance in VR

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   Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant doing a trust exercise – Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant doing a trust exercise – Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Are you interested in boosting player performance? Giving people the right social environment will help them achieve more.

NBA players who touch each other a lot during games (fist bump, high-five, head grab) cooperate more and outperform their prickly counterparts on other teams. Consider the effect of mimicking those high-fives, hugs, and team huddles in your VR experience – people will feel a high sense of trust and liking for others.

I’m interested in how small things influence actions and decisions. Why would a small social gesture like a high-five help a professional athlete perform better? The stakes are extremely high for them so you might imagine they are already maxed out on motivation to win. 

Like most things in life, there’s an evolutionary explanation. People who belonged to a strong tribe knew that they could take more risks. In the event of a negative outcome, there were people who could care for you. These small things like fist bumps signal strong social ties.

“I’m not the guy who’s afraid of failure. I like to take risks, take the big shot and all that.” 
    – Steph Curry

Consider how social placebos would change a VR game like Surgeon Simulator: Meet the Medic by Bossa Labs. You are a surgeon in the game and have to perform tasks like heart transplants to save the patient. This is a gaming experience where having people around could boost a player’s performance. Having another person watching you would make you move faster.*

Screen Shot 2016-12-30 at 12.32.29 PM.png

What are the limitations of the social placebo?

 Having an audience when doing a complicated task for the first time could sabotage performance. But, if it’s a straightforward action that doesn’t require any particular skill, having supporters would likely help. And it can be a complex activity, as long as the user has already rehearsed. 

 Also, the encouragement should probably come from the person’s in-group.

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   Kobe Bryant congratulating Steph Curry on a trifecta

Kobe Bryant congratulating Steph Curry on a trifecta

Does the social placebo work when you are surrounded by AI avatars instead of human avatars? 

 Most likely. It might not last as long or be as effective compared to being around humans you know well and like, but a high five from an AI is likely better than no high five at all.

 How many viewers are optimal?

 It really depends on your goal. One person might be enough. Building a stadium of AI spectators might be overkill, but athletes do get a buzz from those national anthems, pre-game rituals, and cheering fans. 

Takeaway for VR designers:

  • Usage will increase if you build in social placebos. People will be perform at a higher level and have more fun.

*Human runners go faster when they are under observation than when they are solo.  Same effect in cockroaches.  Those pests fun faster when other cockroaches are watching them.

 

How Google Earth VR Ruins Childhood Memories

On a recent “Voices of VR” podcast, I heard host Kent Bye talking about using Google Earth VR to reminisce and share stories with friends. Now, I had a very happy childhood, but my first reaction was, “I would never reminisce or share stories about my past in Google Earth VR. That’s just going to corrupt those memories.”

Memory is one the pillars of human cognition, in addition to attention, problem-solving, evaluation, and decision-making.  It is also extremely fragile and easy to influence.  If our experiences and memories are what make each of us unique, then it is sobering to realize how unreliable human memory can be. 

Your brain is not a computer. 

Human memory does not behave like a computer.  Memories are not files on a hard drive just waiting to be loaded. They are not fossils to be re-visited in a perfectly maintained museum.  Just by reminiscing about an event in your life, your memory of that event is impacted. 

Recalling memories changes them.

The act of revisiting our memories alters them. Here’s a good recap from Jeremy Dean at PsyBlog: 

"How can recalling a memory change it? Well, just by recalling a memory, it becomes stronger in comparison to other memories. Let’s run this through an example. Say you think back to one particular birthday from childhood and you recall getting a Lego spaceship. Each time you recall that fact, the other things you got for your birthday that day become weaker in comparison.

The process of recall, then, is actually actively constructing the past, or at least the parts of your past that you can remember.

This is only the beginning though. False memories can potentially be created by this process of falsely recalling the past. Indeed, psychologists have experimentally implanted false memories.  This raises the fascinating idea that effectively we create ourselves by choosing which memories to recall."


And Dean writes of another illustration of how easy it is to manipulate human memory:

"A neat experiment by Goff and Roediger (1998) demonstrates how easily our memory can transform fantasy into reality. Participants were asked either to imagine performing an action or actually asked to perform it, e.g. breaking a toothpick. Sometime later they went through the same process again. Then, later still they were asked whether they had performed that action or just imagined it. Those who imagined the actions more frequently the second time were more likely to think they’d actually performed the actions the first time."


You might think - I can remember details about my childhood much better than if a researcher in a white coat asked me to break a toothpick. Possibly, though we tend to have the best memory for the most recent events. Think about the implications of this false memory study for VR. People could easily believe that what they experienced virtually happened in real life.  It makes me wonder if creating realistic presence in VR should actually be a goal, given how it could affect people’s perceptions of reality.

If you are interested in memory, it has been studied extensively by researchers in criminal justice. Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has done tremendous work in false memory and the inaccuracies of eyewitness testimony. In short, eyewitnesses are not reliable due to poor viewing conditions, brief exposure, being under stress, having pre-conceived expectations, biases, stereotypes, and more.  
 

Takeaways for VR Designers:

  • The human brain is not a computer.
  • The act of recalling memories changes them. 
  • Maintain skepticism of the memories that people recount to you (and the memories that you personally retrieve).  We are actively constructing our own experiences everyday.

 

 

 

Stop Forcing Users to Text and Drive

Here's a good read with practical tips for VR designers. Adrienne Hunter of Tomorrow Today Labs just posted "Reducing Cognitive Load in VR: 6 Ways to Improve your VR UX."  

Cognitive load has to do with how much information you are trying to hold inside of your working memory at any given time.  Information is filtered in working memory as a transient step before being encoded in short-term or long-term memory (or forgotten).  

We're really just talking about attention.  People have a finite capacity to pay attention, which is why it's difficult to manage two complicated tasks at once, such as texting and driving.  The more attention that you are paying, the more that your working memory is being used.  That makes it harder to learn or to solve puzzles.  But, it also has substantial effects on decision-making.  Here's a few ways that people made decisions differently when they were under high cognitive load and had to divide their attention:

Conclusion

Only ask your users to do one thing at a time. Setting them up to do a sequence a tasks is preferred to having them do anything simultaneously.