Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Zombie Tiger Woods Y'all

Monsters of Photorealism
My hat is off to whoever designed the new King Kong game for the Xbox 360, because they've crafted a genuinely horrific monster. When it first lurched out of the mysterious tropical cave and fixed its cadaverous eyes on me, I could barely look at the monstrosity.

I'm speaking, of course, of Naomi Watts.

Not the actual Naomi Watts. She's heart-stoppingly lovely. No, I'm talking about the version of Naomi Watts that you encounter inside the game.

In some ways, her avatar is an admirably good replica, with the requisite long blond hair and juicy voice-acting from Watts herself. But the problem begins when you look at her face -- and the Corpse Bride stares back. The skin on virtual Naomi is oddly slack, as if it weren't quite connected to the musculature beneath; when she speaks, her lips move with a Frankensteinian stiffness. And those eyes! My god, they're like two portholes into a soulless howling electric universe. "Great," I complained to my wife. "I finally get to hang out with a gorgeous starlet -- and she's dead."

What's the culprit here? Ironically, the blame falls partly on the Xbox 360 itself, and its bleeding-edge graphics engine. Sure, the 360 can generate the most photorealistic human avatars of any game console in history. But that is precisely why they look so creepy.

This paradoxical effect has a name: the "Uncanny Valley." The concept comes from the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that simulacra of humans seem lively and convincing so long as they're relatively low-resolution. Think of history's best comic strips: With only a few quick sketches on a page, Bill Watterson can create vivid emotions for the characters in Calvin and Hobbes. When an avatar is cartoonish, our brains fill in the gaps in the presentation to help them seem real.

But when human avatars approach photoreality? Something weird happens. Our brains rebel, and we begin focusing on the tiny details that aren't quite perfect. The realism of our avatars suddenly plunges downward into a valley -- and they begin to look like zombies.

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