Sunday, 17 July 2011

The un-canine valley

So there's an Andrex advert now with dogs playing instruments.

There's a lot to be said for the range of messages you can deliver and memorable situations you can set up with a CGI dog. Why I find it a strange route for Andrex, is that one of the only things that fake dogs will struggle to do, is look as soft and cuddly as the real thing. When that was the whole point of the dog's existence, it seems like a strange move.

This brings me on to one of my favourite crazy psychological topics. The uncanny valley.

The theory goes that we like to see human elements in animals, cartoons, robots etc. The more big and human a dog's eyes, the cuter it looks. However, there is a point where things start to look so human, that instead of focusing on the bits that make them look like us, we start to focus on the inhuman elements. This tipping point turns our love into repulsion, thus Terminator = scary.

Potentially this is an evolutionary tactic to help us stay alive. If we see someone looking particularly diseased, we'll be repulsed by them and keep a healthy disease free distance.

Pixar, who have successfully monetised cuteness, have long known about the uncanny valley. This is why their backgrounds look as good as lifelike, but the humans are odd, smooth skinned caricatures.
Our CGI skills are good, but not good enough to create something realistically human that doesn't make us want to be sick. There are plenty examples of this rule being ignored with horrific results - such as the cold dead eyes of the kid from Polar Express.

Amazingly, even monkeys seem to suffer from this. If shown 3 pictures - One a photo of a monkey, one a cartoon monkey, and one a realistic CGI monkey, they will like the photo and the cartoon, but be repulsed by the CGI.

Exactly how far this works cross-species I don't know, but I think it's safe to say that taking a dog who was designed to be a metaphor for softness and playing with the uncanny valley is a dangerous move.

Just look at how lovable the real thing is!

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