Why Does That Conductor Look So Creepy?

Several movies have tried and failed to generate lifelike animations of humans. For example, the lifeless faces in Polar Express made people uncomfortable because they tried to emulate life but didn’t get it quite right.

“There’s something fundamentally important about seeing a face and knowing that the lights are on and someone is home,” says Thalia Wheatley of Dartmouth College. Humans can see faces in anything—the moon, a piece of toast, two dots and a line for a nose—but we are much more discriminating when it comes to deciding what’s alive and what’s not.

The most familiar things in the world to us — the voices, appearances and behavior of humans — are being replicated by animators and robotics engineers, but this replication is not always a success. “The uncanny” is an experience that seems familiar yet foreign at the same time, causing some sort of brain confusion and, ultimately, a feeling of fear or repulsion. From Disney princesses to Avatar, this psychological effect has gradually emerged as a profound problem in the fields of robotics and computer animation. Read more in this MSNBC article featuring APS Member Christopher Ramey of Drexel University.

For more on what makes a face look alive read this Psychological Science article, and watch these videos examples of the morphed faces used in the experiments:

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