For years, experts have been telling us that, someday, virtual characters will be created that are indistinguishable from real people, potentially opening entire new arenas for movies, customer service, training and education, among other applications. A new demonstration from video game company Activision Blizzard suggests that the day may have arrived.
On Wednesday, Activision presented photo-realistic character animation at the 2013 Game Developers Conference, taking place this week in San Francisco. While artificial characters have steadily been making tremendous progress toward indistinguishability over the last several decades, there has always been a bit of a gulf keeping those creations from humanness. In 1970, Japanese robot expert Masahiro Mori described an "uncanny valley" where robots, or generated characters, get close enough to being human but not quite there.
He said that the almost-ness results in an uncomfortable weirdness, a kind of disgust, which could be applied to, say, the Angelina Jolie character in the movie Beowulf or the Tom Hanks character in the movie Polar Express. On the other side of the valley, the artificial creation is, to all extents and purposes, perceived as being real. Now, the valley may have been crossed.
Next Generation Life
The character in question was presented at the Conference by Activision Blizzard's Jorge Jimenez, in a talk called Next-Generation Character Rendering. In an account on his blog, he wrote Wednesday that the result is a "next generation life" for realistic animated characters, including ones that are rendered in real-time.
The key character being shown is an unnamed male, perhaps in his thirties, with a shaved head. He talks a few lines, smiles and shows eye wrinkles, and has the look in his eyes of a human looking out. The subtle skin imperfections, light stubble showing on a shaven face, expressions and mouth movements all indicate it is an actual human who, at times in the clip, is acting a bit woodenly as he moves between highly realistic takes. When he is in the take, his expressive behavior seems to hit humanness exactly. On the Web, comments have pointed to the teeth, when the character smiles, as striking the only false note.
Activision said the character in the video is being rendered in real-time on current video card hardware, using standard bone animation. In addition to the character in the clip, Jimenez also shows on his blog human-looking still images of head shots and details of an old man, a young woman in the military, and others.
Ads, Demos, Customer Service
The business and personal applications for truly indistinguishable, generated artificial humans could be substantial. Andrew Frank, research director for media and marketing at Gartner, noted that "we've been hearing about this coming for quite a while." He said that, if the uncanny valley has actually been crossed into verisimilitude, there could be applications in "advertising, product demos, education, and anything that requires an interpersonal relationship, such as customer service."
There will have to be broad acceptance that the uncanny valley has actually been crossed, or an extensive use of not-quite-there artificial humans could backfire. When Pixar showed an early computer animated film called Tin Toy to audiences in 1988, for instance, the baby character, even though primitive by today's standards, was realistic enough to be creepy. For years afterwards, Pixar chose to concentrate instead on non-human characters, such as toys, robots and cars, in order to avoid the issue. As one psychologist has told news media, "we have to nail the human form or not even go there."