How did you feel watching the trailer for Cats? If it was anything other than “uncomfortable”, “creeped-out”, or “disturbed”, I’m afraid you’re part of a small minority. The “uncanny valley” effect can explain why this unsettling humanoid production went down like the most-heavily-leaded of lead balloons, as when we see animations that are almost human but just missing the mark, it can make us feel disturbed and uneasy.
The same response has been found in monkeys when shown a naff animation of a primate's head, but new research published in the journal eNeuro has found that this unease can be settled by showing a sufficiently realistic avatar instead.
Rhesus monkeys have already been shown to be proficient in recognizing their mirror image. To test the theory, Siebert and colleagues decided to study how a group of Rhesus monkeys responded when shown five different monkey avatar heads (some people really do have unusual careers). The faces included video footage from living monkeys, naturalistic avatars that included fur and facial details, a fur-less avatar, one in grayscale, and one that was simply a wireframe face.
The Rhesus monkeys had no issue looking at the wireframes face, which was too far removed from their own image to elicit the uncanny valley event, but looked away when faced with the furless and grayscale avatars. The monkeys could see that these renditions of the avatar closely resembled themselves but with alterations that made them visibly uneasy, according to the study researchers.
However, when the final animated avatar with fur features was displayed, they overcame the uncanny valley effect, showing that well-executed depictions (i.e., anything that doesn’t try to splice Dame Judi Dench with a cat) aren’t so creepy. As the monkeys looked at their realistic animations, they responded to it making the same social facial expressions as they would to a real monkey. The improved naturalistic monkey head avatar was capable of producing facial expressions such as fear grin and lip smack that was animated by motion capture data of real monkeys, similar to the techniques used in Avatar where we see Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington transformed into the giant, blue Na'vi people.
The scientists hope that using this type of avatar will make social cognition studies better by providing a standardized, controllable, and replicable methodology for assessing the animals’ social responses to different stimuli, without the presence of the animation skewing the results.