Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, July 28, 2005



By Gorkha

Everyone loves the rounded blob shaped characters of Pacman. Think about the early black and white versions of Prince of Persia. He had a innate charm in his two dimensional jagged shape. People loved the game and the characters. No one complained especially after it came out in colour. Then the Prince morphed into #D and people complained about how his eyes never blink and other minute details.
In 1978, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori noticed something interesting: The more humanlike his robots became, the more people were attracted to them, but only up to a point. If an android become too realistic and lifelike, suddenly people were repelled and disgusted.
The problem, Mori realized, is in the nature of how we identify with robots. When an android, such as R2-D2 or C-3PO, barely looks human, we cut it a lot of slack. It seems cute. We don't care that it's only 50 percent humanlike. But when a robot becomes 99 percent lifelikeso close that it's almost realwe focus on the missing 1 percent. We notice the slightly slack skin, the absence of a truly human glitter in the eyes. The once-cute robot now looks like an animated corpse. Our warm feelings, which had been rising the more vivid the robot became, abruptly plunge downward. Mori called this plunge "the Uncanny Valley," the paradoxical point at which a simulation of life becomes so good it's bad.
As video games have developed increasingly realistic graphics, they have begun to suffer more and more from this same conundrum. Games have unexpectedly fallen into the Uncanny Valley.
This shows up in a heck lot of the new generation games especially the role playing games and shooters with third person view. Consider Mafia which displayed an amazing depth of detail. I mean, how many games do you know of that go to the painstaking levels of realism to make sure the cars run out of gas and ejected bullet shells remain on the scene? But when you looked at the cutscenes it felt like staring at zombies dong some impromptu acting. Mouths and eyes do not move in sync. Same goes with Driver 3 where the game bombed but the cut scenes were truly beautiful….until you saw the people speak. Zombies again. Those supposedly "cinematic" narrative moments become a bit like watching Night of the Dead.
Every highly realistic game has the same problem. Resident Evil Outbreak's humans are realistic, but their facial expressions are so deadeningly weird they're almost scarier than the actual zombies you're fighting.
The Uncanny Valley can make games less engrossing. That's particularly true with narrative games, which rely on believable characters with whom you're supposed to identify. The whole point is to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself. But that's hard to do when the characters create goosebumps. You fight searing battles, solve brain-crushing puzzles, vanquish enemies, and what are you rewarded with? A chance to watch your avatar mince about the screen in some ghoulish parody of humanity.
The problem is that too many designers assume that crisper 3-D graphics will make a game better. That may be true when it comes to scenery, explosions, or fog. But with human faces and bodies, we're harder to fool. Neuroscientists argue that our brains have evolved specific mechanisms for face recognition, because being able to recognize something "wrong" in someone else's face has long been crucial to survival. Higher resolution just make the absence even more obvious.
Instead, maybe they should try climbing out, by going in the opposite direction and embracing low-rez simplicity. Roboticists have begun doing this. Like Mori, they've learned that a spare, stripped-down robot can seem more lifelike than an explicitly humanoid one. I have a friend who has a belligerent old car that simply won't start unless you coax it. If you're not gentle with the gearshifts it will jerk and whine. Otherwise the car works great. It loks nothing like a human but somehow t ends up having more endearing human qualities than a realistic robot could. If something behaves in only a slightly human way, we'll fill in the blankswe'll read humanness into it. That's partly why our pets seem so intelligent and humanlike.
Comic-strip artists have known this for years. As comic-book theorist Scott McCloud points out, we identify more deeply with simply drawn cartoon characters, like those in Peanuts, than with more realistic ones. Charlie Brown doesn't trigger our obsession with the missing details the way a not-quite-photorealistic character does, so we project ourselves onto him more easily.
Some of the best game designers are studying into this with games like Jet Grind Radios Viewtiful Joe. It uses the chunky style of cel-shaded animation to create characters who are cartoonish yet vividly alive. Lara Croft is another good example. Even as her games became more graphically precise, the designers left Croft as a very stylized figure, the better to have players identify with her. And the only game designer who has produced a 20-year string of popular characters is Shigeru Miyamoto, the architect of Nintendo's Disneylike visual style.
Unfortunately, though, gaming's Uncanny Valley could be here to stay, simply because players have become used to it. Creepiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Sports Star Exhibit

Kimi Raikkonen

By Quazi Zulquarnain Islam

Kimi Raikkonen cut his teeth in national and international kart racing from the age of ten before taking up car racing in 1999.
The young Finn competed in the British Renault Championship and took the title with relative easy winning seven out of ten races, while pledging his allegiance to Manor.
After this baptism by fire Peter Sauber finally took notice and Kimi made his Formula One debut for the Swiss based team in 2001, after only competing in 23 races none of which involved F3 or F3000. He was however granted license because the FIA considered him an exceptional talent.
His debut season produced some superb performances and he helped the team to their highest ever finish of fourth place in the constructors championships. His strong drives did not go unnoticed as he was picked by McLaren to replace double world Champion Mika Hakkinen who had opted to retire.
Kimi had big shoes to fill but he did so with aplomb with some outstanding performances throughout 2002 out qualifying his more experienced team-mate David Coulthard on several occasions. He also came agonisingly close to winning his first ever race but ran wide at the Adelaide hairpin due to oil on the circuit and handed the race to Michael Shumacer.
He showed his credentials in 2003 winning the Malaysian Grand Prix and running Michael Shumacer close till the very last race of the season.
2004 promised a great deal but was a season of mixed fortunes as McLaren's new car with the MP4-19 chassis proving a failure. He finished seventh overall with one victory.
2005 looks likely to be a great year for Kimi as he and a rejuvenated McLaren look to secure their respective titles.

As always you are welcome to comment on issues and/or request sports star profiles at (zulquarnain.islam@gmail.com)





home | Issues | The Daily Star Home

2005 The Daily Star