Uncanny Valley's Hunger for Human Eyeballs


Madame Tutli-Putli sees with human eyes. NFB

The uncanny valley hypothesis states that the closer an artificial human likeness comes to the real thing, the creepier it looks. Numerous factors play into the creep factor, but the eyes are important. They're the windows to the soul, no? And so the dead-eyed denizens of our video games and CG movies tend to seem soulless monstrosities.

And that's what makes Activision's next-generation rendering demo from the 2013 Game Developers Conference so interesting. Sure, the parfait rambling is a bit wacky and the teeth are super fake, but the eyes have it. They sparkle and twitch with an astonishing amount of life -- even if he never really looks directly at us.

It reminds me of the fantastic stop-motion short "Madame Tutli-Putli," produced by the National Film Board of Canada. Note how astonishingly lifelike the puppet's eyes are:

The trick here? Real human eyes -- and not in the depraved, evil Puppet Master way either. I mean they videotaped the eyes of human actors and then blended the footage with that of the puppets. This wonderful article from Creative Planet Network takes you through the entire process.

Of course as Julie and I have pointed out before in the podcast, not everyone buys the uncanny valley theory. We're capable of adapting to the eyes of the blind and individuals with varying facial or ocular distortions. We don't look at them as soulless automatons. So maybe none of this really matters in the long run.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.