By Rob Walker
Since being posted a few days ago, an Activision “real-time character demo” video has racked up close to 1 million views, and it’s not hard to see why: The animated figure it shows is extremely realistic, and the idea that games could be populated with characters who are this close to human in appearance is a bit mind-blowing. Admittedly, the guy is not completely convincing (His mouth and teeth are a problem, if you zero in on them.) But if Activision hasn’t bridged the so-called uncanny valley—that theoretical zone in our perception where a rendered or robotic being is almost convincing in a way that creeps us out—then it seems to be getting awfully close. Maybe this is the first example I’ve seen of the unnerving valley.
Or maybe not. While other observers turned to the animation blurs lines between reality and technology—meshing images of a real human with computer animation with what seems to be more realism than previous efforts along these lines —I found myself distracted by a curious detail of the demo: the dialog.
Yes, the guy looked quite realistic. But why is he complaining about a yogurt parfait?
Ominous background music strikes the suspenseful tone of menace you’d expect from a maker of action games as we fade in on a bald white guy, maybe age 40. He blinks once and then speaks, sounding a little whiny: “I ordered a yogurt parfait and the whole parfait was fruit. Frozen fruit. There is no yogurt. It’s supposed to be half fruit, and half yogurt. The whole thing was frozen fruit.” The angle changes, the music continues melodramatically and Baldy repeats his curious harangue. Then he falls silent and runs through a random series of facial expressions. Is he still thinking about his parfait? (For a moment I hoped that somehow this is a limitation of the technology—it’s possible to make incredibly realistic game characters, but they can only talk about yogurt. Think how it would change the future of gaming!)
Happily, I’m not the only one who zeroed in on the yogurt factor. Monday morning I found this parody video, in which clips of Activision "Face-Man" are intercut with live actors in a silly yogurt-shop setting. He becomes a petulant costumer with a disconcerting penchant for shifting facial expressions (which are part of the original video); the suspenseful music becomes the score for a really weird customer-service confrontation.
So far, this parody video has a mere 2,100 or so views, and that’s a shame—it’s hilarious. I can’t imagine how any of the 1 million viewers of the original demo wouldn’t laugh out loud as I did. Activision "Face-Man" really needs to become a meme, showing up everywhere to announce his customer dissatisfaction, in the manner of those all-purpose “Hitler Reacts” videos.
Goofiness aside, the parody video actually made me feel better: When you intercut "Face-Man" with actual humans, he’s much less convincing. It appears we still have a way to go before these animated figures can fool us completely: We haven’t reached the unnerving valley just yet.
By Rob Walker