The Uncanny Valley of Authenticity

One of our internal teams was recently iterating on a late stage conceptual design for a museum project that focused on historical changes during a specific time period and ultimately ended up with an interesting group collaborative experience. (Group experiences can be tricky — it’s hard to find that balance between personal exploration vs. group alignment for an activity without being disruptive or too deliberate — but that’s a post for another time.) The team had worked out a good blend of interactivity and had struck on the notion of creating a series of period appropriate newspapers and printed material to convey a series of complex stories. We followed with a round of quick visual exploration to play out some design issues and get a better feel for the interaction. While the newspapers and magazines weren’t real, the stories were and we had an opportunity to exploit the visual richness of the era, fully embracing the graphic style and type of the time.

In 3D rendering there’s the concept of the “uncanny valley“, the idea that as 3D objects get increasingly similar to real people, they get very, very creepy. If you watch a Pixar movie you’ll see that the people are deliberately cartoonish and avoid looking real. They’re fun, expressive, and the movie works. On the other hand, if you watch The Polar Express, it tries, but doesn’t feel genuine. Body movements aren’t quite real, facial expressions aren’t as rich as they should be, and so on. It’s a bunch of little details, but they ultimately detract from the experience. In 3D, you either get it absolutely perfect (and we welcome our new robot overlords), or you drop down into the uncanny valley and eventually need to get back up the slope.

Circling back to our project, there was the problem. Our initial mockups were too good. They were entirely believable period pieces and some of the staff thought they were real in an internal review.

We believe strongly in authenticity and recognize that it’s one of the things that sets museums apart, making them special. They have real “stuff.” We went too far with our approach and were successful — easily crossing the uncanny valley — only to discover that we didn’t like where we ended up. We don’t want to ever create something that isn’t authentic that could be mistaken as real and inadvertently fools visitors. As a result, we made the deliberate decision to pull back from our approach and, in so doing, refined the experience, ultimately making it stronger and better than before.

In thinking back through the experience, we thought we were in a good spot because we were creating something for a non-collecting organization. But, at the end of the day, we always need to be mindful of authenticity because it’s the basis of a trusting relationship between museums and their visitors. As such, I now think there’s a pretty good Uncanny Valley of Authenticity that’s emerged for me. Everything right up to the valley is fair game, and you can pretty close as long as you make it clear that things aren’t real. Once you head down into the valley, however, and especially if you go beyond, is territory that you ultimately want to avoid. It’s a good lesson for the future as our tools become increasingly powerful.

Bruce Wyman, Director of Creative Development

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Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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