K-2SO and the uncanny valley

I recently saw Rogue One, the latest film in the Star Wars saga. The droid K-2SO was intended to be a warm character who added a touch of humor, but I found him creepy. Something about him bothered me to the point of discomfort in looking at him: he’s a humanoid droid, but his proportions are atypical to the human body.

His arms hang too low. His pelvis is too wide. His shins are too long.

He looks human. But not quite. And it made me uncomfortable.

There is a theory behind the discomfort that I experienced. It is called the “uncanny valley.” The theory suggests that if robots look almost human, but not quite, we find them creepy. The theory was developed in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori, a Japanese scientist studying robotics. One would think that if a robot looked more like a human, we would be inclined to like it or trust it more. But that’s not how the human brain works. We actually prefer robots who have some human-like tendencies but don’t actually look human: R2-D2 and BB-8.

The “uncanny valley” theory suggests that we like robots to resemble humans, but only up to a certain point. If they look too close to humans—but not quite right—we find them creepy. And that’s exactly how I felt about K-2SO.

This theory also extends to dolls or animated characters. And that’s what was wrong with the digitally-animated version of The Polar Express. The characters looked almost human, but not quite. Movie makers can also use the theory to great effect in horror films. It’s part of the reason that Chucky was so disturbing.

The human brain detects details, especially things that aren’t quite right. My discomfort with K-2SO related to his almost human proportions.

Proportion is one of the fundamental principles of design. As I discuss in a previous post, when developing a layout, proportion helps organize your content and guide your audience through your content. Proportion can also help to establish a focal point—the item that takes up the largest proportion of the page is often (but not always) the dominant focal point.

Proportion helps to determine what our brain considers normal—and ultimately pleasing or not pleasing. As an example, consider a 4×6 photo, which is a standard photo size. Those new to design software often make the mistake of distorting images unproportionally. Your brain notices that the image is “squished” with the effect of the image looking “displeasing.”

Proportion goes beyond the printed page. Human proportion is the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, Vitruvian Man. He spent years studying the proportions of the human body. As an artist, da Vinci understood that the brain is especially sensitive to distortions in proportion to the human form.

Returning to K-2SO, the droid was purposely designed to look the way he did. In other words, his design wasn’t a mistake. In the film’s storyline, he was a droid who was re-programmed from the Dark Side. He wasn’t supposed to look nice or cute. He was supposed to look menacing, and his atypical human proportions helped to achieve that effect. But to win the favor of the audience, his personality had to overcome his legacy. But for me, the “uncanny valley” effect was too strong. I have to wonder if I would have felt a different way had his proportions been a bit more human-like.

vitruvianmank-2sooverlay

Application of K-2SO to the Vitruvian Man for proportion comparisons.

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