Avoiding the uncanny valley in digital signage

March 17, 2017 | by Bradley Cooper

One of the most recognizable robots in popular culture is R2-D2. The cheerful blue and white robot is well known for his personality communicated through nothing but beeps and bloops. Now imagine if you covered R2-D2 with synthetic skin.

It's a creepy thought, isn't it? It's an example of the "uncanny valley." The uncanny valley is a well known problem in robotics. It is the moment when something not human closely resembles a real person, but just isn’t quite there yet, which makes its unhuman elements stick out. Displays can also run into this problem as companies integrate holographic technology or personal human “greeters.” This isn’t limited to robots, but can also befall human actors featured in displays.

I recently saw a gift card buyback kiosk that illustrated how even human actors can fall prey to the uncanny valley. The display is designed to loop video of several people standing or sitting in various backgrounds. They stare directly at you, some with a tiny grin on their face, others just blank faced. If a stranger looked at you that way in public, you would probably walk away. It’s unnatural, although it does certainly grab your attention!

There is an easy way to fix this, however. The display could have simply shown people getting gift cards for Christmas to places they don’t enjoy. You could show, for example, a teenager getting a gift card at the grocery. Then show them turning in their gift cards for cash they can use on things they enjoy. Draw people in with the feeling of a good deal, not with a creepy stare.

Another example of the uncanny valley was a display that featured a holographic lady at Delamo Mall in Los Angeles. The woman greets visitors and attempts to sell the user jewelry. Several visitors have posted videos of this display, referring to it as “creepy.”

There are two key solutions to this issue of the uncanny valley. Extra Credits did an excellent video on the topic. Although it relates more to video games, it has great applications for digital signage.

First, you can improve the quality of your hologram so that it is almost indistinguishable from reality. The theory of the uncanny valley is that once the realism reaches a certain point, the disgust goes away. While we are close to this reality, we are not quite at this degree of photorealism yet. In addition, this kind of technology is likely out of reach of your average installation.

Another option is to make your figures in the display a bit quirky. You could, for example, use cartoon characters or robots with human-like elements. Nonhuman figures with a few human-like characteristics are, in the words of Extra Credits, attractive.

Cool technology is a good way to attract visitor interaction. Creepy technology, on the other hand, drives away visitors.

Image via Istock.com


Topics: 3D Digital Signage, 4K Ultra HD, Customer Experience, Display Technology


Bradley Cooper / Bradley Cooper is a Technology Editor for DigitalSignageToday.com. His background is in information technology, advertising, and writing.
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