Quiz: Is This a Video of a Human?

Welcome to the Uncanny Valley -- population: this guy.
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Any sufficiently advanced technology, Arthur C. Clarke argued, is indistinguishable from magic.

There could be a corollary to Clarke's law, though, when it comes to one particular kind of technology: animation. Because when that technology becomes sufficiently advanced, apparently, it becomes indistinguishable from THE DEMONS THAT HAUNT YOUR NIGHTMARES.

My evidence is the video above -- a proof-of-concept animation from the gaming company Activision. The firm, publisher of titles like Call of Duty, introduced its "next-generation character rendering" at the Game Developers Conference yesterday. And the rendering is, indeed, as next-gen as it is totally horrifying. The real-time animation tech Activision is developing here builds on high-resolution images of human faces (acquired, in this case, from USC's Institute for Creative Technologies and its appropriately freaky/awesome Light Stage Facial Scanning and Performance Capture). Activision's R&D team has converted data provided by the actual human faces into a "70 bones rig" -- a digital "skeleton," essentially, that mimics a human one in terms of its complexity. And that intricate framework has allowed the team to preserve the subtle visual details of the human face -- most remarkably, the fellow's eyes -- in composite maps. It makes for animation that seems remarkably ... animated, as in possessing anima

The creature you see before you, in other words, represents a kind of convergence among video forms, an A/V Turing test. Is he human? Yeah. But also not at all. The line between "actual guy, caught on video" and "fake guy, rendered on video" is, Activision's work suggests, growing thinner -- to the point where you could imagine it being hard to tell whether the winking, blinking person you see on your screen is recorded or animated. (And to the point where you could imagine the distinction not much mattering in the first place.) 

Welcome to the Uncanny Valley -- population: us.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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