Friday, October 01, 2021

Things are Rozy in Korea's Uncanny Valley

Every so often, one of those "weird news" stories leaks out of Asia about a celebrity who's entirely virtual. Lately, there's been a dancing girl on TV and bus ads, as well as posters on the sides of city buses, called Rozy. Here's what she looks like.


Here's how she moves (youtube)

I've been intrigued by the idea of virtual humans, VR humans, brains in computers and computer generated people for as long as I can remember, so this caught my eye, and it's funny how little media coverage I've seen about it, given that for a few weeks there, she was playing in the ad rotation of every single bus's ad/announcement TV. A few months ago, one of my radio pals talked about this topic on air, and mentioned a name that sent me down a google rabbit hole.

(a lot of this info was from this blog post)

You see, here in Korea, there's a surprisingly long history of artificial celebrities: all the way back in the late 1990s, there was 아담 (Adam - fitting name for the first male cyber celebrity) nicknamed 사이버 가수 (사이버 = the phonetic spelling of cyber; 가수 means singer).

Source: Tumblr

The music of his I've heard was mostly bog standard ballad stuff, but hey: give it a listen.

It's weird to think of it now, but Adam really was a sensation in 1998. This Youtuber has made a very nice little history of animated, virtual popstars). Notice how stiff his movements are -- that's a sticking point especially for early lifelike or kind of lifelike animation -- but my buddy says she had his poster up in her room, and hey: look at that perfectly formed nose, right?

One thing that interests me about this "animated human" and "robots imitating humans" thing is something called the "Uncanny Valley" -- back in 1970, robotics professor Masahiro Mori predicted that as human-imitating creations got closer and closer to resembling humans, humans would respond to them in more positive, familiar or friendly ways... up to a certain point. Once a robot or simulation of a human got TOO similar, it would flip from being cute to weird and off-putting, to the point that the imitation was perfect, and we'd respond exactly as to a normal person.

If you think of some famous examples of robots and computer animated humans in pop culture, you'll see that the theory bears out.

A few examples:

The very, very non-human robots in Interstellar
...they were weird in a cool way and we couldn't look away. They were like an IQ puzzle that told jokes. We laughed at the sarcastic one.

Think also of the very non-human droids in Star-Wars, like R2D2 and BB8 that could never ever be mistaken for a human, and whom we adore.

Then think of the way the characters move in 2001's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which just bit off more than it could chew trying to create 100% cgi characters for an entire movie, it was a daring move, but it flopped, because the characters' movements were off-putting. They were so realistic...but not realistic enough. CGI at this period always looked to me like gravity didn't affect it properly, as if it floated above things. 

Think of the creepy animatronic talking robots whose lips move all wrong...

The most famous example of the uncanny valley is almost certainly The Polar Express, which is just two hours of cringe every Christmas. The characters are so alien. The way they move through space, the way their faces imitate normal facial expressions but miss. Their faces move but there clearly aren't muscles beneath the skin. It's just... ug.

Does your heart feel warm?

Once you get close enough to human, we start focusing on the ways the thing is different instead of similar, and it's really hard for non-humans to pass that test.

I think this is why Pixar very smartly dialed back the realism: instead of trying to be photo-real, they created human characters that looked like caricature drawings, or moving action figures (which was an ingeniously perfect fit, of course, for The Incredibles) -- these characters weren't human enough to make us go "weird" but definitely human enough to make us go "cute."

Exactly in the sweet spot.

It was a long time between 2001's Polar Express and the next attempt to pass off a fully animated, fully human-looking character. James Cameron made non-humans move as if they were affected by gravity in 2009's Avatar, but didn't do it with actual humans; Ex Machina (2014) [one of my favorite movies about AI] did some very clever stuff combining a human actor with robotic CGI (this "VFX Artists React to Bad & Great CGI" video shows three video effects artists discussing what they did well); the Marvel Cinematic Universe edged closer and closer to really lifelike with their remarkable de-aging technology seen first in Civil War (2016) [notice him moving to the foreground -- daring viewers to admire the effects work] and then used it to entirely recreate a young Princess Leia and Grand Moff Tarkin (originally played by the late actor Peter Cushing) in Star Wars: Rogue One later that year...

And even here, they got... 99% of the way there... but that last one percent made people go, "ug"

Making nonhumans look and move like humans is hard.

You know Disney's got bottomless pockets, and they're still trying -- de-aging Samuel Jackson for the entire Captain Marvel movie worked out, and when someone doesn't need to look human, they've got it down pat -- when Thanos lays Hulk out, it looks like it hurts.

Now to be honest... superhero action is probably one of the easier places to replace everything with CGI -- fast cuts, fast moving body parts, noise and chaos: you can hide a bit of bad animation in a blur if you need to.
But there is nowhere to hide in a Kpop music video: one of the hardest things to animate is dancing, because it has to have gravity, it needs to stay within the bounds of what normal humans can do, a human limb changing direction on the right beat of a song takes timing, and not only that, it has to look attractive! Meanwhile, characters get a lot of facial closeups, and in a two second closeup, they'd better show us three or four facial expressions. Making one facial expression is hard for CGI, but stringing several together as happens in every Kpop video close-up? Yikes.

So you've got to admire the attempt, even as you suppress the willies.

And willies are the word for this first attempt by animation studio Pulse 9. A made-up, digital-only kpop group called Eternity sings a song called "I'm Real." The lyrics are the "robot trying to trick us into believing its human" equivalent of me walking into my son's school saying "Hello fellow youths. Why don't you say hello to your hep-cat new youthful friend. Let's listen to a Drake on TikTok. DAB!" (oh gawd READ THE LYRICS)

Brace for cringes, and watch this:

So that was...

(side note: here's a write-up below their Youtube video:
AIA, a mysterious planet-- distant and parallel to the Earth. 
AIA is inhabited by aliens called AIAN, who resemble humans on Earth. 
In the center of AIA lies the Red Crystal Flower, which protects AIA’s glorious civilization and happiness with its vibrant energy.
Thanks to the flower, AIANs were able to preserve their youths and lives for eternity.
However, the flower started to wilt. Not even the greatest intelligence and technology was enough to confront this crisis.
After years of struggle, the AIANs came across Earth and found out that the key to restoring life and energy was ‘love’.
In order to save their beloved civilization, AIA elected 22 agents who would learn the language of love from the humans.
[I’m Real]
During their debut, Yeorum, Sujin, Hyejin, Seoa and Minji carry out their first mission: to signal AIAN’s appearance to the human civilization in hopes of communicating with them.

I don't know that every AI character needs a back story, you know? And especially not, uh, this, which should have stayed in the animator's personal notebook.

But after that video and its reception... check out their follow-up offering.

That... given the starting point... that went from a faceplant to very nearly a flex. 

Now, there is Rozy, the AI instagram model from the opening video. (here's her instagram) She looks fake in... maybe 3 out of every five pictures on her instagram... and I'm sure that ratio will improve. An interesting thing they're doing now is giving these virtual models and 'grammers little blemishes so they don't seem too perfect (like Adam above) -- Rozy closes her eyes in this adorkable way when she smiles sometimes, and she has freckles. 

But she can also dance like this.

AI modeling and deep learning are getting closer and closer to human -- last year, a Korean company revived the voice of beloved singer Kim Kwang Seok by training an AI to imitate his pronounciation and intonation, and getting the AI to perform a hit song that was composed years after Kim Kwang Seok had died. It really sounds like him.

Next on the bucket list, I'm sure, is show all Meryl Streep's films to an AI (or maybe they'll aim lower and start with Steven Seagal)

and see if they can't get a credible acting performance with CGI only.

I don't know how much of the music video above was purely AI generated, and how much of it was based on models, but... I mean, imagine being able to do another Die Hard with 1988 Bruce Willis as the lead. Imagine never again having to hunt for the actor to play the next Batman, or James Bond, or telling more Luke Skywalker/Han Solo/Princess Leia stories, or bringing back the impossible-to-re-cast Indiana Jones? The money is definitely on the table for whomever gets this tech right.

There are a few big advantages virtual stars have over real celebrities, too. They'll never get in a celebrity beef, grope a secretary, trash a hotel room, get caught using slurs on camera a week before the film opens, or deny the holocaust at a press event. They don't need to sleep, they don't have labor rights, won't refuse a request because of exhaustion, pride or dignity, don't have (accidental) wardrobe malfunctions, don't care about royalty payments, and they don't need travel time between engagements. 

Sounds like the perfect employee, except that... I have a friend on twitter who feeds his kids with voice acting. I'd really hate for the TV, radio and video game companies he works with to go "Eh. We can do it cheaper and 98% as good with an AI now." It'd really suck if culture and entertainment turned into just another place where the powerful get more powerful, and everyone else loses even the little leverage they once had. (and the other ethical concerns: using AI generated images of actual people in pornography, which goes in a LOT of creepy directions, or using AI generated images of deceased people without their consent, which goes in a lot of ghoulish directions -- ever wanted a Roman Holiday sequel starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn? Ick ick ick...but those two issues deserve entire blog posts of their own)

I don't know if AI will ever be smart enough to win an acting award -- in the same way that substitute meat works in sausage but would be hard-pressed replicate the varying textures of a t-bone steak, perhaps AI generated characters will never be more than a gimmick, but I can't imagine entertainers are happy to have competition that doesn't need pay or breaks breathing down their neck. I know that animated characters can have charm... though that might just be the voice actors, and I know that underestimating what computers can do has not worked out well for doubters in the past.

And if we're talking about AIs imitating humans, we've got to also consider deep fakes, and what that's going to do to the media: sure, an AI character from scratch is hard to do, but creating a spitting image from scans of a human model? This technology is already here, and it's kind of scary how good it is, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the South Park guys) show us with this web series:

Readers: what do you think? Are we out of the uncanny valley yet? Is there an all CGI character in a movie that looks like a human (no green skin or whatever) and has solved the problems they've had so far? Will computer generated performances ever replace actors, voiceovers, singers, or dancers, or will they always be a gimmick? If they carve out a corner of the industry, what comes next?

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