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Digital Fur and Uncanny Valley: What the failure of Cats can teach us about designing engaging digital learning

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Cynthia Halatyn

While the internet is fawning all over Baby Yoda memes from The Mandalorian, Tom Hooper’s Cats united audiences over the holidays in a different way. Since the release of the first trailer in the summer of 2019, viewers and critics have reacted with near-universal revulsion to the fur-covered figures of Taylor Swift and Judi Dench singing and dancing in the moonlight.  

I was chatting with one of our animators last week, a fellow lover of musicals, who told me that she walked out of the film twenty minutes in. “I can't handle watching horrible, rough and ready animations!” Even as the world’s biggest Taylor Swift fan, I must admit the reviews have put me off going to see it.  

But why was the collective reaction to Cats so visceral? The musical has had a successful 38-year run on Broadway featuring a domestic pet many of us know, love, and keep in our own homes. Meanwhile Baby Yoda is a completely fabricated alien species that doesn’t exist in nature. So why do we adore one and reject the other? The answer is found in the Uncanny Valley. 

What is Uncanny Valley? 

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Uncanny Valley is the cognitive theory that humans will react with increasing levels of acceptance to a non-human representation, such as a robot or animated character that displays some human-like facial features and characteristics, only up until a point. Beyond that point, the rate of audience acceptance drops sharply into what is known as the Uncanny Valley. Audiences then swiftly reject the human-like imagery as being creepy and off-putting.  For example, the animators of the Sonic the Hedgehog film redesigned the hedgehog when audiences found the main character's human-like teeth to be disturbing. 

Scientists and cognitive psychologists have debated and researched the issue for decades and still don’t have a definitive answer as to why we react this way. Here's a nice article from Scientific American if you want to read more. 

What does Uncanny Valley mean for digital learning? 

Anytime characters are used in e-learning, artistic choices must be made along the way about whether those characters should be realistic or not.

Done right, characters contribute to realistic scenarios for learners and can evoke an emotional response (think all those adorable Baby Yoda memes), resulting in increased retention and enhanced performance when the learning is applied outside the training and in the workplace. Done poorly, characters can actually reduce learner engagement with the material and detract from the desired learning outcomes.  

According to Junction-18 Creative Director, Mark Doyle, "every now and then we have a client who wants realistic characters and environments, but we don't recommend it. Just like other consumers, L&D professionals are constantly exposed to bigger and better technologies, such as motion capture in films and video games, so it's understandable that they might expect to see more realism in digital learning, but most organisations just don't have the budget for it." 

If an organisation does choose realistic characters, Doyle says it’s important to ensure you and any external vendor build in time and budget into the production process to test how your audience may perceive the characters, so that you have the resources to make any necessary adjustments while still completing the project on time. 

In a recent client project, Junction-18 created a character and story-line to train customer service representatives on how to better empathise with customers in difficult situations. The first time we showed the demo, users commented that they immediately felt sadness for one animated character, an older man, shuffling through his kitchen, who had just lost his wife. Months after the training, the client noted increased satisfaction ratings from its customers.  

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If you're coming to Learning Technologies next week in London, come see us in person at Stand F-05 where we'll be showing off this and some of our other projects. 

If you can't make it to Learning Technologies, but want to see more, drop me a message!