Virtual reality (VR) platforms allow users to inhabit digital avatars that represent themselves in immersive virtual environments. As VR technology improves, these player-controlled avatars are becoming increasingly realistic with detailed facial expressions, motions, and resemblance to real people.
But is there a point where VR avatars get too realistic and actually hurt the user experience? This phenomenon is known as the “uncanny valley” in robotics - when something appears almost human but slightly off, causing feelings of unease or revulsion.
Research has shown evidence for the uncanny valley in VR avatars. Studies have found that near-photorealistic VR avatars were rated as more eerie and elicited higher heart rates in users compared to avatars with more stylised designs.
The researchers concluded that subtle imperfections in rendering realism can make avatars feel uncomfortably artificial.
Simplified facial cues and proportions are more appealing than avatar faces replicated from real human scans. This aligns with the theory that our brains prefer virtual characters to appear alive but gently diverge from total humanness.
Striking the right balance of realism in VR avatars involves understanding both hardware limitations and uncanny valley effects on user psychology. Current generation VR lacks the fidelity for completely convincing digital humans.
But developers should also avoid the extremes of highly abstracted or photo real avatar designs. Moderate stylization with some human imperfections makes avatars relatable but comfortably distinct from reality.
As VR advances, avatars will cross deeper into uncanny valley territory. This carries risks of revulsion that negatively impact the sense of immersion and enjoyment. While realism seems logically appealing, research indicates our brains do not actually want avatars to be too real.
The sweet spot lies in applying realistic textures and animations to creatively imagined characters that channel human appeal without mimicking it exactly.
Rather than solely chasing human verisimilitude, VR UX designers should thoughtfully craft avatars as appealing digital companions.
Not too perfect, but just right!