As a technology, virtual reality is going through its awkward teenage phase.
Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg thinks it’s how we’ll hang out in future. But for now, people who actually try virtual reality headsets say it can make them feel nauseous. The headsets are also heavy and uncomfortable.
It seems like we’re a way off people feeling like strapping a box onto their heads and diving into virtual worlds is a normal activity.
However, Facebook is trying to change that, and earlier this year released an app called Spaces to encourage people to use its social network in virtual reality. (You can read Business Insider’s full walkthrough of Facebook Spaces here.)
While Facebook made aspects of Spaces look realistic, it made a deliberate decision to make people’s avatars look cartoonish.
As an example, here’s how my Facebook Spaces avatar compares to me in real life:
Facebook’s head of social VR, Rachel Franklin, told Business Insider that the decision was down to a phenomenon called the “uncanny valley”.
This is where a robot or avatar looks very like a real human, but not quite. And the effect is so unsettling that it makes you feel ill, or even scared.
“If we go too realistic at this stage, there’s the risk of uncanny valley,” she said. “When it’s almost realistic and just off enough that, instead of paying attention to you and having an experience where I’m talking to you, I’m thinking how [your avatar] doesn’t look like you, and how it’s not quite your mouth.”
The uncanny valley is just a theory at this point. It was first conceived by a robotics professor to explain why humans only tend to like lifelike robots up until the point that they become too lifelike.
But tech firms take worries about the uncanny valley seriously. It’s why most robots designed for interaction with people look friendly, plasticky, and harmless.
While Facebook is in the phase of getting people on board with virtual reality, already a weird new tech, it makes sense to try and avoid any negative emotions.
Franklin said: “When you’re a cartoon, you’ve got aspects that at a glance mean I can tell it’s you. That [uncanny valley] stuff goes away and we can focus on communication.”
At this point, people still need to feel like virtual reality is “welcoming” and “delightful and charming”, she added.
“The idea is that it makes you giggle a little bit. You can kind of recognise yourself.”