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Embracing uncanny valley, 3D technology and the future of avatars

3D designer Hermione Flynn talks about her avatar Em and the uncanny valley – that eerie feeling when androids come to resemble humans so closely that they are almost – but not quite convincing

Hermione Flynn is a trained performance artist, CEO of 3D character studio, Mimic Productions and the founder and art director of 3D creative agency, Synthetic Studio. She is also a contributor to the inaugural issue of Dazed Beauty, Issue Zero, for which she wrote an article and sent artworks that meditate on the idea of skin as an interface. Few are better positioned to discuss this than Hermione; her creativity has led her to win several awards across fashion, film and performance, and work with Nike, Kanye West and Marina Abramovic.

Below, we called her up for a chat about her avatar, Em, and a new ongoing and ever-evolving digital performance project, as well as picking her brains about 3D avatars and the concept of uncanny valley, the term we use for that eerie feeling when androids come to resemble humans so closely that they are almost – but not quite convincing. The awkward between the real and surreal. 

Can you please introduce yourself, tell us a bit about your fine art background?
Hermione Flynn: In 2007, I graduated with an Honours Degree in Performance Design, where I pursued conceptual clothing design and performance installation as my primary artistic mediums. After graduating, I launched a conceptual namesake fashion brand, which centred around artistic concepts, social commentary and performance art presentations. In 2011, I moved to Berlin with my husband, David Bennett, who is a pioneer in the 3D industry, having worked on major blockbuster films Avatar, Tin Tin and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And in 2012, we launched Mimic Productions – a company dedicated to creating digital 3D humans which are indistinguishable from real-life.

When and why did your passion for 3D technology begin?
Hermione Flynn: As the CEO of Mimic, I quickly began to witness how certain entertainment genres dominated the 3D medium, specifically sports, fantasy, action and pornography. I was also exposed to unedited 3D production, including the technical "errors" which were natural by-products of the technical pipeline. I found these errors beautiful, and found the limited use of 3D content frustrating. From this state, I essentially developed a hunger to create 3D works which authentically embraced the digital aesthetic, as well as expanded upon the conceptual potential of the medium. In the context of performance art, it felt that there was an unavoidable and inextricable link between the two platforms. As live performance art often exposes biological human limitation, the simulated human experience also exposes a certain"natural" limitation, as well as a profound social potential.

Please can you talk about your new series of short films based on Yoko Ono quotes, the first of which we are previewing?
Hermione Flynn: We recently had a major technological breakthrough which enabled us to animate my avatar Em's face in real-time: what this means is that I can speak directly into my phone and Em will immediately simulate my spoken word. This is particularly special because although this is currently achievable with cartoon-style characters, Em is one of the few life-like human avatars which can speak with such ease. Of course, this posed the question:

What would a newborn digital avatar have to say?

Yoko Ono's beautiful book, Grapefruit - A Book of Instructions and Drawings contains a series of Event Scores or instructions which are open to fellow artists for realization or reinterpretation. We felt that Ono's poetic instructions translated perfectly to the surreal aesthetics portrayed in Em. Many of the scores address peaceful themes of compassion for other people and the environment, as well as self-love. These are values that I felt that Em should embrace as one of the world's first interactive digital humans. Our intention is to continue to recite Ono's scores as an ongoing exploration of digital human simulation and the spoken word.

What can you tell us about uncanny valley theory and how this relates to your work at Synthetic?
Hermione Flynn: Synthetic.Studio is our creative branch which we have launched as a sister-studio to Mimic Productions. The purpose of Synthetic is to utilise the technology developed at Mimic, but not necessarily in the pursuit of life-like realism. In much the same way that I am pursuing conceptual art with Em, we wanted to open up the opportunity for fellow visual artists to do the same.

This relates to the uncanny valley theory because this theory is described as a feeling of "eeriness or revulsion" one may feel in response to a human visual that is close to, but not quite, achieving realism. Naturally, during the production of simulated 3D realism, we often produce content which is either highly surreal or falls into the region of the uncanny valley. Artistically, I would like to open up a platform where this content can be savoured and embraced, and this is the defining purpose of Synthetic.Studio

Can you talk more about your avatar, Em? What did you take into consideration when developing her? What does she represent?
Hermione Flynn: Em is an exact digital replica of my physical appearance and she exists as two different entities… On the one hand, she exemplifies Mimic's mission statement - to create digital humans which are indistinguishable from real life. In this case, she acts as the premium depiction of our developing technology and will continuously exist at the forefront of photo-real digital human-simulation.

On the other hand, she acts as my very own performance-art avatar, where we are collectively exploring a new type of human representation. In this case, we are pursuing Em's "natural" qualities. This means that we do not "correct" her when her hand glides directly through her arm, or calm the "tremors" witnessed in her animated face. Essentially, we are embracing the aesthetic by-products of her digital existence. Furthermore, her "liveliness" is brought about by human interaction through the use of motion capture. In this instance she becomes a unique visual hybrid of an organic and digital human.

It is these qualities, which I have personally and creatively found entirely liberating. Although Em is a visual representation of my physical form, she has the capacity to do so much more. Dance ballet, speak Japanese, pass through walls, defy gravity. She will exist in her optimised form when I am 95 years old. As I disintegrate, she will flourish.

Why does she not have hair?
Hermione Flynn: As she will be in a constant state of evolution, we wanted to have a visual association with her "birth." In the beginning, she is bald. However, we anticipate there will be many hairstyles to come!

How do you see it advancing in the long term? What effect do you think the continuous advancement and application of this kind of technology will have in the futre?
Hermione Flynn: I believe the existence of personal avatars will become a commonplace reality. From this, inevitable cultures and subcultures will emerge based on digital aesthetics which we can't yet imagine. We are certainly in a time where many feel stifled by their physical and social limitations, so perhaps a step into a new social dimension is exactly what we need? Could our digital existence function as a means to escape the deep-rooted prejudices of the physical world?

I certainly do not have these answers, but at times I do wonder. If our day-to-day lives are to become increasingly entrenched in the digital realm, could our physical interactions become events of novelty and, hopefully, delight?

Video credits:

Text: Yoko Ono
3D Performance Artist: Hermione Flynn
Production: Mimic Productions and Synthetic.Studio
Creative Assistance: Enes Guc