MAKING computer generated characters lifelike and believable is the holy grail of computer game design.

Now research by a University of Bolton lecturer could help game developers come closer to achieving it.

Senior lecturer Dr Angela Tinwell has completed a PhD on the negative reaction people can have to ultra-realistic human-like characters in videogames, animation and computer generated films.

Her work has proved so successful that it is being looked at by videogame developers and filmmakers.

Dr Tinwell’s thesis explores a phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley” effect, which questions why computer-generated images of people that look almost but not exactly like humans can cause feelings of repulsion or disgust.

Dr Tinwell wanted to discover how people respond physically and psychologically to animated characters at different levels of realism.

Her findings have shown that even the slightest anomaly in a very realistic character can send players and viewers plunging into the uncanny valley.

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Dr Tinwell said: “Generally, we respond positively to characters with nonhuman-like appearance but human-like traits, such as Shrek or Super Mario who we regard as cute or comical.

“But when a character becomes too realistic with just a few slight imperfections or something that we don’t quite recognise, our perceptions change very quickly.

“Rather than being able empathise more with the character, the opposite happens, and we can experience a negative response to it. That is the uncanny valley phenomenon.”

The term, which has its roots in robotics, dictates that the more human-like a robot becomes, the more people are attracted to them — but only to a point.

According to Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, when robots appear too lifelike, people begin to see them as creepy.

Much of it is due to the eyes appearing “cold”, but facial movement and lip-syncing is also important, says Dr Tinwell.

If a character smiles, but there are no wrinkles around the eyes, then viewers may perceive a false smile or that the character is lying.

Dr Tinwell’s research will form the basis of a BBC2 documentary about human facial expressions, called Prehistoric Autopsy, which is due to be broadcast later this year.