Whether robots, animatronics or purely onscreen avatars, how your creation looks and moves will make or break an emotional connection with your audience. Will they regard it as believable and “alive,” or a dull and obvious assemblage of mechanisms and software?
As technology-minded people, we have a strong inclination to break problems down into purely technical solutions…quantifiable things like servo torque or RAM usage…but life, and the simulation thereof, is as much (perhaps more so) dependent on informed aesthetic judgments. It’s a matter of applying both science and art. Either medium can produce impressive and interesting things; it’s when they’re working together that the effect becomes sublime.
Programmers sometimes use the term “wetware” (with varying degrees of seriousness) to describe those parts of a system that are neither hardware nor software, but rely on the human brain. Good design can wring the most from all three.
In my experience having worked many positions over the years, I’m impressed how a diverse range of very technical fields (for example, user interface design) all benefit from tapping into our psychology and emotions, much as art and theatre do. What’s more, I marvel at just how closely the human mind sits continually on the brink of suspension of disbelief. The slightest bump will pull people into fantasy. It’s something I call the “lion dancer effect”…
Lion dance during Chinese New Year 2015 by Myrabella (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps you’ve seen lion dancers perform, especially around Chinese New Year. The costumes do little to conceal the human performers inside…in fact, they’ll often lift the lion’s head high above their own, placing themselves in plain sight. And yet…a moment later, with the head pulled back down, almost instantly you perceive the lion again as its own living character. They haven’t just mastered a dance, they’ve mastered invisibility. Your mind is eagerly tricked by a convincing performance. This isn’t just about dance…it’s true of every field of endeavor.
You can learn that craft, and you can instill it in your creations.
Alongside studying circuits and code, consider rounding out your knowledge with dips into biology, psychology, art, film, theatre and stage magic. Not only will your creations better connect with people, but you can watch Pixar films and the Muppets and call it “research.”