UPDATE: As the comment by vruz correctly points out, I am wrong in my use of the term uncanny valley, exactly because the creatures depicted in Avatar are not human. Still believe that we are seeing the beginning of something new and important!
On Sunday, I finally got around to seeing Avatar in 3D (not yet IMAX, which was sold out). I was excited to find that it is in fact the 3D and computer animation breakthrough that we have all been waiting for (OK, at least that I have been waiting for). After about the first 20 minutes or so, I completely forgot about the “sunglasses” on my nose and the immense depth of view felt utterly immersive. The net result — again speaking strictly about my own experience — was a sense of reality, despite the fact that the movie mostly depicts a completely foreign world inhabited by 10 foot aliens who are blue to boot!
Folks have complained about the fairly wimpy story line, but I feel that misses the boat. It is a bit like complaining about the bad layout and graphic design of early web sites in say 1995 and forgetting to marvel at what the web will bring. What Cameron has accomplished is crossing the uncanny valley both with respect to computer animation and the use of 3D. We have had plenty of successful computer animated movies to date. And we have had plenty of use of 3D in the last couple of years. But we have also had the awful experience of movies such as Polar Express, which clearly illustrate how deep the uncanny valley is. With Avatar, we instead have a first clear indication that it is possible to get to the other side — to deliver an experience that feels real.
I believe that this is an important breakthrough that will have repercussions beyond cinema. In another few years we will be able to have the same type of experience in a realtime computer setting (in a funny co-incidence on of the leading companies in that area is called Avatar Reality). To date, implementations of shopping in a virtual mall online have fallen dramatically short of being there and a flat (2D) functional UI, such as Amazon, has been by far more attractive. In some ways that is just another instance of the uncanny valley. And for some use cases that will always be preferable — e.g., you are in a rush and know exactly which item you want. But for “shopping” as in going with others, looking at random things, running into people, etc. an immersive experience could be transformative.
In the more immediate future, I look forward to a second viewing this coming weekend on an IMAX screen. I believe that not seeing other audience members and having the screen fill the entire field of view will further strengthen the effect (including sound coming from behind the screen).