The Super Bowl. That one Sunday a year where the majority of Americans crowd around their televisions to watch the championship football game — or, more commonly, the commercials. Volkswagen’s 2011 contribution, entitled The Force, was not only one of the more memorable ads, but also an intriguing study of emotion.
In The Force, a young child, dressed as Darth Vader wanders the house trying to control items with the Force. Failing, he hears his father come home and is excited when, through remote key start, the engine revs up.
While this is a cute commercial, what makes it fascinating the the child’s expressions.
The child in question is wearing a Darth Vader mask that offers no emotion and is designed as such. Still, at every event of attempted force control we clearly read his disappointment. Up to the point where he runs past his father to the car and the surprise on his face when it starts. I am not alone in this observation. Everyone I watched it with and spoke to afterwards felt they saw the same thing.
But this is impossible. By design Darth Vader has no face and no emotion. But the creators of the Volkswagen commercial were able to make us look past this and to the face behind it. Universally the audience knew the looks on the young boy’s face as defeat after defeat until he finally mastered the Force. Maybe this is because deep down we all remember being children wanting to be a Jedi (or a Sith). Whatever the reason, it is impressive the writers created so much empathy from a masked character. Authors employ this a lot – in novels, films, and now commercials. How can systems evoke emotion without a face? A lot of designers humanize their products with humanizing features but how can technology be humanized in a more subtle and evoking manner?
Otto image from Alessi