BACKGROUND: Computer-generated virtual faces become increasingly realistic including the simulation of emotional expressions. These faces can be used as well-controlled, realistic and dynamic stimuli in emotion research. However, the validity of virtual facial expressions in comparison to natural emotion displays still needs to be shown for the different emotions and different age groups.
METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Thirty-two healthy volunteers between the age of 20 and 60 rated pictures of natural human faces and faces of virtual characters (avatars) with respect to the expressed emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and neutral. Results indicate that virtual emotions were recognized comparable to natural ones. Recognition differences in virtual and natural faces depended on specific emotions: whereas disgust was difficult to convey with the current avatar technology, virtual sadness and fear achieved better recognition results than natural faces. Furthermore, emotion recognition rates decreased for virtual but not natural faces in participants over the age of 40. This specific age effect suggests that media exposure has an influence on emotion recognition.
CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Virtual and natural facial displays of emotion may be equally effective. Improved technology (e.g. better modelling of the naso-labial area) may lead to even better results as compared to trained actors. Due to the ease with which virtual human faces can be animated and manipulated, validated artificial emotional expressions will be of major relevance in future research and therapeutic applications.