The so-called “imagineers” who work at Walt Disney World and Disneyland have long been at the forefront using robotics to replicate humanlike movement—as well as creature-like movement, I suppose, given their vast catalog of characters.
At the recent RoboBusiness event in Santa Clara, Calif., Martin Buehler, Executive R&D Imagineer, Walt Disney Imagineering, discussed what the company is doing. His team’s most newsworthy project is likely the new Pandora: The World of Avatar, located at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, which recently debuted to the public with rave reviews.
Buehler said the attraction’s Na’vi the Shaman of Songs character is the latest and most expressive character they have done to date. Disney’s most advanced character previously had 16 functions—motors or movements—while the Na’vi has 40 movements, all in her head, “to make her super expressive.” In fact, when video of the character was released, it unleashed many debates about whether it was real or CGI.
A big part of a robotic build like this, Buehler said, is reliability. In their world, many of the individual pieces of an attraction are critical—if they go down, they whole ride has to be shut down.
“She is now performing day after day, 18 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. No breaks. So, we all went to incredible lengths testing cables, wires, motors, to make sure that she runs reliably … we make sure our characters, that we only build one of, are very reliable, and easy to repair.”
This brings to mind the issue of a robot being a character. Buehler said he feels it isn’t only important for Disney.
“We really want to interact with characters,” he said. “We know how to interact with them. They understand us when we talk to them. They can see us. And that’s becoming more and more possible now. We talk to our devices. They can now safely recognize us with the latest iPhone. Who wants to type in a password? You want your bot to recognize you. And when that happens, we are more willing to welcome them. We’re more willing to accept some of the limitations. Even help them out. You ever stand in front of a closed door? I’d be the first one to open the door for [a robot].”
This has implications for other social interactions, such as when we invite robots in our home, whether it be as companions, for elder care or as personal assistants. Buehler stressed that experiences are a critical component of our interaction with robots.
“What about the next experiences?” he said. “Are we innovative in using self-driving cars? Once we’re inside these cars and don’t have any driving to do, what are we going to do? We’re going to be entertained—especially sitting in the traffic for a couple of hours a day. What are you going to do? You’ve been sitting in this confined space. You may want to turn your car into an office. But we also want to play. Maybe with all those screens, you can turn the vehicle into an amazing automatic reality—a virtual reality cabin. Or go completely online and have amazing battles. Star Wars battles or galactic battles against your friends or your fellow commuters. The possibilities out there are endless.”