Once upon a time, back in the 1960s and 1970s, Disney wowed visitors to Disneyland and Disney World with the magic of their audio-animatronic figures in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Hall of Presidents, not to mention the Country Bear Jamboree and Pirates of the Caribbean attractions. Disney is wowing people again – and freaking them out big-time – with their latest evolution of technology.
Before we peer forward, let’s gaze into the past. As amazing as the human characters were in Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Hall of Presidents, and the Pirates of the Caribbean, they always felt a bit unreal, and for one (or two) key reason(s): the eyes. Their peepers tended to make them resemble Star Trek’s ferocious, bug-eyed Klingon, Gowron. And they stared out into space rather than directly at anyone, fostering a disconnect that resulted in a less than human interaction. Looked at another way, the optics were bad.
Well, the engineers at Walt Disney Imagineering (Disney’s Research division), and robotics researchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the California Institute of Technology, have set their sights on rectifying the issue. They’ve built a spiffily dressed robot with remarkably realistic eyes. It’s everything else on the robot that’s terrifying, because, you see, the robot lacks muscles and skin. Remember the grotesque aliens posing as humans in John Carpenter’s horror movie, They Live? That’s what the robot resembles.
But let’s keep our focus on… the eyes. Here’s how the Disney team and their partners view things: “We present a system for creating lifelike gaze interactions between people and an animatronic character. Our architecture implements mutual gazing behavior demonstrating the illusion of life. We use this assumption architecture to allow us to layer simple layer movement such as breathing, blinking, and saccades to create increasingly complex and lifelike behaviors. Additionally, we use mechanisms that mimic human motor and attention behaviors. The overall result is an interactive human-autonomatronic experience that engages people through animated realism.”
In other words, this robot can sense you and react. It can turn towards a person and execute other human-like motions that deliver that all-important “illusion of life.” And if you, like us, have never before heard the word “saccades,” we’ve looked it up for you. We glanced at EyeWiki, which reveals that “Saccades are rapid (up to 700°/s) movements of the eyes that allow for brisk eye movement toward visual, auditory, or tactile stimuli and the identification of points in our surroundings to execute desired tasks. The initiation of a saccade takes about 200 milliseconds.”
Anyway, don’t be surprised if Disney eventually upgrades all the animatronic figures at their theme parks. In the meantime, maybe they can pop a leftover Woody, Moana, or Black Panther mask on their robot prototype. That’d be spect-ocular.