Larry Scheinfeld: Disney Robot Project to Mimic Humans

Artificial intelligence (AI) and robots in the technology sector are some of the emerging trends of the century, spearheading a revolution where workers may soon be replaced by robots and automated systems. Disney is already jumping into the world of robotics through projects developing at Disney Research, a global network of research labs working on a variety of innovative technologies and automated systems. One of the most recent productions is a set of robotic arms that mimic human movement.

Here’s a closer look at some of the latest developments in the field of robotics, and what the future may hold for both consumers and companies as AI and robots become more commonplace:


Technology that Mimics Human Movement
One of the most interesting projects underway at Disney Research labs is a camera-mounted robot named ‘Jimmy’. This particular robot is designed to stream video content to an operator that is wearing a virtual reality headset. This allows the operator to experience exactly what the robot’s arms and hands are experiencing using haptic feedback technology.

The Hybrid Hydrostatic Transmission and Human-Safe Heptic Telepresence Robot was presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 2016 and Disney released a video of this prototype to demonstrate the level of human-robot interaction and accuracy of movement. Whoever operates the robot has the ability to enter the robot’s physical space via virtual reality goggles. This makes all movements much more precise and controlled — just as if they were being moved manually.

Researchers pointed out that the hydraulic robots movement are smooth enough to provide safe interaction with people and even handle small and delicate objects. So far, the robot arms can pick up and crack an egg, thread string through a needle, and play catch with a balloon.

Disney Research Robotics Projects
Disney Research’s ultimate goal is to, “Envision a future in which robots interact with humans in complex, unpredictable environments.”

It’s too soon to say whether Disney plans to replace theme park characters with robots and develop more automated systems throughout the park. Last year, Disney took the lead on testing the ‘Robo-Mouse’, a robot that mimics the movements of cartoon characters. Disney Research labs partnered with engineers at Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) for this project and created two-legged robots that walk and move just like cartoon characters.

Researchers at the labs are working feverishly on a variety of robotics projects, testing prototypes, and controlled human-robot interaction simulations. Some of the research labs’ other projects include creating advertising displays made with small, mobile robots (Display Swarm) and a biped robot to maintain balance and walk on a rolling ball (Ballwalker).

Robots Replacing Humans?
There has been ongoing debate about the future of artificial and intelligence, robotics, and virtual reality experiences that could potentially replace many human interactions and experiences at the very basic level. We now have the technology to design robots that mirror human facial expressions with a relatively high degree of accuracy. The rapid development and recent release of the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality head-mounted display that allows users to navigate 3D worlds is quickly being adopted by labs, including Disney Research, to complement robotics projects. Many of these projects are still in their infancy but appear to be moving in the direction of replacing human workers at some level.

Researchers and labs will continue to create prototypes of robots that can replicate human movement and even mimic real human facial expression. If a trip to Disney World is part of your vacation plans for the next two decades, it’s a real possibility that we will be seeing robots replacing your favorite theme park characters, taking care of ticketing, serving food, and operating rides at Disney parks — and beyond.