The toy industry is one of the most competitive in the world, and it’s become apparent that toys are going to be a major driving force in artificial intelligence development. According to reports, a company called ToyTalk just unveiled Project M.U.T.O., an initiative to turn the big screen into a playground for Disney’s new “M” line of intelligent “robot” toys. Think of it as a robotic Mickey Mouse that responds to your voice and follows you around.
Disney Computer Scientists have been hard at work trying to make its new animation software more intelligent and aware, but are they really ready to show the world what they have learned?
Since the Nixon era, certain animatronics at Disney parks have been doing their herky-jerky thing. The business understands that nostalgia isn’t going to cut it with today’s kids.
19 August 2021
GLENDALE (California) — I was on my way to see Groot.
It wasn’t a video or those clumsy virtual reality spectacles that Groot dreamed up. Imagineering, a secretive research and development division of the Walt Disney Company, had promised a walking, talking, and emoting Groot, as if the arboreal “Avengers” figure had leapt off the screen and was living among us.
But first, I needed to locate him. I’d arrived at a warehouse on a dead-end street in Glendale, a Los Angeles suburb, according to GPS. The area seemed to be empty. However, as soon as I parked, a guy emerged from behind a jacaranda tree, cautiously. Yes, I had a meeting scheduled. No, I wasn’t concealing any recording equipment. I was led inside the warehouse via an unmarked entrance behind a trash after he made a phone call.
A tiny wrinkled hand waved hello from behind a dark curtain.
Groot was the culprit.
He was approximately three feet tall and approached me with wide eyes, as if he’d found a strange new life form. He gave me a thorough examination before introducing himself.
His attitude altered as I stayed quiet. His shoulders were drooping, and he had puppy dog eyes as he looked at me. “Don’t be sad,” I said. He smiled and danced a bit before balancing on one foot with his arms extended.
I wanted to give him a hug. And return him to his home.
“A degree of intelligence is a new trend that is coming into our animatronics,” said Jon Snoddy, a senior Imagineering executive. “More credible. “It gets crazier.”
He gazed adoringly at Groot. He added, “This man symbolizes our future.” “It’s one of the ways we keep ourselves relevant.”
It is no longer 1963.
Since the 1960s, when Walt Disney introduced “audio-animatronics,” his term for mechanical creatures with coordinated motions, robots have been a part of Disney’s unique theme park sauce. Small World toys, raiding Caribbean pirates (“yo-ho!”), and Abraham Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address were all there. The technology was an instant success, captivating generations of youngsters and assisting in the development of Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida into cultural landmarks and multibillion-dollar enterprises.
In 2019, 156 million people visited Disney’s 14 theme parks across the globe, generating $26 billion in sales for the Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products business. For a year, activities were badly interrupted by the coronavirus epidemic, but the masses have returned. On a recent day, the line to board the wobbling Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Disney World was two hours and ten minutes long – Delta variation be damned.
Nonetheless, Disney is in a long-term bind. The fast pace of modern life, advancements in personal technology, and the constantly shifting media environment are altering what guests expect from a theme park. If Disney wants to keep sucking up family vacation money, it has to create a new generation of outstanding attractions based on technology.
Since Richard Nixon was president, animatronics at Disney World have been performing the same herky-jerky thing on repeat. Meanwhile, the world’s youngsters have grown up with applications (three million on Google Play), the Roblox online gaming universe, and augmented reality Snapchat filters. Cars are driving themselves, while SpaceX rockets are landing on drone ships by themselves.
How are the Enchanted Tiki Room’s basic mechanical birds meant to compete? In 1963, they shined. Some individuals are dozing off today.
In April, at a virtual event to promote the launch of an interactive Spider-Man ride and immersive “land” devoted to Marvel’s Avengers, Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products, remarked, “We think a lot about relevance.” “We have a responsibility to our customers and visitors to continue to develop, to offer fresh and distinct experiences that entice them in. To ensure that the experience is both new and relevant.
Mr. D’Amaro said, “And all of it is risk.” “This place has a history. People prefer things the way they are. But we’ll keep pushing, and we’ll keep improving.”
From a stroke of genius to an epic flail
Disney’s strategy has always included the creation of new and better animatronic figures. Epcot’s hydraulic Ben Franklin that seemed to move up stairs when it was debuted in 1982 stunned visitors. In 1989, Disney advanced the technique by revealing a Wicked Witch of the West with incredible speed and accuracy flailing her arms and shifting her figure.
Disney has lately developed robot characters that seem to converse with visitors (Mr. Potato Head, 2008). Others move so gracefully that some tourists mistake them for visual projections (a shaman from the film “Avatar,” 2017).
The suspension of disbelief has always been a requirement of Disney attractions: they are actual flying galleons in Peter Pan’s Flight, not plastic ride vehicles on a rail. However, advancements in cinematic visuals — computer-generated animation, the mixing of live-action film with sophisticated digital effects — have placed pressure on Disney to improve the realism of their robots.
“You know how Elsa moves,” Kathryn Yancey, a show mechanical engineer with Imagineering, said of the “Frozen” heroine. “Kids have seen the movie many times, perhaps even in the vehicle that morning. As a result, our animatronic Elsa must be quick and poetic. She can’t possibly be lumbering.”
Disney’s animatronic technology made a huge leap ahead in early June. WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, the newest attraction at the Disneyland Resort, includes a “stuntronic” robot (clad in Spidey spandex) that executes complex airborne stunts much like a stunt human. The untethered machine is launched 65 feet into the air by a catapult, where it performs different feats (somersaults in one pass, a “epic flail” in another) while changing its course autonomously to land in a concealed net.
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7:34 p.m. ET, August 19, 2021
“It’s exciting because it’s impossible to tell if it’s a robot or a human – the stuntronic Spider-Man, it’s that good,” Wade Heath remarked as he lined up to ride WEB Slingers for the second time in early August. Mr. Heath, 32, a recruiter for the security firm Pinkerton, characterized himself as a “big Disney geek” who has been shocked at how slowly the company’s parks have developed.
He added, “The older animatronics have a great sense of nostalgia.” “However, I stopped thinking they were genuine when I was around 10 or 11 years old. The threshold for today’s youngsters is certainly much younger.”
The Spider-Man robot took more than three years to build, weighing 95 pounds and including microprocessors, 3-D printed plastic, gyroscopes, accelerometers, aluminum, and other components. Disney wouldn’t say how much the stuntronics project cost, but it’s clear that millions of dollars were spent. Disney intends to spread out the technology to other parks now that it has been developed. For example, WEB Slingers has been approved for Disneyland Paris.
Investing in stuntronics took a leap of faith, according to Bob Weis, the head of Disney’s Imagineering business, which has over 1,000 employees. It was simply a costly research endeavor with no apparent result at first.
Mr. Weis said, “It’s not simple to show return on investment for never-considered-possible innovations.” “Our lengthy history of producing experiences that totally wowed visitors — experiences that required them to suspend reality and live in the present — prepared the path for acceptance of this inherent risk.”
Budgets, on the other hand, are finite. Mr. Weis said, “We have to be selective because, as you can guess, we have a lot of great ideas, skills, and stories.”
Project Kiwi is the code name for this project.
Many individuals hold Disney in high regard as a corporate citizen. Others see Disney as a nefarious corporation that concocts new methods to profit from the brains of children.
The second contingent is almost visibly recoiling. Disney now wants to incorporate artificial intelligence into its rides? How long until Disney’s human characters in its parks are replaced by machines? Impressive robot stuntman today; scary robot Cinderella collecting autographs outside the castle tomorrow.
Scott LaValley, one of Disney’s senior roboticists, comes from Boston Dynamics, where he worked on an early version of Atlas, a running and leaping machine that evokes awe — followed by dystopian fear.
Disney has said that it has no intentions to replace human actors. People in costumes will continue to portray Winnie the Pooh, Cruella de Vil, Peter Pan, Princess Jasmine, and other famous “walk-around characters.” Rather, Disney’s latest robotics effort is focused on extreme Marvel and “Star Wars” characters, such as the Incredible Hulk, Baby Yoda, and Spider-Man, who are difficult to bring to life in a realistic manner, particularly outdoors.
At Disney parks throughout the globe, about 6,000 animatronics are in operation, with almost all of them anchored to the floor inside ride structures. It’s all part of the illusion: Disney can make its animatronics seem more alive by manipulating lighting and sight angles. Disney, on the other hand, has long been fascinated with robots as a means to make the passageways between attractions more exciting.
Leslie Evans, a senior Imagineering executive, stated, “We want to create amazing experiences outside of a show box,” referring to ride structures. “That, in my opinion, is going to be next level. These aren’t just ordinary parks. They are populated areas.”
It’s all part of the process. Traditionally, Disney parks have provided passive experiences – sit back in your swiveling Doom Buggy and take in the Haunted Mansion’s ghosts. Role play has becoming more important in new attractions. The 2019 game Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run requires groups of riders to work together to control the spacecraft. An amazing Hondo Ohnaka animatronic may be seen in the ride’s queueing area. (He’s a villain from the anime series “Clone Wars.”)
In 2003, Disney put a free-roaming animatronic dinosaur called Lucky to the test, pulling a flower cart with a puppeteer hidden inside. In 2007, the firm tried out wireless animatronic Muppets that went about in a remote-controlled car and spoke to visitors. (The rig was controlled remotely by a technician.) The Muppet Mobile Lab and Lucky have both been decommissioned.
The latest example is the creation of Groot, code-named Project Kiwi. He’s a prototype for a small-scale, free-roaming robotic actor that can play any Disney figure of comparable size. To put it another way, Disney does not want a one-time deal. It’s looking for a technological platform to support a new breed of animatronics.
These robots will be able to make on-the-fly decisions about what to do and say thanks to cameras and sensors. Animators and engineers use custom software to create behaviors (happy, sad, sneaky) to communicate emotion.
Ms. Evans said, “And all of this technology has to vanish, which requires an insane amount of engineering.” “We don’t want anybody to think, ‘That’s the most advanced robot I’ve ever seen.’ ‘Look!’ it has to be. ‘It’s Groot!’
Project Kiwi will next go on to the “play test” stage, which is a low-key trial run in a theme park to collect feedback from visitors. Disney will not disclose when or where the event would take place.
‘Natural and convincing,’ says the author.
Another team of Imagineers was working on the opposite problem, Project Exo, a high-tech attempt to allow interactions between theme park guests and large-scale figures, in another section of the Glendale warehouse, behind additional black curtains.
“Are you referring to the Incredible Hulk?” I inquired, seeing a massive hand (although not green) with human-like accuracy in its movement and grasping.
I examined the area for additional clues since that information seemed to be secret. The words “ankle twist” and “weight balancing” were scribbled on a whiteboard. (I wrote “Yes, please” next to each of them.) Jonathan Becker, a young Imagineer, was standing on what seemed to be futuristic stilts. Richard-Alexandre Peloquin, his teammate, was likewise towering in the air, but his lower torso was encased in a contraption/costume that gave him legs the size of oil barrels and feet that resembled those of a Wampa, a hairy “Star Wars” ice beast.
Asya A ride development engineer, Cara Pea, chimed in with a basic explanation. They were working on a full-body exoskeleton that could be worn by a broad range of oversized figures and could resist gravity. The weight of such gigantic costumes (over 40 pounds) could not be carried completely or even partly on a puppeteer’s shoulders due to safety issues, much alone stamina. It needs to be guided to the earth instead.
“However, it must seem genuine and believable,” Ms. Pea said. “And it needs to be something that different performers of all body shapes and gaits can slide into and get the same results.”
Mr. Becker started to wobble unsteadily at that point. “Whoa! “Take care!” Ms. Pea screamed and rushed over to assist him in sitting on an elevated chair.
Mr. Becker said, a little sheepishly, that “we still have a long way to go.” “The difficulty is to not just come up with a great concept, but to see it through to the end.”
The new Disney movie, “Ralph Breaks the Internet”, shows the cute little world of the internet as we know it today, and how it is about to be changed, or even destroyed, due to the efforts of the new “Ralph”. The movie follows the story of Ralph (John C. Reilly), a lonely, misunderstood mouse who thinks he is the only one who understands the internet. While most of this movie is just the typical Disney movie, you’ll notice that Ralph and his fellow fictional characters are becoming self-aware. In order to prevent this, our heroes must learn about the dangers of sentience, and eventually travel to the real internet to fix things.. Read more about disney animatronics and let us know what you think.
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