Disney robots are going to surprise you

Disney Research has been working on ways to make robots both lighter weight and more lifelike. That probably sounds obvious, but the lighter the robot, the harder it becomes to make movement look natural. Let me explain.

The inspiration for the old animatronics at Disney began with a mechanical bird that Walt Disney purchased while on vacation in Europe. In 1951, they started an ambitious project called “Project Little Man”, whose goal was to make a robot tap dance like Buddy Ebsen.

This work would eventually lead to Abraham Lincoln’s animatronic, the Hall of Presidents, and on a long enough timeline, Pirates of the Caribbean

Eventually, animatronics were controlled digitally, and over decades, became portable, and even autonomous, able to interact in limited ways with the guests in the theme part. But to become portable, they have to be lightweight.

What happens when you move a lightweight object with a motor and then stop it? It wiggles, wobbles, and moves unnaturally. Disney Research figured out how to make robots that predict what motions will cause the wobble, and then make small counter motions to cancel out the undesirable movement.

At this time, it doesn’t happen in real-time. The motions have to be modeled first to determine what the necessary counter-motions need to be. The good news is, lightweight robots could move a lot more naturally, soon. Disney revealed the research in a paper presented at Siggraph 2019.

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