Disney Imagineering, the entertainment giant’s research and development department, has a knack for creating technologically advanced robots like this hyperrealistic Na’vi shaman at Disney World. But its latest development might be its most adorable creation to date.
At the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Detroit last week, Disney unveiled a new, nameless bipedal robot that can walk (okay, more like waddle) unassisted and remain balanced, even when shoved, navigating difficult terrain, or having a literal rug pulled out from beneath it.
The robot is mostly 3D printed and was developed by a team from Disney Research in Zurich in less than a year, led by research scientist Moritz Bächer. “Most roboticists are focused on getting their bipedal robots to reliably walk,” said Disney research scientist Morgan Pope in a statement to IEEE Spectrum. “At Disney, that might not be enough—our robots may have to strut, prance, sneak, trot, or meander to convey the emotion that we need them to.”
Aside from its impressive walking and balancing capabilities, the robot is also extremely expressive without having to sacrifice its movement functionality. Its two antennas can wiggle like cat ears, and the head moves up, down, around, and tilts to mimic emotion through body language.
The team said that roboticists worked alongside animators to ensure the robot could move expressively without falling over, just like a real animated character. It’s a similar tactic to the one Anki employed for its adorable Cozmo toy a few years ago, but it also faces similar challenges to being brought to life.
“In general, animation tools don’t have physics built into them,” explained Bächer. “So that makes it hard for artists to design animations that will work in the real world.” Disney has designed the new robotics platform to be “hardware agnostic,” allowing developers to apply the same principles to other characters that have completely different body styles. The animation-inspired pipeline that Disney Research developed should also massively reduce the time needed to train a robot on new behaviors, with Bächer claiming that Disney can now develop new robotic characters in months rather than years.
Despite its passing resemblance to WALL-E or adorable Star Wars droids, this experimental preview isn’t going to toddle its way into your nearest Disney Park. The company has previously unveiled similar bipedal concept robots that actually resemble characters like Groot and Judy Hopps. Still, it’s fascinating to see how far this technology has come in recent years, and if the animation-like motion training can be easily applied to other concepts, then it might not be long before actual Disney animatronics can walk freely around Disneyland, instead of just leaping through the air.