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Disney new robot

Disney researchers unveiled a new emotionally expressive robot at the 2023 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.

Disney has a long history of programming animatronic characters since the 1971 Hall of Presidents. But as robot mobility advances, it gets harder to make behaviors both expressive and compatible with physical constraints.

The new robot was developed in under a year using 3D printing and modular components. It has a highly articulated head, legs, and hip joints enabling dynamic walking and balancing.

Typically it takes extensive trial-and-error for animators and roboticists to combine their skills into a single robot. Disney Research aimed to streamline this with a new reinforcement learning pipeline.

This system lets animators craft expressive motions unfettered by physics. The AI then translates these into movements feasible on the real robot. It can simulate years of training in hours by iterating on parameters like motors and friction.

"Most roboticists are focused on getting their bipedal robots to walk reliably," says Disney researcher Morgan Pope, who introduced the robot on the conference stage. "At Disney, this may not be enough-to convey the emotions we need, robots must be able to walk, prance, sneak or squirm." Disney employs animators specializing in the transmission of all these emotions (and even more) with the help of movements, as well as robotics specializing in the creation of mechanical systems.

Reinforcement learning yields extremely stable motions. The robot learns how to maintain character emotions while responding to varied real-world conditions. This is critical for preservation of artistic intent.

By condensing development time from years to months, Disney’s technique could significantly expand the horizons of future animated robots. The focus is on the process over any single customized bot.

The physically-competent yet characterful motions represent a crossover milestone between fantasy and reality. This research helps bridge the gap between imaginative artists and grounded roboticists when designing the next generation of entertaining lifelike figures.

"The idea is that it's a hardware-independent platform," says Bacher. - If we want to add more legs, arms, or make a completely new character with a completely different morphology, we can quickly teach him a new behavior. Ready-made actuators, 3D-printed components, an adaptable reinforcement learning system - all this can be applied to robots that differ greatly from each other in appearance and movements. This robot is a promising first step on this path."

While not named yet, Disney’s emotive robot demonstrates major progress in making futuristic animated characters real. We may see these AI-powered figures come alive in Disney parks or films someday soon.

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