Disney Research Lab Creates 3D Printed Robots that Emulate Animated Characters


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DR_SciencePlay_logoAs annual passholders to Disney, my family and I spend many weekends there getting more than our money’s worth of fun–as well as deep inspiration. While I lumber in the familiar heat, carrying our well-worn family backpack that weighs as much as a baby Chewbacca, I am peppered with lively, enthusiastic questions and comments from my mini-entrepreneurs and wannabe inventors as to how they do all that stuff.

My family often surmises as to what Disney would think if he could come back today and see how we’ve progressed–with the subject, not surprisingly, often turning to the amazing innovations we see now thanks to digital design and 3D printing. The general consensus is that even Disney would be incredulous.


The reality though is that while much of this may be new and exciting to us, it’s already well established on the famous Disney radar, behind the scenes in Disney Research where all sorts of secret magic happens long before we have an inkling.

Now, in a recent project at Disney Research, a small and innovative team is certainly continuing in Walt’s footsteps, but these are a little different as they will be 3D printed and robotic, with the idea of bringing some of those fun and crazy, animated characters to life.

Surpassing the idea of a Snow White lookalike, melting in the sun, wearing ten pounds of pancake makeup and lipliner, or the giant Tigger jaunting by in a full suit, this design team aims to take things straight into the future, Disney style.

We aren’t getting too real though, folks. Animated characters aren’t real, and the designers wanted to retain that cartoonish flavor. The bottom line is that these robots will not be lurching and staggering to and fro like high-tech zombies. The idea wasn’t to make them human either. It’s truly to bring your favorite characters into ‘real life’ while retaining the motion and gait with which you associate them.


In using the idea not only of 3D printing and robotics, but also of bringing characters to life so that fans can interact with them outside of TV and movies, Seungmoon Song, Joohyung Kim , and Katsu Yamane outlined their project dimensions, accomplishments, and challenges still to be overcome, in Development of a Bipedal Robot that Walks Like an Animation Character.

“Creating robots that embody animation characters in the real world is highly demanded in the entertainment industry because such robots would allow people to physically interact with characters that they have only seen in films or TV,” state the authors. “To give a feeling of life to those robots, it is important to mimic not only the appearance but also the motion styles of the characters.”

The researchers have begun–and it certainly sounds simple enough– by creating a bipedal robot that stands, walks, and interacts just like an animated character as they glean the data from animation and imbue it with character-like mobility, which is referred to by the team as ‘open-loop walking.’ As is typical with robots created for recreational purposes, it moves via joints which are actuated by servo motors, while the links are 3D printed. The challenge in creating a robot that walks like an animated character is in using the ‘incorrect’ and often exaggerated gait (multiplied here by working against the robotic gait) they are famous for while engaged in countless scenarios of humor and drama.


“Using trajectory optimization, we generate an open-loop walking trajectory that mimics the character’s walking motion by modifying the motion such that the Zero Moment Point stays in the contact convex hull,” states the team of authors. “The walking is tested on the developed hardware system.”

All of the segments were 3D printed using a Stratasys’ Objet260 Connex. The robot was then constructed fully by assembling the segments, aluminum frames, and actuators.

The research and design team has much more latitude these days, afforded by streamlined digital design and 3D printing of the robotic joints–meaning when they make an edit, it’s easy to re-print pieces on conceptual whim or editing requirements. And there are still some changes to be instituted in the design, according to the team.

Through attempting to keep their feet walking in a flat motion by mapping the character’s motion and using trajectory optimization, the researchers were able to have the robots walk, but observed challenges in speed. Their plan is to work that out in the future by refining the trajectories as well as working on foot, swing height, creating better segments, and experimenting with material.

As the robots, inspired by the researcher team’s very own Disney character brand, continue to evolve and walk expediently on terra firma, we’ll continue to follow their progress with interest. It’s certainly exciting to see what’s going on behind the scenes at what many people forget is one of the most innovative companies of all time–and you can bet you’ll probably see these robotic creations ambling around a theme park before too long.

As the legacy at Disney continues to grow, they propel us further into the ultimate world of escape, entertainment, and innovation. And ‘lest you forget: it all started with a mouse.

Are you surprised to hear that Disney is working on such a robot, involving 3D printing? Do you think there is a need for such a thing in the entertainment center?  Discuss in the Disney Research 3D Printed Robots forum thread on 3DPB.com


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