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Great moments with Judy Hopps
What Disney’s “dynamic robots” may mean for the parks
“The more real that we can make our characters feel to you,” said Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney parks, experiences and products, at a South by Southwest presentation in Austin, Texas last month, “then the deeper the connections become and the happier you all are.”
On Disneyland’s opening day in 1955, the park introduced primitive animated characters in its attractions, such as the animals in the Jungle Cruise. In 1963, audio-animatronic technology made its debut when the Enchanted Tiki Room opened. But the nascent art form really bloomed at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, where Disney introduced four attractions, all of which included robotic characters. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress especially wowed audiences with their lifelike, human figures.
Since those pioneering efforts some 60 years ago, the company has made great advances with ever more sophisticated animatronics. D’Amaro wowed the SXSW crowd by unveiling one of Disney’s latest innovations, a diminutive “dynamic robot” that can perform a somersault and lift itself off the ground–all while wearing rollerblades.
How might the company deploy this breakthrough in storytelling technology? To help explore the implications, I sat down with two former Disney Imagineers.
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This isn’t the first time Disney has introduced mobile animatronics to meet and greet guests at the parks. In 2003, the first such character, Lucky the Dinosaur, made his debut. A few years later, the Muppet Mobile Lab, featuring Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his invariably befuddled assistant Beaker, began roaming the parks. In both cases, the characters were tethered to carts that likely housed the batteries needed to power the figures as well as the processors and other electronics that animated them.
What makes the skating robot, which is fashioned after the Zootopia character, Judy Hopps (albeit crudely), especially intriguing (in addition to its dexterity and fluidity) is that it is unshackled and able to move independently. Apparently representing an evolution in energy storage technology, there are no places to house a large battery on the small figure either. Also, according to the Imagineers that accompanied D’Amaro for the SXSW presentation, it is the first Disney robot to incorporate motion capture data, or mo-cap, to animate it. Like CGI characters that appear in movies, Disney is able to record the actions of a human actor and have Judy Hopps reinterpret the performance.
While all of the developments are impressive, “it’s never about the technology,” asserts Joe Lanzisero, executive vice president and chief art director at Zeitgeist Design + Production. “The technology is a tool to help make emotional connections and story connections,” he says, amplifying D’Amaro’s opening remarks. “When the technology becomes invisible and you’re not even thinking about it, it’s the most successful.”
Lanzisero spent 35 years in Disney’s Imagineering trenches and helped bring Lucky the Dinosaur to Hong Kong Disneyland. He says it was a bit unnerving to see Judy Hopps trying to maintain her balance as she stood on her rollerblades. Mo-cap technology likely made the human moment possible.
“It makes you forget you’re looking at a robot,” Lanzisero notes. “You have empathy for this character, and you believe it.” Indeed, the SXSW audience offered a chorus of “aws” at the adorable sight of the tenuous rabbit.
Perhaps the best way to gauge the effectiveness of technology that’s used for storytelling at parks and attractions is to present it to children. I remember being floored by the audience’s reaction to Turtle Talk With Crush the first time I experienced it at Epcot. Flabbergasted adults were scratching their heads in wonderment, while kids nonchalantly chatted in real time with the reptilian surfer dude. They simply accepted the situation and were joyful to have the opportunity to commune with Crush.
That suspension of disbelief, Lanzisero thinks, is what Disney is going for with its next-gen robots. They could be another tool in the Imagineering toolbox to create spontaneous show moments in the parks. They could also provide novel ways for guests, especially children, to engage with characters as they walk through the lands.
“The technology is a tool to help make emotional connections and story connections. When the technology becomes invisible and you’re not even thinking about it, it’s the most successful.”
Ryan Harmon, president and chief creative officer of Zeitgeist, is particularly fascinated by the size of the robot. The onetime Imagineer says that it could allow Disney to replicate smaller characters in their proper perspective.
“Mickey Mouse is five feet tall at the parks,” he explains, referring to the human actors who now inhabit the walkaround ambassador. (Shh, let’s keep that revelation between us, okay?) “In the cartoons, he’s really more like three feet. It would be really fun to represent Yoda, Jimmy Cricket, and others at scale.”
With robotic technology and other creative resources such as the ability to digitally project media onto tiny surfaces, the miniaturization of characters could open up new storytelling horizons. While the ultimate goal would be to allow guests to mingle, touch, and interact with the characters, Harmon doesn't think it is imminent.
“We’re moving towards that,” he says. “But it’s probably five to ten years away.”
Instead, the robots will likely be kept at a distance from guests, at least initially.
Disney has been conducting extensive research and development into a wide range of technologies such as facial recognition and robots that can realistically blink and track human eye movements of guests as well as converse with them in natural speech. And, of course, The Mouse, along with just about everybody else in the digisphere, has been exploring–dun, dun, duuuunnnn–artificial intelligence. These initiatives, combined with robots like Judy Hopps, could one day soon make for more magical and stunningly realistic encounters with characters in the parks.
Or if mishandled, they could be the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Given Disney’s guiding principle to create parks that are reassuring and filled with cheery optimism, that’s unlikely. To help ensure that they maintain the right balance of high touch and high tech, neither Harmon nor Lanzisero think the costumed cast members that greet guests would ever be displaced by robots. Instead, the mobile animated characters would supplement them.
“If they add personality, and it looks and behaves like an actual character,” says Harmon about the dynamic robots that will one day soon appear in the parks, “it’s going to be mind blowing.”
What do you think about Judy Hopps? How do you think Disney might deploy these new-age robotic characters?