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Disney Experiments with New Robots Using Artificial Intelligence at its Theme Parks
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Robots and animatronics, or more specifically, animatronics using artificial intelligence (AI) are coming to theme parks. Disney is at the forefront, which is not a surprise, considering Disneyland has long been on the cutting-edge of robotic and animatronic development.

The robotics serve various functions in terms of reducing the need for human characters, something that may have initially been conceived as a way to economize over time, encourage precise responses, and eliminate injuries. Today, there is even more relevance in preventing the spread of COVID-19, which may very well be around for a while.

Soft-body robots are one area Disney is developing, having filed a patent to develop them in 2017. These would be designed to reduce collision impacts during human interaction according to the patent application which included a prototype of the Baymax character from 2014's animated film Big Hero 6. The company is also working on automated routing of muscle fibers for soft robots to produce even more realistic and safe interactions with park guests. 

Another aspect of injury reduction comes into play with the forthcoming Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure. For the attraction, an animatronic Spider Man will perform stunts swinging over the campus in Hollywood Land. No worries about stunt actor injury or viruses there. In a Disney video of the character's skills, he practices flying through the air. The stunt robot was designed by the head of visual development at Marvel Studios, Ryan Meinerding. The patent to create it was filed in 2019 and cited a breakthrough in Disney's stunttronics plans.



In short, the robot performs stunts just as if it were real, in this case, launching in the air, flipping, landing in a net accurately and precisely. 

Disney has also created a robot with a realistic and lifelike gaze, mimicking human attention behavior and reacting to environmental stimulus. They're planning to use the technology with a humanoid animatronic bust in all of its theme parks. The bust will respond through a sensor on its chest. The idea is to create a very real interaction with guests, one that will create a more personal experience as well as more a realistic one.

Possibly the next realistic step will be a project that Disney is currently working to adapt “dynamic emotional language” to interact with others in a realistic and believable way, one that will be designed to read the emotions of the person it is talking to, adapting its responses as appropriate – in short, conversational ability that makes sense. Leading in this direction are the Vyloo, three alien beings in the Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2 attraction at Disney California Adventure in 2018. The creatures exhibit their own moods as well as being able to “read” the non-verbal gestures of guests they interact with. The technical tools necessary to allow this are contained in a log on which the three Vyloos perch, and within the Vyloos' bodies, both embedded with sensors and cameras. 

Unlike other earlier iterations of robots at Disney, the Vyloo operate on their own, and are not controlled off site. However, staff members can also adjust their parameters easily to create new experiences, personalities and guest interactions.

It's not only guest experiences that Disney is looking at recreating through robotics, Disney Research has also made advances in robots that can create sculpture and fabrication, something that has already been tested elsewhere with clay sculpting robots. While they may not be ready to build a theme park yet, robots could also take the place of janitorial staff, another area that is particularly relevant in pandemic times. Robots could be used to deep clean and sweep up, or they could be used to disinfect via UV-C LED. DOF Robotics has developed these types of robots to support the medical community already; they work up to eight hours on a single charge and feature mapping technology that helps them avoid collisions. Providing both UVA and UVC light, in South Korea, a disinfection robot service, Campion, is already at work at the KidZania park location in Seoul.

The robotic revolution, or its prediction, began five years ago in the theme park industry. Already the then-new Magic Band ticketing technology has taken hold at theme parks, carnivals, and other attractions. The cashless wristband contains an RFID chip and radio with a long-lasting battery. Connected to a system of sensors, it prevents the need for ticket exchanges and makes a faster, more seamless guest experience overall. The Magic Band, at Disney's Shanghai resort was the first to take this cashless leap. 

In short, Disney may be at the forefront in entertainment robotics, but the technology has a wide variety of uses beyond pleasure, enhancing safety, providing behind the scenes care, and preventing injuries among workers and guests. The downside that has not received the same amount of attention as these cutting-edge discoveries, is that along with eliminating potential virus infections and preventing injuries among stunt workers, characters and guests, the robotics development will also eliminate many human jobs, from behind the scenes cleaners to stunt performers. And that's one development no technological advance can control.
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