Orange County Register
Disney launches research labs in Pittsburgh and Switzerland
August 12th, 2008, 3:07 pm · by Sonya Smith
Walt Disney Imagineering wants to improve its computer animation, robotics and other technologies, and the company hopes to find ideas in Pittsburgh and Switzerland. This research is expected, in part, to lead to new and improved special effects for Disney theme park attractions.
Disney announced today a new research and development initiative with the Carnegie Mellon University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Both universities are known for work in computer science and technology.
“Creating the next generation of sophisticated technologies requires long-term vision and collaboration with world-class innovators,” said Ed Catmull, president of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.
Disney has committed to fund the innovation labs for five years — which includes Disney’s paying for a director and seven to eight principal investigators for each lab. Additional staff will include professors, academic interns, scientific consultants and collaborators. The work will be done for several Disney companies, including its parks and resorts division, Disney Media Networks, ESPN, Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Feature Animation.
One of the first projects for the Pittsburgh lab is to develop ways for people to interact with autonomous characters, either virtual or robotic, said Jessica Hodgins, professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and Director of Research in Pittsburgh for Disney.
“We’ll be looking for ways to sense what a person is doing or thinking so that the character can respond appropriately,” she said. “Whether the character is a robot or a virtual creation, the interaction issues are the same. We need to figure out what sensors to build and how to interpret and respond to human behavior.”
Walt Disney Imagineering Spokeswoman Marilyn Waters said past research and development programs have led to effects that include: making the Haunted Mansion Madame Liotta head in a ball float around a room, effects for the Muppet Mobile Lab in Disney’s California Adventure, allowing Mr. Potato Head in front of Toy Story Mania to remove and replace his own ear (a first for a Disney Audio-Animatronic) and allowing guests to see animated Finding Nemo characters moving around while on the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage ride.
Photo at top right by the Register’s Jebb Harris shows the Muppet Mobile Lab in Disney’s California Adventure.