Latest in Animatronics Innovation from Disney Imagineering

Founded by Walt Disney in 1952, Walt Disney Imagineering is the creative force that imagines, designs and brings to life all Disney theme parks, resorts, attractions and cruise ships worldwide. Working across a spectrum of disciplines that range from creative and conceptual to scientific and technical, Imagineers blend an innovative mixture of storytelling, art, science and technology to create immersive experiences, memorable destinations and innovative entertainment for families around the globe. Innovation is in the creators’ DNA, and Imagineers constantly push the boundaries of technology and invent new goals as well as the solutions to achieve them.

Walt Disney Imagineering embodies a world-class design firm, premier development company, extraordinary storytelling studio and cutting-edge innovation lab — all rolled into one. Home to an overwhelming breadth of expert talent from around the globe, Imagineers partner closely with colleagues from across The Walt Disney Company to bring the most awe-inspiring new worlds and cherished characters to life. Nearly every project at Walt Disney Imagineering includes a first-of-its-kind.

That process starts by challenging their own assumptions and asking bold questions, like how expressive can a character be? How do they appear to defy the laws of physics? How can they bring personalized experiences to each and every one of the millions of guests who pass through the gates? According to Imagineering, the answers to these questions have the potential to revolutionize technology and thinking, both within the entertainment industry and far, far beyond -- including in the realm of simulation. Below are some of the latest works in animatronics and immersive technology from Disney Imagineering.

Stuntronics: A Stuntronics platform allows for broad new possibilities in realizing a wide range of dynamic characters, and to bring high-action stunts from the reel world into the real world. “Stuntronics” enables a superhuman to fly through the thoughtful and innovative application of technology. The technology combines advanced robotics with the exploration of untethered dynamic movement to create realistic aerial stunts that would be humanly impossible. That means when visitors watch the Stuntronics figure soar through the air, they will have a hard time believing their eyes.

Autonomous Characters: Walt Disney Imagineering has developed technology that enables autonomous characters to engage with their surroundings in a way that’s recognizable, charismatic and grounded in personal connection. With the help of Imagineers, these systems can take on the spoken and unspoken vocabulary of humans and navigate the world with ease.

For example, to build the Vyloo (tiny characters with big personalities), Imagineers studied how puppeteers bring even the simplest objects to life through pantomime and gesture. And they recreated those techniques using advanced animation blending, computer vision and artificial intelligence. The point was to empower each character with a way of thinking that would allow them to go far beyond following a script and to interact endlessly with their environment and with curious visitors.

Innovative Gesture Tracking Technology: For the new attraction WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, Imagineers implemented an innovative technology adapted specifically for this attraction. The WEB Slinger vehicles identify arm movement and map out the geometry of a web sling, rendering a 3D web in the interactive gameplay. To enable the most accurate and flexible interaction, Imagineers leveraged infrared cameras on the WEB Slinger vehicles that allow guests to sling webs like Spider-Man and experience what it’s like to have super powers. The web-slinging is done in real time with interactive scenes in the attraction, and the attraction does not require wearable technology other than 3D glasses.

Onboard Sensors for Real-Time Decision-Making: Guests visiting the Avengers Campus will be awed by the sight of Spider-Man swinging up to 65 feet in the air above the Worldwide Engineering Brigade. This remarkable feat is enabled by Stuntronics technology. Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development designed a sophisticated robot that uses onboard sensors to make its own real-time decisions when to tuck, somersault and slow down its spin. There is a lot of math and physics involved, and the team has a published paper and patent related to the technology.

Immersive, Emotive Actors: In the Valley of Mo’ara, there are times to be bold and there are times to be reflective. The Na’vi River Journey attraction invites contemplation and a sense of awe, where projection media, animation, scenery and foliage create an incredibly immersive rainforest that brims with life. And that life is anchored by the Na’vi Shaman of Songs, a groundbreaking Audio-Animatronics figure. Dozens of different Imagineering disciplines collaborated to create not just a robot, but a fully emotive and truly capable actor. In her performance, the Shaman travels gracefully through a very human range of emotions, both enchanted and enchanting in her movement.

3D Printing Costuming Designs: The Festival of Fantasy Parade at Walt Disney World began coming to life just as 3D printing was becoming viable. And by the time the Imagineers’ partners in Costuming were ready to build headpieces for Maleficent’s raven, technology had progressed to a point where 3D printing became a practical and economical option for fabrication. Months of designs, models, data, testing and prototypes followed. Once they had a working headpiece, each new mask could be easily and consistently produced. Plus, they’re incredibly lightweight and durable compared to a metal or even PVC version.

Overall, Walt Disney Imagineering is always looking for ways to make characters more expressive, believable and reliable in some of the most demanding situations on Earth. The Imagineering team brings together experts in fields like electrical, mechanical and software engineering; simulation; materials science; mechatronics; and robotics to extend and perfect the state of the art in character performance. The team develops new hardware systems for building physical characters, new software tools for more direct translation from artist’s hand to high-fidelity performance, and new ways of thinking about design and systems integration.

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