So Disney has gone ahead and invested some time and money to have a few researchers develop a new realistic animatronics technology, most likely to increase the realism of the characters who might be featured in rides at Disney World and Disney Land. It looks pretty awesome to be honest, and although the video is boring because it gets into a lot of technical information which is not so interesting, it is worth checking out how the robot face moves. The system uses computer scans of a persons face to calculate the most ideal rubber recreation so that it can effectively portray expressions and mouth shapes for vocalizations. They are even using 3D printing technology to create the rubber molds, which is really awesome because they are able to use the 3D scan of a real person to create a fairly accurate recreation.
Of course it is not perfect enough to fool a human eye just yet, but the technology is a definite step up from old school animatronics systems of the past. Rather than having an artist rely on trial and error to figure out where motors should be placed, and how much movement the motors should have, this new technology does a pretty good job of automating much of the creation process. The system will even factor in the physical properties of the silicone rubber face, and modify the mold to create the ideal sub surfaces behind the face to achieve better deformations.
If you have heard of the uncanny valley, which is essentially the tendency for a virtual humanoid to either turn out freaky or weird compared to realistic or lifelike, you can see right away that this is not going to break that barrier. It still looks like a robot head when it moves. The human eye and mind is very good at picking out unnatural flaws in motion, because we are so used to analyzing the motion of a human face subconsciously every day. It will be a while yet before animatronics can achieve a result that will completely fool the human eye.
If you watch the mouth closely at around 4:03 seconds they show a 3D animation of the face where there is an obvious issue. The actor says ‘why are you trying so hard to fit in…’ Yet he does not move his mouth enough when saying the word ‘fit’, so the virtual lips barely move on the ‘F’ sound. The actors will have to over exaggerate somewhat when speaking their lines to avoid bad results like that, which may effect performances. Or an animator is going to have to go through and manually fix the animation in certain cases like this. Either way, this small flaw shows clearly there are some kinks in this system despite the fancy technology implemented to try and capture the performance.
I still think this technology is going to make Disney rides a LOT cooler, even if they use it as it is with the current flaws. They still have to figure out how to animate the eyeballs realistically too, as I am sure someone is going to have to program that manually since the technology seems to have no support for recording eye motion.
I can easily see how it could do some justice to a captain Jack Sparrow in a remodeled pirates of the Caribbean ride, although I have to admit the original ride is still quite awesome.
Check out the video here!