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Disney hopes children will love its new autonomous story-telling robots



  • Sometimes the best technology is the technology that comes across as magic, and that’s what Disney is playing up to


It’s rare that Disney ever lifts the covers off of its R&D labs, and that sucks when I want to write about it. However, while other companies are proud to show off their new technology smarts, for a company that prides itself on showering its guests with “magic” Disney’s executives don’t believe that the magic trick gets any better if you show people how it’s done. And they probably have a point.


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That said though at the SXWS 2017 event in Austin, Texas, on Saturday Jon Snoddy, Disney’s senior Vice President for research and development, explained how soon you’ll be able to interact with autonomous, story telling robots at Disney’s parks and he gave us a bit of an insight into how they plan to use technology to bring their much loved brand of storytelling to new forms, by using robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

“I think AI and machine learning is going to be very important for what we do,” he said, “things like characters that can move around among our guests. They’re going to need to understand where they’re going, have goals, and they’re going to have to know how to navigate in a world with humans. All these emerging technologies are going to be key to the next generation of entertainment.”

Snoddy then went on to debut a five minute video of Robo-Pascal, an animatronic version of the cute lizard from 2010 movie Tangled, and while I can’t show it to you it’s fair to say it crossed what Hollywood call the “uncanny valley” – the theory that if something is very lifelike, but not exactly right, it can be slightly creepy or disturbing – and it acted and behaved like a “real” chameleon. As much as a Disney chameleon could of course, after all, not many Chameleons speak or wave… but hey, this is Disney and it’s a “magic” Chameleon.

“Obviously we’re not the business of scaring kids!” said Snoddy, “we go and do tests in our parks to gauge the reaction and try and understand what kids find entertaining about these things. Our ability to build these characters at a fidelity that looks like the films is really growing.”


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When these technologies are fully deployed in Disney parks, and perhaps as toys, Snoddy said Disney will do everything it can to hide the inner technological workings.

“Every new technology that’s come along for the last 60, 70 years we have adopted and co-opted and made it into a story telling medium,” he said, “this [AI and robots] won’t be different. We’re not going to put up a sign that says ‘Look! Artificial intelligence!’, because no-one would come to see that. They really come to be moved emotionally, that will not change.”

So, in the future when you come across a real life robo version of C3PO from Star Wars walking around their parks – let’s face it they’ll make one of those – or a funny Chameleon climbing up your leg remember this is where it all started.

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