Once you get past the fact that it has no skin, the new robot from Disney Research is an impressive feat of robotics. First reported by Gizmodo, the new robot can imitate human facial movements, specifically blinking and subtle head movements.
A sensor in its chest area (covered by a shirt, because the face is unsettling enough, thanks) alerts the robot when to turn and face a person in front of it, and its eye movements shift from direct eye contact to the rapid eye movements known as saccades. It also moves slightly up and down to mimic breathing.
The robot was developed by engineers at Disney’s Research division, Walt Disney Imagineering, and robotics researchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the California Institute of Technology.
While most humanoid robots generally focus their eyes on a human face and stay there, that’s not how people interact with each other (except on Zoom calls, maybe). The Disney Research team explained in its paper Realistic and Interactive Robot Gaze:
Gaze has been shown to be a key social signal, shaping perceptions of interaction partners. For example, people who make more eye contact with us are perceived to be similar to us, as well as more intelligent, conscientious, sincere, and trustworthy. Furthermore, gaze appears to also convey complex social and emotional states.
Given the importance of gaze in social interactions as well as its ability to communicate states and shape perceptions, it is apparent that gaze can function as a significant tool for an interactive robot character. Thus, the aim of this work is to develop a system to emulate human-like mutual gaze.
It’s not hard to imagine how Disney might use this technology, say, for animatronic characters at its theme parks. The company’s research division has been working on making more lifelike robots for some time; in 2018 it unveiled its Stickman robot that could do backflips in mid-air, “to approximate the height of a human stunt performer with arms raised over his or her head.”
They’ll just need to add something that looks like skin over the eye-tracking robot’s skull. Conquering the uncanny valley is one thing, but left as-is, this robot would probably freak out Disneyland guests checking out the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
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