Disney has been breathing life into inanimate drawings for close to a hundred years. Today the famous studios are also inspiring robot designers.

Disney remains an inspiration for designing robot-assistants

These days we have lost count of the number of stories brought to the screen – as in the TV series Westworld and Black Mirror – which feature humanoid robots full of good or not so good intentions towards the human race. French surgeon and author Laurent Alexandre told the audience at a round table discussion in the French Senate on 19 January that “strong artificial intelligence‟ – i.e. AI that has its own consciousness and propensity to do harm to people – is some way off, although he agreed that it is extremely important to anticipate its potential impact and draw up a regulatory framework.

This feeling seems to be shared on the other side of the Atlantic as well. During the Virtual Assistant Summit hosted by RE•WORK, which took place in San Francisco on 26-27 January, several experts set out to put the advent of this form of ‘hybrid intelligence’ into context. The event also celebrated the market launch of a number of robot-assistants that are as appealing as characters drawn from Disney cartoons. Moreover, everyone seemed to agree that the iconic animation studios are proving to be a real source of inspiration for robot creators.

A simple design

Among the most promising household robots on the market are Jibo and his friend Kuri. What they have in common is that they both stem from characters in animated films. Justin Woo, one of the developers of Jibo, a physical virtual assistant on whose launch L’Atelier reported last year, opened his presentation at the Virtual Assistant Summit by pointing out: “We designed our robot as a Disney character.‟  

However, Jibo and Kuri are actually the very antithesis of the humanoid robot concept. They are quite tiny and look nothing like human beings. It all seems as though the designers had decided to scale down, rather than humanise, a machine while drawing on the Disney codes.

Robot Jibo (Crédits: Jibo)

Alonso Martinez, Technical Director at Pixar Animation Studios and a great fan of robotics, pointed out: “Round-shaped characters tend to remind us of new-born children and seem lovable, which tends to arouse tenderness in the beholder.” So it should not come as a surprise to see that Jibo and Kuri have perfectly round heads.

Jibo’s structure is also extremely simple in its design: the robot is mounted on three rotating axes which allow it to turn its body and head through 360°. Moreover, Jibo only has one eye – a luminous point that can change colour and form so as to transmit a range of emotions and information. Behind the Cyclops eye sits a camera that enables the robot to recognise people’s faces and follow them with his head. “A simplified design can be very powerful and can convey messages very efficiently. Giving Jibo sight was essential so that you can feel his presence during a conversation but we also realised that one eye would suffice to create the feeling of being in conversation with him,‟ explained Justin Woo. It would appear that having robot assistants that resemble us physically is not an absolute condition for accepting them into our surroundings. However, their ability to arouse empathy is now becoming such a condition.

Robot Kuri (Crédits: Mayfield Robotics)

A well-honed personality

The simple structure of these home robots nevertheless provides us with a glimpse of a complex personality that reminds us somewhat of the work coming out of animation studios. Alonso Martinez told the Virtual assistant Summit audience: “Animation experts have got emotion down to a T. They are able to draw on a huge toolbox, including light and sound, to appeal to the viewer. These codes can also be applied to robotics.‟ Martinez has designed Mira, a robot companion which he presented at the conference. Mira emits sounds and vibrations which give her a consistent, appealing personality. For example, her light turns mauve when she wants to put her interlocutor at ease, given that pastel colours are known to remind us of our childhood.

Mira, designed by Alonso Martinez (Photo: Alonso Martinez)

So, as evidenced by Jibo and Kuri, animation techniques have the power to cast their influence way beyond the confines of the movie theatre. It is also interesting to note that a human appearance is not a pre-requisite for harmonious relations between people and their home-based robots, whether they are intended simply as companions or real assistants. On the contrary, if and when such robots start to be more widely used it will surely be because of their ability to melt naturally into the environment but still create an emotional connection with their human owners.



By Pauline Canteneur