Disney files patent for new soft-body, free-roaming robot

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Apr 10, 2017, 8:00 PM EDT

A new patent for an interactive type of free-roaming, soft-body, or soft-contact robot was filed by Disney at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last week. The filing describes “a robot that will move and physically interact like an animated character" and be "adapted for soft contact and/or interaction with a human.”

According to the patent document, this mobile robot will be created with soft skin and body segments filled with either air or gas, and will have a human handler controlling its actions and reactions in crowds. While this might seem somewhat generic -- the huggable design template could be used for any number of characters -- it appears to be a Baymax-like character from Big Hero 6 , judging from the sketches included with Disney's application.

“It’s hard to know why Disney decides to file for a patent, but they have been looking at soft-body robots since ‘Big Hero,’” said theme park writer Jim Hill. “Disney is still terrified that even with this soft technology, a robot could accidentally harm a child. They do a lot of testing.”

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the new patent filing describes and admits to the difficulties and issues with previous robot-human interactions in the carefully controlled environments of Disney Parks.

"The new application describes pliable chambers making up the body of the robot, filled with fluid or air. The robot would be able to sense pressure on each chamber and adjust the amount of air or water, to respond to a child’s hug, or to an accidental collision. The outer shape of the robot could be determined by 'data obtained from a digital model of an animated (or other) character.' Frame and joint components made with a 3-D printer and outer shapes on the robot would include 'a donut shape, a cylinder, and a cylinder with a round end.' It leaves open the possibility for variations on the basic concept. The inventors are Alexander Alspach, Joohyung Kim, and Katsu Yamane, who work at Disney Research Pittsburgh. They’ve been working on a prototype soft robot since at least 2014, according to Disney Research."

Now, while this patent app is only the first step of a long and complicated process, it still shows Disney's willingness to develop more ways to integrate technology into its guest experience, while hopefully steering clear of any type of Westworld-like calamity. Basic free-roaming robots have been rolled out in Disney parks in the past, but this would likely be the next stage in the evolution of artificial character interaction. As seen at Walt Disney World, Push the Talking Trash Can (basically just a radio-controlled car) and the free-roving audio-animatronic Lucky the Dinosaur are early explorations of these concepts, which were met with mild enthusiasm.

Are you intrigued by Disney's obvious interests in free-roaming robots at their parks? Or will you run for the exits before they rebel?!

(Via io9)