Walt Disney Company, Carnegie Mellon Commit to Develop Robotics and Animation
The Walt Disney Company and Carnegie Mellon University today announced a new research and development lab and a commitment to engage top technology for Disney's Parks & Resorts division, ESPN, Disney television networks, Disney Animation and live action studios, Disney Interactive Media Group, and Pixar Animation Studios. The lab will engage in research and development on computer animation, computational cinematography, autonomous interactive characters, robotics, data mining and user interfaces, among other initiatives.
The Disney Research Pittsburgh lab will be a collaborative research center between Disney and Carnegie Mellon. Under the terms of a five-year agreement, Disney will fund a Director and seven to eight principal investigators. Jessica Hodgins, Carnegie Mellon professor of computer science and robotics, has been named Director of Disney Research Pittsburgh.
Hodgins said one of the lab's first projects will be developing methods for people to interact with autonomous characters, either virtual or robotic. "We'll be looking for ways to sense what a person is doing or thinking so that the character can respond appropriately," she said. "Whether the character is a robot or a virtual creation, the interaction issues are the same. We need to figure out what sensors to build and how to interpret and respond to human behavior."
Disney and Carnegie Mellon have a successful history of working together on robotics and animation. The Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon, a joint venture between the School of Computer Science and the College of Fine Arts, recently completed a project to make games for Walt Disney's Spaceship Earth attraction at EPCOT.
Industry-related project courses that produce working artifacts are the standard at the ETC. Among the most popular of the courses is Building Virtual Worlds, which teaches students to use the Panda3D programming library developed by Walt Disney Imagineering’s Virtual Reality studio.
Building Virtual Worlds was originally taught by computer science professor and ETC co-founder Randy Pausch, whose childhood fascination with Disney inspired much of his later work. "I was eight years old and our family took a trip cross-country to see Disneyland," Pausch said. "I just thought this was the coolest environment I've ever been in, and instead of saying, gee, I want to experience this, I said, I want to make stuff like this."
Pausch also completed a sabbatical with Imagineering and is the creator of the Alice software environment, which is supported in part by Disney. Jesse Schell, assistant professor of entertainment technology and former creative director of the Disney Virtual Reality Studio, currently teaches Building Virtual Worlds.
Although Building Virtual Worlds formed the nexus of the ETC curriculum, it has been augmented by cross-disciplinary coursework. Thanks to the innovative and motivated work of the students the center has prospered, infused with Carnegie Mellon's entrepreneurial spirit.
ETC students annually visit Walt Disney Imagineering (which has an established internship program with the ETC) where they are treated to a preview of the latest Disney technologies and meet many Imagineers and ETC alumni currently working for Disney. The addition of the Disney Research Pittsburgh lab will grant faculty and student researchers greater access to Disney's world-class knowledge.
"The access Disney provides to real-world problems and data will enable us to do research with greater impact than is typically possible within a purely academic environment," Hodgins said. "At the same time, Disney Research Pittsburgh can tap expertise at Carnegie Mellon that can be applied to problems that cut across all of Disney’s business units." In addition to work on autonomous characters, she anticipates projects involving databases, machine learning and visualization.
To read Disney's press release, click here.