“Digital Humans” Quietly Being Developed by Disney as AI Becomes the Way of the Future

robot with laptop and screenthat reads disney
Credit: Disney/Canva

Disney is working to create a task force to determine the steps the company needs to take to begin the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into its operations as a means of cutting costs, adding more magic to its storytelling, and boosting profits. But Disney’s interest in AI isn’t new, as the company has been developing a digital version of humans for years in a laboratory hidden in the Swiss Alps.

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pixar wall-e robot holds human hand

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios/Canva

Disney has long remained at the cutting edge of technology, imagination, and innovation. Over the company’s 100-year history, innovators of various ages and backgrounds at The Walt Disney Company have lent their talents to bringing imagination and fantasy to life–many times through the use of technology–and sometimes, through technology that wasn’t yet available. Many times, when technology wasn’t yet available, Disney brought together a team to create it, allowing the company to continue growing and adding to its entertainment offerings for fans, young and old alike.

Disney Patents the Audio-Animatronic Robot

When Walt Disney first unveiled his audio-animatronic likeness of President Abraham Lincoln during the New York Worlds’ Fair in 1964, people were stunned. Mr. Lincoln could sit down and stand up, and he didn’t have the same “robotic” appearance of the time. In fact, he looked just like the former president. But Mr. Lincoln wasn’t Disney’s first-ever completed animatronic robot.

Disney's Lincoln Animatronic Used to Smash His Chair and Throw Fits - Inside the Magic

Credit: Disney

Walt’s first audio-animatronics debuted at Disneyland in 1963 inside a wonderful little attraction called The Enchanted Tiki Room. In all, there were more than 200 “animated” robot-like birds, plants, and tiki gods that simulated human movements that gave the impression that they were singing, tapping their feet, looking around the room, and speaking.

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Walt Disney with the word-singing birds and the crooning flowers at The Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland/Credit: D23

Over the years, Animatronics, first created by Disney, has continued to be an ever-advancing multi-disciplinary field of research and development. Animatronics incorporates robots, mechanics, life systems, and puppetry that come together and are covered with body “shells” and skins, as well as hair and other features, to create beings that are extremely lifelike in their movements and appearances.

Advancements are lending themselves to an even more lifelike, realistic-looking, and “acting” generation of animatronics. Until now, however, many of the applications of animatronics have been restricted largely to entertainment use. But AI will change all of that, allowing for animatronics to play a role across a broader scope of industries and sectors, including healthcare, transportation, and more.

Disney Debuts a Prototype Robot to Replace Costumed Characters in the Parks

In March, during the annual SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas, Walt Disney Imagineering unveiled an animatronic that doubles as an AI robot. It’s designed to evoke emotions during interactions with humans.

During a presentation on the first day of the SXSW (South By Southwest) event, Disney Imagineers debuted the new robot–one that can complex moves like humans and is designed to create an emotional connection with Guests while performing its “stunts.” Oh, and she looks just like Judy Hopps from Disney’s Zootopia.

judy hopps robot disney zootopia

Credit: X (Twitter)/Scott Gustin/Nexstar Media

Though the Judy Hopps-esque robot, like other forms of AI, isn’t sentient–able to achieve the empirical intelligence necessary to think, feel, perceive the physical world, and process and utilize language the way humans do–Disney’s Imagineers have been able to teach her to perform stunts and complete other actions that evoke emotions in humans who witness her artificially intelligent feats.

Disney says that the amazing robot “incorporates motion-capture data to create performances that evoke emotion, giving Disney Imagineers a new way to bring out a character’s personality.”

Disney’s Been Developing “Digital Humans” for More Than a Decade

A branch of The Walt Disney Company is dedicated solely to research, and over the past 10 years, that division has been responsible for the development of technology to bring about digital humans through the Digital Humans Strategic Program. It’s the vision of the program to create technology that will enable innovative new ways for Disney’s customers and theme park guests to meet and interact with characters–some like the Judy Hopps robot unveiled by Disney Imagineering.

An Omnistereoscopic Video Pipeline for Capture and Display of Real-World VR

Video pipeline for the capture and display of real-world VR, created by Disney Research scientists/Credit: Disney Research Studios

The team at Disney Research Studios, located in Zurich, Switzerland, is comprised of many people with a wide range of professional backgrounds. Scientists, lab technicians, graphic designers, engineers, producers, artists, administrators, and other talented individuals work together to bring their knowledge and imagination to the table as the division strives to remain ever on that cutting edge.

Disney’s Digital Humans Strategic Program also exists to bring about the creation of virtual characters that can be used in films and other experiences offered by Disney. Per the research division’s website, Disney has been “pushing the state-of-the-art in creating and animating high-quality digital humans for visual effects over the past decade.”

Over those 10 years, Disney Research has worked to develop first-of-its-kind technology to create facial “performances,” which focus on all of the aspects of the human face, like skin, eyes, hair, and teeth. Part of the division’s research and technology has already been used in Disney films and streaming series, including, in no particular order, Pirates of the Caribbean, Avengers: Infinity War, Thor: Ragnarok, Thor: Love and Thunder, Maleficent, Maleficent 2, The Book of Boba Fett, Disney’s live-action version of Pinocchio and Aladdin, and others.

DisneyResearch|Studios - About - Sauce

Credit: Disney Research Studios

It will be interesting to see how far–and how quickly–Disney will come in creating simulated humans for use in its theme parks, film, and television series. Each day brings additional advancements to the team at Disney Research Studios, and it remains to be seen just how far that team will push the current boundaries of imagination to create the next generation of simulated beings, or digital humans.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!

One comment

  1. How about the live interaction and animation of Turtle Talk with Crush and Monsters Inc. You know, the Digital Humans are not that distant in technology from Crush. In some ways it is just a variation in the 3D graphics. Maybe one of these days, Crush will be completely powered by AI, rather than by actors in the back room. (Oh did I say too much already?)

    My hat’s off to Disney though. I got a chance to work with the company’s special events department a few years ago on an interactive avatar project, and met some of the actors and crew from Crush. It was a great experience and I wish them the best when they decide to show us all what Zurich has for the entertainment world next.