Disney has given “computer domination” conspiracy theorists another fully prepared meal with this one.
The company has just unveiled a skinless robot that mimics human actions such as blinking, breathing, turning its body in a more human manner, and also nodding its head. Even the tiny reflexive movements in the eyes, (saccades) can be observed in this robot’s creepy eyes, and once you can get past the skeletal intent of its design, you’ll start to get the hang of it.
First reported by Gizmodo, the skinless robot was created by “imagineers” at Disney’s research and technology innovation division, Walt Disney Imagineering.  They were assisted by robotics researchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the California Institute of Technology.
According to a paper from the Imagineering Division at Disney, the remarkable robot was created to better imitate the “illusion of life” in modern artificial intelligence machines and make Disney’s animatronics more realistic. 
Disney’s most important objective in the creation of the robot was its ability to focus intently on the human gaze, rather than the human face. Most humanoid robots would just lock their eyes on a detected human face and stay there. The skinless robot, on the other hand, can considerably follow a person’s gaze. A sensor mounted on the robot’s chest tells it when a human is trying to interact with it. Based on proximity, the robot determines how important it is to interact with the human by calculating a “curiosity score”. After this, a number of ‘shows’ will be calculated by the Behavior Selection Engine. The shows represent the body movements the robot has to engage with, such as turning its neck, locking on a person’s gaze, and nodding.
“At further distances, lower fidelity behaviors can seem believable, and the same is true for shorter interaction times. At closer distances and for longer periods of time, more complex behaviors are required to create believable characters,” the research states.
“For example, simple head motion may be believable from a distance, but as individuals move closer to a robot, the illusion of life would break, and eye gaze becomes essential”.
A step in the right direction
The researchers note that the robot has its gaze-locking limitations. The robot’s eyes are configured in a parallel dimension and they cannot fixate as perfectly as the human eyes
“Thus, during mutual gaze, the robot appears to look through you instead of at you”, the researchers say.
However, the robot was designed to employ the saccades phenomenon in such a way as to fool a human and produce a gaze-holding illusion.
The team continued: “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.”
Using the Behavior Selection Engine, the Robot works with a buffer reminiscent of a short-term memory and deletes the information (mostly the locations of the eyes and nose) that it has picked up about each human after engagement. This is a way of rapidly adapting to the unique features of every human and characterizing each person differently.
Below is an infographic of the robot’s general system architecture:
The engineers wrote: “This architecture is highly extensible and can be used to create increasingly complex animatronic gaze behaviors as well as other interactive shows. We see this work as an attempt to ascend from the uncanny valley through layering of interactive kinematic behaviors and sensorimotor responsiveness.”
- Disney Made a Skinless Robot That Can Realistically Stare Directly Into Your Soul.” Gizmodo. Andrew Liszewski. Retrieved November 2, 2020.
- “Realistic and Interactive Robot Gaze.” Amazon AWS. Pan et al. Retrieved November 2, 2020.