Disney picks CMU to work on robotics, animation

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Carnegie Mellon University has welcomed the wonderful world of Disney to campus to fund a research laboratory where animation, robotics and other technologies will be developed for Disney's film, resort and entertainment empire.

Disney officials say Carnegie Mellon was chosen because of its "leading-edge work in computer science and technology."

If the university can work its magic, Mickey could become more animated and interactive with some creative moves of the mouse.

"They are a world-class university and understand how to work well with industry," said Joe Marks, vice president of research and development for Walt Disney Imagineering and Walt Disney Animation Studios. "We don't have a timeline, but we're looking for great ideas for the short term and much longer term."

Ed Catmull, president of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, announced formation of two laboratories yesterday during his keynote address at SIGGRAPH 2008, the world's largest computer graphics conference under way in Los Angeles.

Disney also will open a lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, known as ETH Zurich. Both universities will help foster new technologies for Disney's Parks & Resorts Division, Disney Media Networks, ESPN, Walt Disney Feature Animation, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Disney Interactive Media Group and Pixar.

"Creating the next generation of sophisticated technologies requires long-term vision and collaboration with world-class innovators," Mr. Catmull said, noting the labs will strengthen Disney's commitment to research and development.

Carnegie Mellon's new Disney lab is situated along Forbes Avenue near the western edge of campus.

Jessica Hodgins, a Carnegie Mellon professor of computer science and robotics and newly named director of Disney research, Pittsburgh, said the first goal is to create ways for robots and virtual characters to interact with people.

"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."

Under the five-year contract, Disney will provide Carnegie Mellon with funding for a director and as many as eight researchers. Most projects also will involve faculty and students, with lab staff encouraged to teach university classes.

Dr. Marks said Carnegie Mellon stands out with its expertise in computing, robotics, human interaction and entertainment.

"CMU is No. 1 in the world, and that was obvious to Disney," he said, noting that advances in computer technology led to creation of Pixar and its documented success with computer graphics and animation in such films as "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," and "Ratatouille."

Developing a relationship with Carnegie Mellon represents Disney's attempt to create "the perfect collaboration of industry, academics, art and science," Dr. Marks said.

One goal is "to make a park experience that is more interactive and responsive" to people.

Dr. Marks said the company will provide guidelines and goals, but also adopt a "bubble-up philosophy" to allow researchers to work on ideas that show promise.

"That's part of the magic of it," he said. "The principal investigators are world-class people who develop their own research."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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