On Campus: Mickey Moves In

The university's research bonds with The Walt Disney Company are getting stronger with a shift to the CIC

By Tom Imerito

In 1928, a struggling animator from Kansas unveiled the first animated cartoon to feature sound that was synchronized to the action on the screen. Walt Disney's "Steamboat Willie" was a blockbuster, and his name has defined the cutting edge of entertainment technology ever since.

Eight decades later, scientists at Disney Research's two-year-old Pittsburgh laboratory--a collaboration between The Walt Disney Company and Carnegie Mellon--are using novel sensing technologies, human-computer interaction, robotics, computer vision and speech recognition to invent the world's next big entertainment experiences.

Researchers at the lab are investigating problems ranging from how to make an hand-drawn, animated dancer's dress whirl as though she were actually pirouetting in a dress made of real cloth; to designing algorithms that allow robots to learn activities such as tai chi. They've even got a video touch screen that can touch you back.

Disney Research has six laboratories around the world, but only two--the Pittsburgh and Zurich locations--are partnerships with universities. The late Randy Pausch (CS'88), a professor of computer science and human-interaction design at Carnegie Mellon, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Pittsburgh lab, says Jessica Hodgins (CS'89), professor of robotics and computer science and director of Disney Research Pittsburgh.

"Carnegie Mellon's collaborations with Disney originated with Randy Pausch's sabbatical at Disney Imagineering, where he worked and established ties before coming to CMU in 1997," Hodgins says. "Disney established two fellowships in Randy's memory for graduate students who bridge the arts and technology as he did in his research and teaching."

Currently located in the former Graphic Arts Technical Foundation Building near the Pittsburgh campus, the Disney lab is slated to move in early 2011 to the Collaborative Innovation Center. Disney is taking over a 17,000-square-foot space recently vacated by Google's Pittsburgh lab; the websearch giant has moved to a larger location not far from Carnegie Mellon in the city's East Liberty neighborhood. At the CIC, Disney researchers will bump elbows with scientists from Apple and CMU's Software Engineering Institute, among other tenants.

"We're very excited about the move to CIC," Hodgins says. "The additional laboratory space for our research in combination with the on-campus location is ideal for our many collaborations with faculty and students."

Disney officials say the goal of the company's Pittsburgh lab is to develop advanced research in artificial intelligence, machine learning, humanoid robotics, speech recognition and human-computer interaction that can be used to develop products and content in a variety of Disney business units. For the university, the Disney collaboration gives students and faculty the chance to apply their theoretical knowledge to real-world problems and data, and to network with the world's largest entertainment and technology conglomerate. Two years into the partnership with Disney, SCS students and faculty are publishing cutting-edge research in leading journals around the world, in collaboration with researchers at Disney.

In an effort to make video games more true to life, a team led by Hodgins and Adrien Treuille, assistant professor of CS, along with Disney researchers Edilson de Aguiar and Leon Sigal have developed a new algorithm for modeling the dynamics of clothing so that it can be computed in real time. Other papers from the laboratory have looked at the importance of correct synchronization between audio and video and how to adapt motion capture data to characters such as a dancing penguin that are far from the human form.

But Disney Research Pittsburgh looks beyond the visual. Researchers have designed a touch screen interface that vibrates in response to a user's finger touch, providing instant tactile feedback. "The system provides an electrovibration stimulus to the finger via a transparent electrode placed on top of a glass screen protected by an insulating layer," Hodgins says. The development team includes interns and postdoctoral researcher Ali Israr under the direction of senior research scientist Ivan Poupyrev.

In robotics, a senior research scientist, Katsu Yamane, has developed algorithms that use motion capture data to program free-standing humanoid robots. "This optimization approach adapts the motion of a human actor to match the dynamics and joint limits of the robot," Hodgins says. "Techniques such as these allow robots to be programmed more rapidly and with a much broader range of behaviors."

Hodgins says that remodeling the CIC space will provide additional meeting rooms, laboratory space and offices for researchers and interns. More importantly, moving closer to SCS' other buildings will improve opportunities for collaboration.

Just as other research partnerships between private companies and Carnegie Mellon have been made stronger because of their proximity, moving onto campus is "essential" to the future of the Disney lab, Hodgins says.
For More Information: 

Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu