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Disney to use robots and AI to bring Mickey and Goofy to life at theme parks

Luke Johnson

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Mickey Mouse

What's creepier than adults dressed up in giant cartoon character costumes? That’s right, robots dressed up in the same gear.

Well, that’s the techy, and slightly sinister future heading to Disney’s theme parks.

The animator is no stranger to pushing new technology, it’s been a pioneer of computer graphics for decades, but now it’s taking its tech-loving push in a more physical direction.

Giving a rare glimpse of the workings behind the “magic”, Disney has given an insight into its planned future tech use, with robots and artificial intelligence to give new form to the company’s storytelling in the coming years.

“I think AI and machine learning is going to be very important for what we do,” said Jon Snoddy, Disney’s Vice President for research and development.

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Speaking with the BBC at South by Southwest, he added: “Things like characters that can move around among our guests, they’re going to need to understand where they’re going, have goals, and they’re going to have to know how to navigate in a world with humans.

“All these emerging technologies are going to be key to the next generation of entertainment.”

It won’t just be humanoid characters such as the fleet of Disney Princesses, Toy Story’s Woody, or Up’s Carl Fredricksen, that will be on the receiving end of a robotic makeover either.

The entertainment giant has already shown footage of a robotic version of Pascal, the lizard from 2010’s movie, Tangled, doing its thing.

“Obviously we’re not in the business of scaring kids,” Snoddy said while discussing the company’s concerns that these robots aren’t currently realistic enough to comfortably fool the masses.

“That won’t be part of what we deploy. We go and do tests in our parks to gauge the reaction and try to understand what kids find entertaining about these things.”

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While robots replacing humans at theme parks might sound like something straight from one of Disney’s films, according to the company, it’s a reality that’s edging increasingly closer as the technology continues to develop in a meaningful, true to life manner.

“Our ability to build these characters at a fidelity that looks like the films is really growing.

“Every new technology that’s come along for the last 60, 70 years we have adapted and co-opted and made it into a story telling medium. This won’t be different.

“We’re not going to put up a sign that says ‘Look! Artificial intelligence’, because no-one would come to see that. They really come to be moved emotionally, that will not change.”

Although Disney has started work on its robotic characters, there’s currently no word on when they will be commonplace at the company’s global array of theme parks.

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Would you be put off by Disney robots? Let us know below.

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