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Disney to use AI to bring robotic characters to life at theme parks

Posted: 13 March 2017 | By Darcie Thompson-Fields

The future of Disney theme parks could see artificial intelligence powered Mickey Mouse robots wandering amongst its guests.

The entertainment firm discussed plans to embrace a host of new technologies at SXSW 2017, where it showed footage of a robot Pascal, the lizard from Tangled. Speaking to the BBC at the South by Southwest festival on Saturday, senior Vice President for research and development, Jon Snoddy, explained how you’ll soon be able to interact with story-telling robots at Disney parks.

“I think AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning is going to be very important for what we do,” he told the BBC.

“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.”

Whilst keen to magically recreate digital characters, Disney is keen to avoid ‘uncanny valley’ and the risk of making park visitors feel uncomfortable.

“Obviously we’re not the business of scaring kids!” Mr Snoddy said.

“That won’t be part of what we deploy. We go and do tests in our parks to gauge the reaction and try and understand what kids find entertaining about these things. Our ability to build these characters at a fidelity that looks like the films is really growing.”

Disney has always been fast to adopt new technologies and believes that robotic theme park characters are soon to become a reality.

“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 storytelling 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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