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Thursday, February 26, 2009

If Disney has its way, Mickey Mouse will be more interactive


By David Templeton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mickey Mouse and his buddies may become more animated and interactive in the future because of a new Disney association with Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, where the world's favorite rodent and his ilk will be the subjects of animathol, robotics and other technologies for the Disney film, resort and entertainment empire.

Ed Catmull, president of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, announced formation of two laboratories this week during his keynote address at SIGGRAPH 2008, the world's largest computer graphics conference ends Friday 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," Catmull said, noting that the labs will strengthen Disney's commitment to research and development.

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.

Carnegie Mellon stands out with its expertise in computing, robotics, human interaction and entertainment, said Joe Marks, vice president for research and development for Walt Disney Imagineering and Walt Disney Animation.

"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," Marks said.

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

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."

— Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service


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