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Fleshy, Huggable Robots Could Soon Roam Disney Theme Parks


An actor portraying the robot character Baymax from "Big Hero 6" appears onstage at a Shangai Disney resort with the pop group SNH48. VCG/Getty Images
An actor portraying the robot character Baymax from "Big Hero 6" appears onstage at a Shangai Disney resort with the pop group SNH48. VCG/Getty Images

Walt Disney theme park visitors, especially children, love to meet their favorite characters in person — and hug them. But these life-sized, costumed simulacra of Mickey, Minnie, Anna and Elsa are actually propelled by human actors on the inside. Fans still need to suspend their disbelief — at least for now.

Disney Enterprises has filed a new patent that indicates the company has the development of life-like robots in the works. The patent application, filed on April 6, 2017, describes a "soft body robot for physical interaction with humans."

While the technical description may not sound warm and fuzzy, that's exactly the idea behind this humanoid bot. The robot will have soft skin and body parts, and "will move and physically interact like an animated character," according to Disney's patent application. Some of the robot body, like its arms and torso, will be filled with pockets of gas or air that can be inflated (or deflated) to mimic the feel and movement of human flesh. A human handler will operate these functions by remote. This way, at least according to the patent, children can interact safely with the stylized bots.

Although the patent stops short of identifying the specific Disney characters that will be part of a huggable robot army, Disney did create a miniature prototype with a round belly and fleshy arms. Whether it's the Baymax robot from "Big Hero 6" or a Winnie the Pooh bot is yet to be revealed — but either character would fit the prototype's body shape. Squint, and you could maybe imagine Robin Williams' genie from "Aladdin," too.

Could Disney's new breed of squishy, more-humanlike robots put theme park actors out of a job? Not likely. Even the current animatronic characters at Disney theme parks, with their blinking eyes and moving mouths, need a human hand now and then. From routine maintenance and repairs to behind-the-scenes remote operation, these sophisticated robotic characters rely on real people to be the brains of the operation. But will they always? Maybe it's time to give those robot takeover conspiracies a second look.



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