The terrifying machine can imitate human actions, specifically blinking and copying subtle head movements.
These can include subtly nodding and moving as it ‘breathes’ in and out, or tiny eye movements – behaviour that a normal human being would never notice themselves doing because they are so miniscule.
The robot was developed to make Disney’s animatronics more realistic, helping them create the “illusion of life”, according to a paper from Walt Disney Imagineering.
In its actions, it mirrors the principles animators use to make cartoon characters: the use of ‘arcs’, with motion following a curved path, ‘drag’, which means different parts of the robot will move at different speeds, and accelerating and decelerating actions at the beginning and the end of movements.
The machine focuses on the human’s eye gaze through a sensor mounted on the robot’s chest.
That allows it to tell when a human is trying to interact with it, based on a ‘curiosity score’; the higher that number, the more important it is for the robot to engage with the human.
When that is done, the robot will then choose a number of ‘shows’, which set how parts of its face moves. This could include opening and closing the jaw, tilting the head, furrowing eyebrows, and nodding.
This can be changed based on how close a human is to the robot, which researchers say is a strong contributor for a sense of realism.
“At further distances, lower fidelity behaviours can seem believable, and the same is true for shorter interaction times. At closer distances and for longer periods of time, more complex behaviours are required to create believable characters”, the research states.
“For example, simple head motion may be believable from a distance, but as individuals move closer to a robot, the illusion of life would break, and eye gaze becomes essential”.
However, there are still elements where the robot cannot emulate humans – eye gaze, for example. The robot’s eyes are set parallel and cannot focus on the human as well as biological eyes.
Thus, during mutual gaze, the robot appears to look through you instead of at you”, the researchers say.
As such, the robot uses saccades – quick, darting eye movements – that make it difficult to determine where the robot is focusing and therefore create the illusion that both eyes are focused on the person.
The reason that it is so necessary to make robots seem realistic is because of the ‘uncanny valley’, when we encounter a robot that is almost, but not quite, human.
When a machine is at this stage, the human-likeness creates a sense of unease or discomfort. This is unlike explicit robots such as those by Boston Dynamics, or machines that look so similar to humans they cannot be distinguished.