Disney Reseach Labs to relocate to campus, moving into Collaborative Innovation Center

Jennifer Tharp Oct 25, 2010

A part of the Carnegie Mellon research community since 2008, Disney Research Labs will soon move into the Collaborative Innovation Center (CIC). The Disney lab will occupy 17,000 square feet of the space that Google vacated in the basement of the building, sharing space with the Apple Pittsburgh Office and an Intel Research Lab.

“We will have more space ... for our research in human-computer interaction, human-robot interaction, humanoid robotics, and computer vision,” said Jessica Hodgins, the director of Disney Research and a professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon. The increased space available will also give Disney researchers a larger environment in which to collaborate on projects, such as the intersection of computer animation and robotics, with Carnegie Mellon faculty. One of the first companies to make a significant foray into entertainment research, Disney has research facilities in Pennsylvania, California, and Utah, as well as Zurich, Switzerland.

Disney’s presence has created opportunities for Carnegie Mellon faculty as well as student interns from departments such as the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), computer science, and art to interact with and learn from Disney researchers. Over the past two years, the Disney Research Lab has participated in projects in both art and computer science for ESPN and Pixar Animation Studios, both affiliates of Disney, as well as the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Within the university, discussion groups also provide an outlet for ideas and advice to flow among disciplines. For example, the Graphics Group within the Robotics Institute meets once a week with participants from both Carnegie Mellon and the Disney Research Lab. The group also allows students to present and discuss research papers and their current work.

The Disney Research Lab has been investigating the application of robotics to character experiences within the Walt Disney Parks, in order to create a more interactive experience with guests. “One of the Disney research areas that I find most exciting is the goal of having more interactive and personally engaging robots and animated characters in the theme parks,” said Nancy Pollard, an associate professor in the School of Computer Science. “Making that happen, whether with or without a human operator, brings a new set of challenges to the research lab that we can consider.”

This goal fits well with Pollard’s core research, which focuses on the use of hands and “dexterity for animated characters and robots.” Another project that was a joint effort between Carnegie Mellon faculty and post-doctorates at Disney researched algorithms for “modeling the dynamics of clothing so that new motions could be computed very quickly for interactive applications such as computer games,” Hodgins said. The work was published last summer in the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques.

“CMU is a research university, and Disney’s presence helps extend research to those who wouldn’t participate otherwise: In this case, art majors,” said junior art major Caitlin Boyle.

“There is no doubt that the company has turned out some fantastic animated features over the years, and the presence of their research lab here really speaks of what CMU is best at: creativity and innovation.... A lot of the time, the interdisciplinary nature of the school can be lost for the art students; we arrive thinking big thoughts of coupling our work with science or technology ... and then have a hard time balancing studios with academics, and something inevitably falls by the wayside. The Disney Research Lab is where that kind of interdisciplinary work can be rediscovered.”