Mechanical characters made easy

Disney Research develops computational design tool for animated figures

Creating mechanised automatons and toys has long been the domain of highly specialised engineers and designers. Yet even for them, it often takes much trial and error to get those tricky movements looking right. This process may soon become something we can all do thanks to a new set of software tools being developed by Disney Research.

The joint efforts of teams in Zurich and Boston were recently presented at ACM SIGGRAPH 2013. It is not clear at this point in time whether the software will be released for the general public any time soon, but the progress they have made is exciting to see.

Read about the set of tools that Disney Research are working on after the break, along with a video that shows both the software in action and some neat 3D printed mechanical critters.  

“…our new software tools could open the process to non-experts while expanding the creative choices available to all designers.” – Bernd Bickel, research scientist at Disney Research, Zürich

In one version, the user loads a character model to be animated and then defines actuation points on its limbs. The next step is simply to draw a curve that represents the path for the limb to follow. Then the magic happens – the software automatically  builds the cogs, gears and levers that will enable the desired motion. It’s all optimised before being sent to a digital fabrication device of your choice.

One impressive feature of the mechanical optimisation is that all of the movements can be driven by a single motor.

The second set of tools gets even smarter. Instead of articulation, it allows for the creation of elastic figures that use deformation of the constituent material rather than articulation. This is achieved by loading two sets of model data – one of the figurine in its neutral state, and another set of where the figure is in the target pose. The software then sorts out what kind of actuators would suit the desired movement; be they pins, strings, clamps or similar.

It may all look like fun to us, but there is a serious goal the Disney team are working towards. As research scientist Stelian Coros explains:

“Our research brings us one step closer to the rapid design and manufacture of customized robots that can sense and interact with their environments to carry out complex tasks.”

Disney Research via PSFK

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