The Hall of Presidents is about to get a whole lot creepier, at least if Disney’s researchers get their way. That’s because they’re “face cloning” people at a lab in Zurich in order to create the most realistic animatronic characters ever made.
First of all, yes, Disney has a laboratory in Zurich. It’s one of six around the world where the company researches things like computer graphics, 3D technology and, I can only assume, how to most efficiently suck money out of your pocket when you visit Disneyworld.
What does “physical face cloning” involve? Researchers used video cameras to capture several expressions on a subject’s face, recreating them in 3D computer models down to individual wrinkles and facial hair. They then experimented with different thicknesses of silicon for each part of the face until they could create a mold for the perfect synthetic skin.
They slapped that silicone skin on a 3D-printed model of the subject’s head to create their very own replicant. As the authors of the study point out (PDF), it’s not all that different from creating a 3D model for a Pixar movie, except that in real life you have to worry about things like materials and the motors that make the face change expressions.
The plan is to develop a “complete process for automating the physical reproduction of a human face on an animatronics device,” meaning all you’ll have to do in the future is record a person’s face and the computer will do the rest. This is a different process than the one used to make the famous Geminoid robots from Osaka University, whose skin is individually crafted by artists through trial and error.
The next step is developing more advanced actuators and multi-layered synthetic skin to give the researchers more degrees of freedom in mimicking facial expressions. That means next time you go on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, don’t be surprised to see a terrifyingly realistic Johnny Depp-bot cavorting with an appropriately dead-eyed Orlando Bloom.