Patent: Disney’s Newest Performers Got Strings to Hold Them Down, Make Them Fret, Make Them Frown

Let’s face it, audio animatronic figures are just a passing fad. Sure they look and move in realistic fashions, even so much as being able to appear to walk steps or be able to twirl a lasso, but it all comes at a high cost — literally and figuratively. They’re expensive to design and create, require expensive maintenance and heavy and large platforms and have extremely limited mobility. And that’s coming from one of the leaders in robotic development at Disney Research, Lanny Smoot. Smoot, Imagineer Gary Schnuckle and Timothy Caldwell are the driving forces behind a new patent application which seeks out the next generation of reliable, consistent, automated performances and they just might have found the answer for 2010 in technology whose origins have been traced as far back as 2000 B.C. — marionettes.

Now we aren’t talking about marionettes in the traditional sense, because that just wouldn’t be patent-worthy or (let’s be honest) time-worthy. We are talking about bringing the traditional art form to a much larger scale. Life-size puppets attached to several strings, manipulating their every move on a full-size stage in front of a live audience. Up until now, the closest performances have come to being able to provide this form of entertainment is the Japanese art of Bunkaru in which the puppeteers wear all black to blend in with the background so that their large puppets appear to move on their own without any sort of human intervention – almost.

The patent application, titled ‘Robotic Marionettes on Magnetically-Supported and Highly Mobile Puppeteer Platforms,’ describes a system in which the life-size marionettes are attached to a device called the puppeteer vehicle. The puppeteer vehicle, in turn, is magnetically attached to the tender vehicle, the two of which being separated by a thin membrane of sorts, which essentially amounts to a physical ceiling to the set. The tender vehicle on top of the membrane/ceiling is programmed to move in specific positions (most likely controlled wirelessly) and drags the puppeteer vehicle with it via the magnetic connection. The puppeteer vehicle, in turn, contains all the mechanical elements to be able to manipulate the large puppets. In certain cases, such as the case of eye movement, robots can be installed on the puppet itself, providing some of the benefits of animatronics/robotics to the anti-technological puppet.

Applying the technology to the traditional art of marionette puppetry has an immediate two-fold benefit. Firstly, while the puppets might be able to walk (or fly) across a large stage with humans in control, they are limited in the Z axis. That is, they could never negotiate the difference between up stage and down stage. Because of the thin membrane which requires no strings to pass through it, the magnetic system would allow the puppets to walk towards and away from the audience. Second, and more importantly, the system allows for the puppets to approach and interact with each other without risking the puppets colliding and/or strings becoming entangled. Although robotic systems have been developed to manipulate the puppets, it’s impossible to have multiple puppets move around each other because of the physical nature of the robotic arms themselves.

Sorry, Pinocchio, but you’ve had your fun.

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