PATENT: Walking and Talking Characters for Theme Parks (Spoilers)

Chin Strap Sensor for Triggering Control of Walk-Around CharactersIt should be painfully obvious what the image to the left is demonstrating, but do indulge us and allow us to explain just the same. Pictured here is the primary drawing from a recently published patent application titled ‘Chin Strap Sensor for Triggering Control of Walk-Around Characters’ (20140106642) by Walt Disney Imagineering’s Holger Irmler.

The design, which centers around a chest strap, aims to resolve current obstacles in producing a walking, talking, interacting meet and greet character for theme parks, presumably by making the operator even less comfortable in the process. While significant achievements have been made in bringing interactive and animated characters to life, there are still some ongoing challenges.

The first generation of articulated characters served as performers in staged performances (such as ‘Dream Along with Mickey’) who are performing to track. In this design, the performers control the opening/closing of mouths and blinking of eyes with finger paddles embedded in the costume. While effective, it’s not that difficult to notice the operators controlling the costumes, despite the performers now attempting to hide their hands behind their backs to the point where it seems all that more suspicious.

The next generation of interactive characters include Magician Mickey who currently meets, greets and ‘converses’ with guests at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. This generation of characters provided even more challenges which had to be overcome. The first challenge was the electronic hum and other noises most of us are familiar with that are generated by animated objects such as toys. Clearly the awe of actually conversing with Mickey Mouse would have been offset by the mysterious hum radiating from his head. With the ability to improve on the servos to the point where this is no longer noticeable, it would now be just a matter of making Mickey actually talk. Two avenues were explored: live performance and pre-recorded messages (/aka/ soundboard).

Live performance certainly had its benefits since guests were having a conversation quite literally with another individual (Mickey), but it’s not considered a practical solution. Apparently while sound-alikes seem to serve their purpose for interactive show hosts such as Crush and Stitch, a more consistent effect is desired. The soundboard is more effective for providing a voice, but it too provided many challenges, the first being that greetings and responses are limited due to a very finite number of options. Here, more options were explored including the ability to use speech recognition to understand what the guest is saying, then present a custom generated list of responses for the soundboard. The other, more practical application, however, is simply to allow Mickey to dominate the conversation by waxing poetic on things such as the Haunted Mansion, or whatever other attraction the guest has just visited (thanks to the trusty Magic Band).

In either case, Mickey isn’t a one-mouse job, and while interactive characters in the parks have had ‘assistants’ in the parks in the past, trying to blend in with the crowd, it does serve to spoil the illusion. Thus the need exists to allow for characters to walk and talk assistant-free in a way that doesn’t scream ‘hey guest, look at my finger, I’m about to open my mouth.’ Ergo the chin strap.

The patent application starts out simple enough. A chin strap is added to the costume so that when the wearer opens and closes their mouth in such a way, the character responds by talking with the mouth opening and closing in sync. The system is so designed to prevent false positives so that a yawn or something to that effect doesn’t accidentally cause the character to misfire and even goes as far as to suggest that an infrared camera be placed inside the head with software to analyze and respond to facial recognition and expressions.

What the patent application doesn’t address, however, is how the operator/character will choose just what will be said, which could send the character back to square one when it comes to actually interacting with guests.

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