Disney has filed for a new patent covering a soft robot designed to be able to interact safely with children. Many hope the move will lead to new consumer robots, but let’s be honest: the real dream of soft robots from Disney is a theme park full of huggable robotic actors.
The patent goes into great detail about just how Disney hopes it might accomplish its “playful physical interaction” with children — and it basically rules out any soft robotic princes or princesses, at least for now. The renderings are more reminiscent of a Care Bear, with smoothly curved arms and an enormous torso.
Still, Disney has certainly thought through how exactly these things will be safe. Not only are its hard inner components cushioned by the squishy, kid-durable exterior, the joints are made to immediately switch from powered to “freewheeling” when they encounter enough force. This means that when a joint is put under enough stress, like when a child haplessly clothes-lines himself on its swinging arm, the joint will simply give up, and collapse to cushion the impact and avoid, well, clothes-lining any hapless children.
In the patent, Disney mentions that it has already made and tested a “small toy-sized” soft robot, but makes no mention of the scale of the robots it thinks might come out of the design. Though there are some references that could be indicative of their thinking, like their forecast that “robots and humans [will] often work in close proximity, where they physically interact with one another.” It’s hard to imagine that sentence applying to a teddy-bot that only comes up to the knee.
Soft robotics are a big deal these days — or they’re about to be. The concept is important for robots to enter real world use alongside delicate objects like the family china, and human skulls. Advanced soft robotics will be important to create practical grabbers so robots can manipulate their (our) world, and medical robots that don’t cause more damage than they heal.
The technology has reportedly been in the works at Disney research since 2014 — which also just so happens to be the year Disney released Big Hero 6, featuring a character that looks very much like the rendering above.