Abraham Lincoln may have perished from the earth in 1863, but he’s been a central figure in animatronics since at least the 1960s. Recently, the company responsible for Disney’s humanoid robots showed off a new fake Abraham Lincoln, with an eye-popping range of very realistic facial expressions (including, yes, an eye-popping one).
Developed by Garner Holt Productions, the technology originated, as so much does, in the military—and specifically in a Westworld-like simulation where the furniture is made of foam and the bad guys are made out of robots. As founder Garner Holt explains in a blog post:
We first implemented this sort of work in our projects for the U.S. Marines in the Infantry Immersion Trainer at Camp Pendleton. We created a series of animatronic townspeople to populate the immersive training environment—some of them were slated to be hostile combatants. An effective way to illustrate an animatronic character’s scripted intentions or whether they are friendly or hostile is through changing the figure’s facial expression—in this case, our figures could scowl or raise their eyebrows and smile or frown, all accomplished by mechanical means beneath the animatronics’ silicone face masks. It was a subtle yet very effective way to forewarn Marines that the “townspeople” they were encountering may be getting ready to attack.
The Infantry Immersion Trainer, a former tomato packing plant-turned-state-of-the-art urban training facility at Camp Pendleton, California, has used robot “surrogates” to train thousands of members of the Navy and Marine Corps since at least 2010. The point is to help reduce the cost of finding and hiring human actors to fill each individual role during training scenarios at this 32,000-square-foot, $2.5 million facility and other military simulators. A recent three-year program at the Office for Naval Research, the Human Surrogate Interaction program, is currently investigating how humans interact with virtual avatars, physical animatronics, and other types of surrogates.
“If human role players are not available because of cost or other reasons, this research will help us understand the type of surrogate to replace them with so that the level of training is not diminished,” Peter Squire, ONR program officer, said in a December statement. “The way people react to and interact with the different surrogates in this study is crucial to understanding how we can improve our military training systems.”
Capable of changing facial appearance and behavior “to represent people of different races, genders, and personalities,” humanoid robots, the Navy notes, have been used to “play the part of a local villager in Afghanistan seeking compensation for goats that had been killed,” for instance, and “been demonstrated in Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training scenarios, with a virtual surrogate taking on the characteristics of a victim or aggressor.”
How This Happened, And What Happens Next
Not all robots are created equal. While most animatronics move at a rate of 32 frames per second—including the Shaman character in Disney’s World of Avatar attraction, which Disney touts as its most advanced animatronic character on display—the Lincoln automaton can pull off 1,000 frames per second. That level of smooth realism is thanks to the latest in animatronic (or, if you like, autonomatronic) technology.
Miniature aircraft and industrial-quality servo-motors, now more widely available, allow engineers to cram many more functions within a smaller space. This allows for 45 individual actuators in the head—including 12 that operate just the lips, four on each eye, and so on. “These servo-motors are quite different from the traditional hobby servos used in movie animatronics or by the many expressive “robotic” heads being developed by universities and hobbyists,” writes Holt in a blog post.
A proprietary silicone skin mask attaches to the mechanical parts of the figure with dozens of unique flexible magnetic grippers, allowing it a balance of tightness and looseness. The skin, writes Holt, is “the real star of the figure, and is so malleable it can replicate wrinkling around the eyes, crinkling the nose, and a variety of strikingly lifelike creases that appear and disappear as the face moves from expression to expression—it’s incredible! Most importantly, it’s been thoroughly tested to prove it’s highly durable for theme park use.”
A new programming system to allow the large number of facial functions and speech-related motions to be processed at lightning speed. “With this sort of fluid realism, combined with facial recognition and tracking and other AI features, I believe we’ll soon be looking at animatronics that effectively blur the line between fantasy and reality.”
The new robo Lincoln is part of a new line of highly expressive motorized figures—Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and anyone you want to custom order—that GHP will offer to theme parks and museums as “turnkey” displays.
Meanwhile, robots good for military training could have a bright future as replacements for text placards or tour guides, argues Holt. “Something I’ve seen time and time again in attractions and exhibits is people lose interest in reading explanatory tags pretty quickly, and even videos lose interest after a minute or two in most settings,” Holt writes. “But people always listen and watch animatronics—they’re visually appealing, have a sense of magic to them, and, when done properly, provide an illusion of life that compels audiences to pay attention (with 30-50 functions in each face, the level of lifelike realism will, I think, be totally immersive).”
Lincoln has a long history as a robot: The animatronic Abe in “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” at Disneyland, which debuted at the 1964 Worlds Fair Hall in Chicago, is considered Disney’s first robot, and a landmark in animatronics. Using hydraulics, it could raise its eyebrows, move its mouth, and pinch its lips to make various speech motions, and could even move its teeth to simulate an “eff” sound.
In his blog post, Holt quoted an email from Bob Gurr, an Imagineer and Disney ride designer. “Having watched the facial animation progression from Wathel’s first efforts in 1955, thru Jack Gladish’s first Chinaman, then the 1964 Lincoln [through today], I’m probably the sole witness to all of it.” After seeing the new Lincoln face, he wrote, “I’m still flabbergasted.”
There’s more flabbergasting to come, apparently. A more advanced animatronic currently under way at the company involves a figure that can “track individuals in an audience, lock onto faces, follow specific faces, colors, or images (like logos or other insignia), and cross-reference what it sees with an index of faces and other images so that the character can ‘recognize’ individuals or specific insignia.”
Such animatronics won’t be confined to museums or Disney parks, either, Holt predicts: It may be altogether fitting and proper that they come home with us, too. “One day, robots with expressive faces like this may be in homes, and we’d love to be part of that.”