Why ‘Big Hero 6’ Brought a Robotics Professor to Tears

The professor, who was a consultant for the flick, said he “cried five times during the movie.” He’s hopeful one day soft robots will be able to help the elderly and disabled.
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The professor, who was a consultant for the flick, said he “cried five times during the movie.” He’s hopeful one day soft robots will be able to help the elderly and disabled.

Inspired by the Marvel comic book of the same name, Disney’s new animated feature “Big Hero 6” tells the heartwarming story of a 14-year-old genius named Hiro, who befriends an oversized inflatable robot. The balloonish creation is called Baymax and was built by Hiro’s older brother Tadashi as a Personal Healthcare Companion, but before he can test it, Tadashi dies in a lab accident.

When a devastating event befalls the city of San Fransokyo, Hiro, Baymax and their scientist friends — adrenaline junkie GoGo Tomago, neatnik Wasabi, chemistry whiz Honey Lemon and fanboy Fred — join forces to discover what happened. In the course of the journey, they become high-tech heroes called “Big Hero 6.”

Big Hero 6

Photo courtesy of Disney

The feature film is what you’d expect from a Disney movie. It has a lot of humor, a lot of action and a lot of heart. Perfectionists that they are, the filmmakers met with various scientists, physicists and engineers to get the details right. Among the experts they spoke to was Chris Atkeson, a professor at the Robotics Institute and Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Atkeson explained to co-director Don Hall and some of the other visiting Disney animators that “soft” robots are being developed in the Institute’s lab. Someday a soft robot like Baymax, designed to help humans, may become a reality.

The inspiration for Baymax’s design came from Atkeson’s former CMU colleague, Siddharth Sanan, now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, who has conducted research on inflatable robots, and the idea of Baymax being a nurse/care robot was reinforced by Atkeson’s research into assistive soft robotic technology he has conducted at CMU over the past 14 years. Atkeson is hopeful one day soft robots will be able to help the elderly and disabled with everyday tasks and health monitoring.

Contacted by Not Impossible Now, Atkeson discussed his role as one of the robot consultants on the film, what’s happening in the field of “soft robotics” and his reaction to “Big Hero 6,” which opens in theaters today.

NIN: How did the filmmakers get in touch with you and what did they want to know?

Chris: John Lasseter, who runs the animation studio, tells his people before every movie to “Go do research.” For this movie, they knew it was going to be about robots. So Mr. Lasseter told Don to go do research about robots. Disney has a research arm called Disney Research, which helped arrange visits with robot people all over the world, and they came to CMU and talked to a bunch of people, and one of them was me.

Did Don Hall look at your robots?

Chris: Yeah. It was important that he came to see this stuff. Animators need to see things and touch things. It was the experience of seeing and touching our vinyl robot that made the difference. You can talk about it all day but you don’t have a real clue about what it’s like until it’s right in front of you. He had a couple of people with him but I think he was trying to figure out the story. We showed him the soft robots and what I call “metal monsters.”

Big Hero 6

Photo courtesy of Disney

He apparently liked the soft robots.

Chris: Yeah, he talked about why it was important to them. It makes sense to Disney for a lot of reasons that aren’t important to me, technologically. It gave them a unique robot that wasn’t a Transformer or a Terminator. People hadn’t seen one like it before (in movies). The animators could play with the shape of the thing. I gather they were interested in this global illumination algorithm. They made the robot somewhat transparent so it could interact with what’s called “a rendering algorithm.” There were a lot of reasons why it made sense for them to go with something soft, other than we really don’t want it to hurt people.

Was he interested in the fact that you research robots as helpers of humans?

Chris: I’m not sure where that idea came from. We certainly emphasized it in what we had to say because that’s what we’re building the robots to do.

Have you seen the movie yet?

Chris: Yes.

Is the way Baymax depicted realistic to you?

Chris: I’m very invested in this thing. I cried five times during the movie. Part of it is pride in seeing an idea developed so exquisitely. As roboticists, we try to sell our ideas in a very crude way but we’re not very good at it. The Disney folks are so much better at it, so to see this idea of a soft robot fleshed out in that way meant a great deal to me. Also, my brother died of cancer a few years ago so the part of the movie (where Hiro loses his brother) had a big impact on me.

Realistically speaking, is a robot going to fly around? Probably not. What’s the power source of the robot? I don’t know. Cold fusion, probably. They said there was a skeleton in there but could we build that today and still have it pretty much invisible and not have the robot weigh very much? I don’t think so. Technically, there are some things that we describe in the engineering profession as being made out of “unobtanium.” We can’t get that now. Someday, we might know how to do it. On the other hand, could we build a robot with those capabilities? Except for the flying part, sure.

Big Hero 6

Photo courtesy of Disney

How far in the future is a robot like Baymax, minus the flying, likely?

Chris: I think it’s very soon. We haven’t gone for a complete system. But we have gone for parts of it. The design that we could do very soon, like a carbon fiber skeleton and pneumatic actuators internally, is possible. It’s not clear, though, that making a big balloon and putting stuff inside of it is the right way to go. Do you know what water wings are? They’re like a sleeve. That’s probably a much better way to do the inflatable part — essentially putting sleeves on all the limbs and torsos. Space suits are already inflatable robots, so the armored Baymax exists. The space suits rely on the human inside to actually guide it. They have to deal with micrometeorite damage and things like that, so these are serious, robust systems.

What can you tell me about the telepathically controlled microbots that we see in the movie? Possible?

Chris: Let’s put aside the telepathic stuff for the moment. People are interested in building big robots out of smaller parts and to some extent we all are built out of microrobots Life on earth is built of what we call cells, some of which are motile and some of which are not. In terms of development, when you grow from an embryo to an adult, the cells are moving around all of the time, attaching to each other and detaching. So we are robots built out of microbots already.

Wouldn’t manufactured microbots last longer?

Chris: Probably not. The little microbots wouldn’t live for a long time so they wouldn’t be very reliable, so you just make lots and lots of them and keep regenerating and throw away the ones that don’t work.

Hiro’s friends at the Institute are working on other types of inventions in other scientific fields. Do you see the feasibility of those?

Chris: Yeah. GoGo Tomago is working on magnetic levitation. We already have trains that use that to go around on tracks, so that’s well within technical feasibility. The laser stuff is well within technical feasibility. I don’t know anything about chemistry so I can’t tell you whether it’s possible to turn something into a cloud of pink smoke. Fred wears a rubber suit and you can certainly buy those for Halloween.

Big Hero 6

Photo courtesy of Disney

So the science is accurate, in principle?

Chris: Yeah, but is there something like Baymax that you could carry around in your purse? The issue of how you power it is a huge problem. The military, for example, is very interested in it. In robotics, how you power a robot that you can walk around with is a huge problem we haven’t solved yet.

Do you think your colleagues and friends will like the film?

Chris: I think it’s going to be accepted warmly by the nerd community.

Watch the YouTube video below to view the inflatable robot arm that inspired Baymax’s design in “Big Hero 6.”

Top photo courtesy of Disney

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect that “Big Hero 6” was released today.

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