Disney Research engineers have created a prototype of a humanoid robotic head with realistic facial expressions. The system for lifelike gaze makes human-robots appear more alive by giving them the opportunity to have a kind of “eye contact” with people in their vicinity and make small facial movements.
The engineers used one of the already assembled robots with a torso and head. They used the neck, eyes, eyelids, and eyebrows, although the robot can also move its lips and jaw. Besides, they equipped the robot with a depth camera on its chest so that it could see the people in front of it and react to them.
The DisneyResearchHub presented on its YouTube channel that describes the development of a system of realistic look into human-robot interactions using an animatronic bust of a humanoid. The robot gives the impression of perceiving people in its environment, identifying them, and reacting according to their actions. It selects an appropriate gaze and performs faithful movements to respond to stimuli.
When a person appears in the field of view of the camera, the robot creates a kinematic skeleton (a diagram of body parts) for him. Based on the speed and direction of movement, the distance to the person, and whether he makes some kind of greeting, for example, waving his hand, the robot determines the level of interest and decides whether it needs to react. If a person comes close to a humanoid, it either looks at him/her disapprovingly or, if it has already seen him/her, recognizes and reacts in a friendly manner.
The Disney robot also has an addictive mechanism: if it makes eye contact with a person, the algorithm linearly decreases its index of interest over time.
The engineers note that the new features significantly increase the realism of the character but recognize some limitations. One of them is that in the current version, the robot’s eyes are set so that they look in parallel, and the focus is set to infinity. On close contact, this creates the impression that the robot is not looking at the person but through him.