Why build a mechanical figure that to all outside observation appears to be a living, breathing creature? For research purposes? To be the first to do so? Because we can? Any of these reasons might be appealing, but typical reasons have more to do with financial advancement rather than purely creative or scientific pursuit. The entertainment industry has built figures to be the focal point in movies and theme park attractions, as well as in toys and other marketing avenues for decades. Recently, industrial robotics researchers have begun to adopt silicone, urethane, and other skin technologies developed for the film-character effects industry, taking their work one step closer to making the typical antiseptic robot a warmer, more emotionally accessible companion for the average home.
The most famous stars of science fiction movies, and many crossover genres (horror, fantasy, etc.) have been composed of artificial ingredients as often as they have been flesh and blood actors. The most memorable of these suspend our disbelief completely and convince us that they really are the living creatures they appear to be. Dinosaurs trod through mud chasing after each other and human prey alike in the Jurassic Park movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger has regularly lost his skin to reveal the polished chrome chassis of a Terminator beneath. Creations for the movie screen are not always out to get us, they are often constructed to show how they can interact and exist among us. The robo-butler in Sleeper, the Gunslinger and others from Westworld, the replicants from Bladerunner, and the human-formrobots of the movie AI - Artificial Intelligence all portray life emulating structures almost identical to the iconic robot in Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 film Metropolis to name only a few. Regardless of how long ago or how recently they were conceived, and of the specific roles these movie robots performed, they succeed because they are involved participants in the world around them. If correctly constructed and operated, the viewing audience is totally unaware that they are watching a robotic effect. They simply believe they are seeing a real, living entity they have never seen before. That is the exciting challenge at hand - to build a figure so well that its artistically finished exterior and its mechanical interior combine to truly portray life.
In film-character effects, the quality of the finished look must withstand the highest level of scrutiny. The camera has the ability to move in close to the character and the projected image may be on a screen the size of an aircraft hanger. Every pore and wrinkle needs to be believable. On the other hand, in no other application of biomimetic figures is the observer’s point of view so carefully controlled. The angle of the subject being viewed, its size and relative position to other things in the environment, and the duration of time it is seen are all under full control. Even so, there is no viewing angle and no roller coaster fast enough that can cover up for a badly designed character or a stilted performance. Therefore, the entertainment industry can serve as a rich resource to draw upon in advancing biomimetic realism.
In the future, biomimetic robots will figure prominently in the service industries such as domestic help and healthcare. To be successful in service applications, robots will need to not just function well, but they will also need to interact well - to appear to be listening, and to register the appropriate facial expressions and intonations for a given situation. Without such social skills, robots of the future will be no more popular than the kitchen appliances we all use daily.
The ability to create the illusion of reality in an artificial construct that looks like an organic entity is based on several key components: choice and use of materials, mechanical design logic and execution, and the portrayal of life itself, i.e., the performance. Each of these components is related to the next and is explored in turn throughout this chapter, as the successful realization of a project of this magnitude relies upon the total effect. The ultimate goal is to take the observer to a unique and new level of experience.
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