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Disney puts R&D in collegiate hands

Studio pacts with Carnegie Mellon, SFITZ

Disney’s storied R&D operations are getting a big infusion of brainpower through a wide-ranging research initiative unveiled Monday by Disney and Pixar Animation Studios prexy Ed Catmull.

Mouse House has struck an alliance with Carnegie Mellon U. and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich to fund collaborative research labs in Pittsburgh and Zurich that will focus on developing next-gen technologies with applications across Disney units, from its theme parks to film and TV productions to its Internet operations.

Catmull’s announcement of the Disney-wide initiative, made in conjunction with this week’s annual computer graphics confab Siggraph, comes as another sign of the Pixar braintrust steering decision-making in key forward-looking areas for the Mouse House. Catmull called the initiative “a strengthening (of) our commitment to R&D throughout Disney.”

Joe Marks, veep of R&D for Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development, will oversee the launch of the program and the labs for Disney. The Imagineering unit reports to Disney’s Parks and Resorts division but the research push indicates an opening of research initiatives across Imagineering and the studio animation side ruled by Catmull and Pixar/Disney toon chief John Lasseter.

“Extending our R&D efforts to these top-notch university partners will take our internal initiatives to a new level,” Marks said.

Among the projects highlighted in Disney’s announcement is finding new ways for people to interact with robotic or virtual characters — research that would have applications in Disney theme parks. Lasseter and some of the Pixar team are already engaged in the revamp of Disney’s struggling California Adventure theme park in Anaheim, which plans to add a number of Pixar-centric attractions in the coming years.

Disney has committed to funding both labs for five years, with enough coin to support the hiring of a director and up to eight principal researchers. The Disney Research lab in Pittsburgh, to be headed by Jessica Hodgins, Carnegie Mellon professor of computer sciences and robotics, will be located a block away from the university’s School of Computer Science complex.

In diving into robotics R&D with real-world, money-making applications for Disney, Carnegie Mellon students and faculty will be “looking for ways to sense what a person is doing or thinking so that the character can respond appropriately,” Hodgins said. “We need to figure out what sensors to build and how to interpret and respond to human behavior.”

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