Disney announced a major research and development initiative to engage top technology universities to conduct research and development for its Parks & Resorts Division, Disney Media Networks, ESPN, Walt Disney Feature Animation, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Disney Interactive Media Group and Pixar Animation Studios.
Carnegie Mellon University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), known for their leading-edge work in computer science and technology, are to establish collaborative labs with Disney in Pittsburgh and Zurich.
“Creating the next generation of sophisticated technologies requires long-term vision and collaboration with world-class innovators,” said Ed Catmull, president, Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, making the announcement at SIGGRAPH, the world’s largest computer graphics conference. “We are strengthening our commitment to R&D throughout Disney by establishing labs with Carnegie Mellon University and ETH Zurich,” he said.
The labs will connect Disney with renowned academic partners with world class science and technology talent. The labs will engage in R&D on computer animation, computational cinematography, autonomous interactive characters, robotics, data mining and user interfaces, among other initiatives. They will be located at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and ETH Zurich. Each lab represents a five-year commitment from Disney to fund a director and seven to eight principal investigators. Additional staff will include professors, academic interns, scientific consultants and collaborators.
“Extending our R&D efforts to these top-notch university partners will take our internal initiatives to a new level,” said Joe Marks, vice president of R&D for Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development. Marks is leading the Disney launch of the project and will oversee the labs for Disney.
Carnegie Mellon is home to some of the world’s leading researchers in computer science and engineering, entertainment technology and robotics, areas of particular interest to Disney. Jessica Hodgins, professor of computer science and robotics and director of Disney Research, Pittsburgh, said one of the lab’s first projects will be developing methods for people to interact with autonomous characters, either virtual or robotic. “We’ll be looking for ways to sense what a person is doing or thinking so that the character can respond appropriately,” she said. “Whether the character is a robot or a virtual creation, the interaction issues are the same. We need to figure out what sensors to build and how to interpret and respond to human behavior.”
The Disney Research lab’s offices are situated little more than a block away from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science complex. Hodgins said she expects that most projects will include faculty and student collaborators from Carnegie Mellon. Staff members also will be encouraged to teach classes at the university.
“The access Disney provides to real-world problems and data will enable us to do research with greater impact than is typically possible within a purely academic environment,” Hodgins said. “At the same time, Disney Research in Pittsburgh can tap expertise at Carnegie Mellon that can be applied to problems that cut across all of Disney’s business units.” In addition to work on autonomous characters, she anticipates projects involving databases, machine learning and visualization.
ETH Zurich has a strong tradition of research in computational methods and computer systems. It is one of the most renowned locations for research in computer science, and as such, a strong partner for Disney. Professor Markus Gross, head of ETH Zurich’s Computer Graphics Laboratory in the Department of Computer Science, calls the collaboration with Disney “on the cusp of the cutting-edge.”
“We have been looking for a partner like Disney to create synergies that will open up a wide spectrum of different fields in entertainment technology,” Gross says. He adds that, “Our research will explore novel algorithms to bring both traditional animation and 3D computer animation to the next level of perfection. We will investigate how artistic knowledge and rules can be incorporated into computer-assisted production and content creation. Additionally, we will design the next generation of cinematographic technology.”
The applied research and joint intellectual properties that will result from the technology transfer will offer new and creative opportunities to strengthen ETH Zurich’s talent, potential and ability to make an impact on industry.
The Disney Research lab in Zurich will work with faculty members from the Department of Computer Science, specifically with Visual Computing and the Computer Graphics Laboratory, to conduct the highest level applied research in areas including computer animation, image synthesis, computational photography and artificial intelligence.
Joint Ph.D. projects and research contracts, as well as teaching services from senior Disney researchers, are part of the advantages and synergies to be drawn from the collaboration. Professor Markus Gross will head Disney Research in Zurich.
The individual R&D programs at Disney Parks & Resorts, Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, Interactive Games, Disney’s television and motion picture studios, and ImageMovers Digital and their existing university alliances with schools throughout the globe will continue. The Pittsburgh and Zurich labs will focus on areas of research that span multiple business units across the company.
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