The process of making a Disney park feel alive is most easily encapsulated in animatronic figures. These hydraulic, pneumatic and now electric figures have been a fixture at Disneyland since the 60s. Since then, massive advancements have been made in control systems, movement architecture and programming. The most advanced animatronic figures like the Na’Vi Shaman in Disney World’s Na’vi River Journey are plain and simply robots. And very sophisticated ones at that.
But not every animatronic in the parks can be a simple pneumatic connected to a bulky master system or a highly advanced and complex robotic masterwork. That’s where the Vyloo come in.
Begun as a project to help populate the park with more interactive elements, the Vyloo are three small alien creatures in a self-contained pod that renders them autonomous. They have moods, interact with guests through non-verbal gestures and cues and are powered by a completely onboard system that can be tuned quickly and left to do its thing.
“What we pitched was a project to try to bring small autonomous animatronic creatures to life. We were really interested in the idea of creating some little guys that could truly respond to and interact with guests,” says Leslie Evans, Senior R&D Imagineer at Disney. She and Alexis Wieland, Executive R&D Imagineer, started the project with the goals to create something that was autonomous, but also created a reaction in the guests that felt like a real emotional relationship. They needed to have a “spectrum of personalities” and then a set of tools that would allow them to dial those attributes up and down before setting them loose on guests.
“I think that a lot of this was coming out of this desire to start thinking about animatronics as actors, so being able to say we want these characters to be shy, we want them to be outgoing ‑‑ trying to define them in terms of personality ‑‑ and then translating all of that into the technical tools that we need to bring the characters to life,” says Evans.
I first saw the Vyloo, then informally called ‘Tiny Life’, on a tour with a Girls Who Code group a year ago. At the time they looked fairly similar, if more ‘plain’. The basic unit is a log with three small creatures, now known as Vyloo, sitting on top of it. The creatures are outfitted with sensors and cameras and the ancillary equipment that allows them to run is completely contained inside their bodies or the log structure. This allows the Vyloo to be incredibly modular. This is unlike most robots in the park, which require attachment to external auxiliary systems that control or manipulate them.
The project had gotten to the point of being able to demo it to groups like the GWC class when the serendipity that happens at Imagineering often kicked in.
This interplay between what Imagineering is experimenting with and what gets put in the parks is one of the things that makes the unit such a unique robotics lab. Many times off the shelf parts like Kinect sensors are grabbed and fit to the task, other times specific parts, components or even materials have to be invented and manufactured. Whatever technical hurdles are being overcome are always in service of the story, but the way that they may be put to use isn’t always known at the outset.
The goal of having autonomous robotic units that can easily be placed throughout the parks to create a richer, more interactive environments was half of the goal, and it worked well with the Mission Breakout scene, which features creatures and objects collected by…The Collector, natch. But that was only part of the goal with the project.