Along with mouths and hair, eyes are one of the biggest reasons why artificial creations can’t climb their way out of the uncanny valley. One reason for this is because artificial eyes — in computer-generated models or on animatronic robots — are simply not expressive enough. Disney Research has taken a step toward correcting this issue by creating 3D-printed eyes that are not only extremely expressive, but dynamic.
The eyes are not highly detailed orbs that resemble human eyes, complete with intricately painted irises and thin red veins throughout. The 3D-printed eyes are more like little curved displays in the shape of an eyeball. Disney Research’s project, known as Papillion, is a clever workaround through the uncanny valley. Even if a model eye is sculpted and painted to the exact specifications of a human eye, it still can’t be as expressive as one — proper blinking, the welling and draining of fluid, the pupil contracting and expanding, and so on. If the animatronic eyes have all of those capabilities — as some robots in Disney theme parks actually do — then there is still a very noticeable stiff robotic movement to them. With a digital display, however, the eyes can become as expressive and detailed as the video playing on the screen. Furthermore, the eyes can provide smooth movements, and are cheaper than an advanced animatronic eyeball.
Disney Research created eyes that are a bundle of cheap 3D printed fiber optics that can be much more expressive than a standard eye. They are printed slice-by-slice, which allows transparent photopolymers to be slipped in between translucent supports. Not only can they display a normal iris and pupil, but they can morph to show just about any visible shape, such as dollar signs for a greedy character, hearts for when a character is in love, or mouths for Disney feels like giving us nightmares for weeks.
The fiber optics hidden within the orb-like structure project images onto the surface of the eye, and are arranged via a set of algorithms based on Fibonacci spirals and Voronoi tessellation in order to pack as many into the structure as possible. While the above video shows that the displays are basic at the moment, the Disney Research team notes that Papillion is scalable. In theory, the fiber optics could be made smaller in order to provide a higher resolution (and thus, display more complex video). The curved displays aren’t just limited to fancy animatronic characters in Disney theme parks, though, and can be placed in toys, be used in a second screen-like capacity for use with video games, or can even be used for a cartoony animated clock. While the displays are noticeably basic from up close, if placed into animatronics viewed from far away, such as in the Magic Kingdom’s Hall of Presidents or in the children in It’s a Small World, they could easily provide a much more lifelike eyeball experience if the videos were designed well.
Sometime down the line, Disney Research envisions Papillion being used as prosthetic eyes for humans, rather than the static glass (actually acrylic) eyes used today.
There isn’t a timetable for a roll out of the tech, but Papillion was demonstrated at ACM SIGGRAPH 2013, which took place from July 21 to 25.