Further Thoughts on Animatronics

Or, more thinkin’ on the Lincoln

Creating an Animatronic show is hard. This should come as a surprise to absolutely no-one. Disney started the whole business and they still create the greatest displays and the most immersive experiences. Doing this takes a great deal of money, teams of experts and lots and lots of time.

I don’t really have any of these things. Then again, my goals are rather less ambitious then what Disney puts out.
I had originally hoped to do a very short show with a single, basic animatronic. Looking at a number of hobby sites for people interested in this stuff gave me a couple good ideas on how to make an expressive animatronic using just a few servo motors- turns out that being able to tilt your head adds immensely to your expressiveness.

The key word for this project is limited. I’ve never done anything like this before- which is good!- but I have very limited resources to work with, which limits what I can do. I should also limit my plans for the ‘show’, such as it is. A couple of minutes of dialogue should really be sufficient for what I have in mind. The standard which I’ve seen from experienced hobbyists, who know what they’re doing, is that it takes about an hour to animate one minute of movement. That’s for people who know what they are doing, with specialized software to control the servos. Believe it or not, there are several companies willing to sell this software (and the accompanying hardware some of the programs require) to hobbyists, but their prices are … optimistic. Rather expensive for a one time project, and besides, the purpose of this assignment is not to spend money, but to think and create. I’ve already got Max 7, which is designed for controlling art installations. If it can do that, then hopefully I can get it to sync a few servos (at this point, my still not-finalized design call for four separate servos. More than that would be probably more than I could handle)

As for the Animatronic show itself, I feel that my original idea- to make a cardboard version of Abe Lincoln (or some other famous historical figure) some other right out of Disney’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln may have been slightly impractical. I thought of doing perhaps a famous Canadian figure- to my knowledge, there are no animatronic Prime Ministers (hop to it, DisneyWorld).

I had trouble finding a suitable person, however. There are no famous, defining speeches given by Canadian leaders. Sir John A. Macdonald has no defining moment. Nothing that William Lyon Mackenzie King said has been remembered very well. This makes it hard to find anything to make a show out of.

Also, I am not sure that a ‘show’ is quite the right direction to go in. Your average exhibit is not something to which you go and watch for 15 minutes straight. Most exhibits are meant to be moved through. An animatronic, sit-down show has perhaps too much of the theme park in it. However, not all animatronics are in shows.

Theme parks are so called because they do not just have rides, but ambience. A number of rides at Disney and Universal make use of show elements in the queues for the rides themselves. A favourite of mine is Star Tours. Before boarding your ship for a voyage through space, the line winds its way through the repair bays of the eponymous spacefaring company. There, those waiting in line encounter the company’s staff of wisecracking maintenance robots, hard at work repairing the ships. These animatronic figures speak and talk to the audience- but on prerecorded loops. These loops are long enough that unless it is extremely busy, you will have moved on before the figures reset. This sounds like something that could be translated into an exhibit. Figures that come to life for a few moments to greet guests or to provide greater life to a diorama seem like they would be far more welcome at a museum than a large sit-down show. Much less expensive, as well.

That’s the direction my project is heading in- a figure that one might encounter while waiting in line or while walking through an exhibition- someone that one stops and watches for a bit, rather than something that becomes the star of a stage show.

Staying out of the (Mechanical) Limelight

Scott W.E. Dickinson

Automatons and Animatronics

I’m a bit of a Disney nut.

That’s a statement that needs a bit of qualification, I feel.

Although I do enjoy the Disney Company’s films (though they weren’t as much a part of my childhood as they were for some people), I find that their greatest expression of showmanship is in the Disney World Parks. To those who have been there, and even to those who haven’t, the Magic Kingdom is known for the amazing quality of its rides, which focus less on thrills and more on the experience.

Almost all of their rides involve Disney’s “Audio-Animatronics”, those life-like speaking, moving (sometimes walking) figures that populate rides like the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean or the Haunted Mansion. For those who know me, it’s no surprise that my favourite ride is the Haunted Mansion. It’s a masterful combination of exquisite storytelling and incredible special effects.

It is, in fact, the last ride that Walt Disney worked on before his death, though he did not live to see it finished (That honour goes to the Pirates of the Caribbean, which opened in 1967). These rides are populated entirely with mechanical (in Walt’s day) and now electronic figures that are extremely life-like in their movements (even when they are supposed to be ghosts).

Most of these Audio-Animatronic figures repeat the same, short sequence again and again- each rider will only see one for at most a few seconds, and it is important that Disney gives their millions of guests experiences that, if not identical, are at least comparable.

This does not mean that there are not rides where a single figure holds the audience’s attention for a prolonged period.

Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln is a long-form sit down attraction. It involves no drops, loops or turns- there isn’t even a fancy lightshow! Yet it performs, and has performed, to great crowds for decades. It is the most famous part of the Hall of Presidents, where Audio-Animatronic versions of all American presidents (including a Robo-Obama) reside.

Disney is always pushing the envelope on what can be done with Audio-Animatronics. Though most Animatronics cannot walk under their own power- they are mostly bolted to their environments, and rely on external computers and hydraulic systems to work- Disney has pioneered a number of moving Animatronics which can move about on their own and interact with guests, although they are really electronic puppets controlled by a human operator.

Audio-Animatronics themselves spring from the much older concept of the automaton. Automatons, clockwork mechanisms built to imitate human and animal life. The most famous (and most complex) ones were mostly built in the 18th Century, many of them for the decadent courts of the French monarchs.


The Turk, pictured above, is actually not a true automaton. When originally unveiled, it toured the Royal Courts of Europe, where this man-sized mechanism played chess (and often won) and even answered questions via a Ouija board. Needless to say, it was an extremely clever hoax- one that was not solved until the 19th Century, but in the climate of the time, when real automata could draw, write, sing, dance and even seemingly eat, one that could think was just another mechanical marvel. Mechanical imitators seemed almost real.

The term ‘Audio-Animatronic’ itself refers to the robots built by Disney- An Animatronic is any motorized figure, and the ‘Audio’ refers to the fact that the figures are programmed by sound- to ensure absolute synchronicity, the ride’s soundtrack activates the Animatronics.

Obviously, this is all a bit beyond me, but the idea of a mechanical figure- perhaps not a human one, but an animated figure- has great appeal. A surprising number of museums do make use of Animatronics- it’s a great way to bring to life historic figures in a way that does not involve a screen. You can have Benjamin Franklin in the room with you- in some cases he can even respond to your questions. Animatronics can bring to life Dinosaurs, Dragons and statues. Imagine museum guests talking to a Totem Pole form the Pacific Northwest, or being told about Ancient Egypt by a Sphinx.

I think Animatronics can work best when they bring to life what isn’t human- perfectly replicating human facial expressions is difficult, even for Disney, and smaller companies cannot possibly handle it. However, a talking tiger or a posing statue are already unreal- no one can say that the tiger lecturing to you doesn’t look right- when’s the last time you’ve seen a talking tiger?

I’ve got to design an exhibit of some sort in the near future- and I think that some simple animatronics can make an appearance. They don’t have to be particularly complex- Walt himself had great success with a few pnuematic valves- but I think bringing something to life would be amazing fun.

A Pirate’s Life for Me,
Scott W.E. Dickinson

A Change, not a Rest

Hey Followers (and I know who you are)

I’ve been rather quiet for some time on this blog (Testing, Testing, my last entry was a failed attempt at coding for a now completed project, rather than a proper entry), but expect some more activity in 2015.

The first (and original) reason for this blog is no longer relevant. The course for which I created this wordpress account is, well, over. However, you can expect more from me on the digital front, as I’ve enrolled in a new course and will be, in the coming months, talking about digital exhibit design.

Are you excited? I am.

Totally Didn’t Fail The Last Class,
Scott W. E. Dickinson

Battles are Easy, or Feelings and Facts


Now that a fun word, right? To say that something  has verisimilitude is to say that it has the appearance of reality- that it feels true, in other words.

Note that distinction. The something feels right does not mean that it is right. As any physicist can tell you, common sense notions are often the most wrong.  Verisimilitude simply giving something the impression of being real. It can be convincing, but it doesn’t have to be true.

My favourite example of this sort of think come from the world of set design.

Greebles, despite sounding like a particularly unfortunate children’s breakfast cereal is the technical term for all those little bits and pieces that model designers put on their spacecraft a la Star Wars


All those cubes and boxes and pipes and doohickies that cover the spacecraft’s hull don’t do anything- but they look like they might. The purpose of all this is to convince the viewer- that is, us- that this is a great big complicated machine, and nothing says complex like a very busy mechanical landscape. A perfectly smooth surface would probably look even more futuristic, but that’s best left to those super advanced evil aliens who show up around Act 3. This is verisimilitude- it’s the act of seeming. You can’t help but say “Wow, that looks real!”.

For everyone who isn’t into fictional spacecraft, I present another example: Forced Perspective. Theme Parks use this all the time. By changing the scale of building or structures as they move further away from you, Disney can make their themed environments larger than life.


Look carefully at these buildings (From Main Street U.S.A., Disneyland). It appears to be a three story shop, though only the ground floor is tall enough to admit adult humans. The rest is an (increasingly) underscaled mockup, designed to make you, the visitor, feel smaller, and hence more child like. World of Magic, Eh?

It works in the reverse as well.


This two story building is actually more than five stories tall.


And only Disney can make an Everest easily traversable by train.

The point is that we can given someone an experience- one which they can indeed enjoy vividly and undergo what seems to be real- which leaves a lasting impression on them, without it being necessarily real.

This is where the digital portion comes in, folks.

Historical Computer games are not perhaps the best way to learn history. There’s been a lot of arguing back and forth over the relative merits of games as teaching devices- can they aid? Do they affect people at all? Is there value in their messages at all?

I’m not really worried about that. A video game is more or less an interactive movie. You not only get to watch unrealistic people do impossible actions, but you get to control them as well! Perhaps this isn’t the best medium for a deep reading into, say, the economic effects of the Crimean War.

It is, however, a great medium for getting the feel of an age. I am thinking specifically of the newly released (as of this writing) Assassin’s Creed Unity, a game which takes place in Paris during the French Revolution. Are the characters real? Nope. Is the plot a historical narrative? Nope. Is the backdrop real? Oh yes.

The only games that can really pull off guiding the player through a historical event are war games, where, for example, you could play both sides at Waterloo, or mess around with tanks in North Africa. At least battles have fairly simple objectives that can be quite historically accurate. You play as Napoleon- your object is to re-play and win all these battles that he won- very straight forward.

But how does one model situations that don’t involve guns? How do you make a game that simulates the life of a British farmer, circa 1750? Or life on the home front of WWII? Or just surviving during the Great Depression? Storylines that would make sense in these settings would probably not involve a lot of gunplay or car chases and thus don’t exactly appeal to most folks who are buying games.

Games can, however, have very accurate backdrops to their unrealistic gameplay. Unity may be about a fictional assassin, but it’s about a fictional assassin running about and exploring a very real city during a very real period. Players can, while they kill, pick up something of how that period felt. The crowded streets, the strange, medieval layout of the city, the anger of the people, the uncertainty of the times can all be easily expressed. Actual names, dates, and facts are unlikely to be espoused by the game (or remembered by the players), but the sights and sounds of Paris will stick.

The game does do this- we see dirty streets and maze-like alleyways, foppish nobles hiding from angry crowds, impromptu trials and sudden executions and the player’s character is involved in all of it.

It’s all about seeming. The best way to understand historic clothing is to wear it. The best way to understand old cars is to drive them. Since we cannot go back in time, the best way to experience an earlier period is to simulate it. What could be better than a simulation where you can interact with your surroundings? Unless a museum is willing to shill out truly enormous funding, the best simulations are going to come from video game engines.

Just like Expedition Everest impacts the size of Everest while being much smaller, or Main Street USA invokes nostalgia for a childhood may people did not have, well done video games set in historical periods will probably not replace textbooks, but they will help players visualize what the past looked like.

Now to find a game about 19th Century Lumberjacks,

Scott W. E. Dickinson


New Ways of Thinking?

Paradigm Shifts and Technological Alarmists

In Nicholas Carr’s  Is Google Making Us Stupid? the author worries over something which has certainly made the rounds over the years:

“Is this [Insert New Technology of Your Choice] making [Our Youth Disrespectful/Milk go Bad/Destroying Western Civilization/ Incouraging Immorality]?”

Admittedly, Carr’s article is not exactly current, but it’s a fear that we’ve all heard many times from many sources: Is the Internet making us less intelligent?

As a misanthrope, I’m obligated to point out the vast majority of our species isn’t exactly the brightest bunch of primates around, given the number of absurdities which I’m sure my readership can name. I digress. I’m not here to insult the human species- to do that, simply turn on the major News outlet of your choice- but to talk about this fear of the Internet. It’s really just the fear of the new.

To those that know me well, they’re probably pointing out that I’m not the most forward looking guy. I actively resist using my cell phone. I prefer to remain unconnected and wire-free. Where others use an Ipod, I whistle. Where others check bus times with their tablets, I pull out a book and wait for the bus.

Saying all this makes me sound like a hipster, trying to be contrary simply because it makes me unique. Not true. I’m contrary because I’m  as mean as a snake, not because it makes me different. I do appreciate modern technology- heck, I’m online right now, aren’t I? I require the Internet to both do my job and to talk to friends, have fun, connect with others and all else that we do online. I simply feel that when I’m not in front of my computer, I should be interacting with the real world without any distractions whatsoever.

But enough about me. New technologies, indeed, new ideas, new ways of doing things, new tools, new concepts- have changed how we think. This is nothing new.

The advent of agriculture, way back in the dawn of history, altered far more than the Internet has. Permanent homes, a class system, financial inequality (and the concept of money- abstract representations of wealth), writing, reading, precise calenders and many other things- are all the children of the rather straightforward concept of ‘grow enough surplus food to get us until the harvest next fall”.  When we changed from hunter-gatherers to farmers, suddenly we had new things to think about- how to plant, harvest and store, how to build, how to protect what they had made, and most importantly, how to plan, and who should do the planning. Every complex society has been a settled one for a reason. There’s no need for a king when you’re a wandering tribe.

My point here is that new tools and ideas begat more tools and more ideas as well as a thousand new civilizations. It was an end to one way of life, and the beginning of another.

We see this repeated with many technologies. Faster travel creates new understandings of far off places- it also necessitates new developments in navigation, time-keeping and construction, while altering markets and remaking economic patterns. This is not always a good thing.

Certainly Google is not the first innovation to alter how we think. The clock altered how we thought about time- For a very long time, the seasons were how most people  watched the calender for. When you are a farmer, knowing that it is Tuesday isn’t very important. Knowing that next week is usually when the frosts come, so you’d better harvest your wheat now, is vital. Clocks sliced up days into hours (at first- most early clocks were not reliable enough for a minute hand to make sense, let along something as precise as a second hand) and suddenly, you could be late for an appointment! Hard to be rushing across town to your 2 o’clock when there is no clock. Hours and minutes are human-created divisions, and yet they seem to control us.

The same with the auto mobile, the typewriter, the telephone, the computer and a thousand other devices. This is what annoys me about Carr’s article. Our lives have been shaped and moulded since the moment we were born, by our culture, our language, our tools. People who speak other languages, who are part of other cultures, who lived in different eras, who, indeed, lived very different lives, did not and do not think like 21st Century North Americans do.

So Google may be changing how we think. So what?  Everything else already has. We are, however, luckier that those hunter gatherers. Thanks to our experiences and our history with our tools, we understand (perhaps better than most) that actions have consequences, that new tools can change things unexpectedly. We have let the genie out of the bottle- I doubt Google is going to shut down any time soon- but we can moderate how it affects us.

Besides, it is not as if this will eradicate long-form thought like Carr worries it does. As long as being able to think deeply is useful to us, we will retain it. After all, we learned how to read once, didn’t we?

Film did not kill the book.

Books did not kill story telling.

Writing did not destroy the art of memory.

But they did give us more options.

What was I talking about again?

Scott W. E. Dickinson




Digital Cartography

The re-enactment of history is something that I love to watch- and participate in! Recreating the folkways of yesteryear, the costumes of our forebears and the events that defined their lives are all worthwhile activities, but re-enactment can happen on a greater scale.

Digital Mapping – creating three dimensional, explorable maps for the computer- has been put to great use by historians. The applications are obvious- we can recreate the landscapes of earlier eras, and travel through, for example, 19th Century New York, or 16th Century London. By overlaying these earlier views with more modern versions of these cities, one can track changes, notice similarities and study the history of the city- not the history of mayors and people, but the history of the urban space itself.

Another use is mapping nationwide- and worldwide- trends, putting history into its geographic context. We speak of the early women’s rights movement in America. That sounds fine, until we realize that America is a vast and varied place. When we study Suffragist marches, do we understand where they are happening? While woman protest in New York City, what are they doing in New York State? What are they doing in Colorado? Can the women’s rights movement be called an American phenomenon, or a New England occurrence?  Obviously the idea spread enough to gain acceptance, but how did it spread? What routes did it take, under what speeds did it travel? Are there still pockets of inequality?

Historians have always used maps to chart history, but their uses were often limited. I think it was the maps themselves that limited their thinking. When one uses a map, one is attempting to find one’s way, to select a route. These are uses we have for maps, but they are not the only things that maps can be used for. Historians who did not realize this use maps to track pioneers and military movements. It makes sense, does it not? Maps are used to go places. Clearly, we can use them to show where people went. Nothing else seemed to present itself.

We cannot blame these historians, of course. Until recently, it was much easier to follow settlers and generals than societal trends or diseases. The former tend to have diaries. Tracing the concrete route of a Civil War Officer from A to B is not too difficult. Tracing the spread of a cultural norm- which may start in the North-east, spread to the Northwest, find itself in some parts of California, slowly make inroads into Middle America, fill up the Eastern Seaboard, double back to the rest of California and then make its way to the South- is much more difficult. Then you discover it hasn’t gained currency with the middle class yet, which will surely alter the future of the trend’s trajectory.

The point here is that the routes of things more ephemeral and difficult to measures than a man’s footsteps are harder to trace when all you have is a pencil, With enough census records, newspaper articles and processing power, it becomes easier to map out what is happening across a nation. Or, indeed, a single city.

The uses of this are almost endless. Frankly, the hard part is getting decent numbers to put on the maps. Measuring First World War casualties by county is not difficult. Measuring non-monetary effects (happiness, contentment) of the Great Depression in rural Saskatchewan is more difficult. Mind you, the great thing about digital mapping is that it can be multi-media in form and multi-disciplinary in action.Instead of numbers, have hard-hit towns appear on your Saskatchewan map. Create a 3-d rendition of this place, circa 1935, for users to explore. Place links throughout the town- on interesting buildings, perhaps- to interviews with survivors.

In this way we can have users understand the scope of the Great Depression- as move move around this map of the Prairies, they can see the desolation of the farms. They can move in closer, and tour a dust-blown town, and understand the deprivation of its inhabitants. They can get even closer and listen to residents, realizing what their lives had been like. It is this ability to ‘zoom in’- to go instantly from seeing the big picture (“Two Million out of work!”), to a single town, to a single factory, to a single employee- and then back out again, to another place in Canada, to people in different circumstances. A digital map gives us the ability to see both big picture and little picture details- the broad numbers, the nation trends, and then the individual lives, the local stories. By seeing both we can learn to connect them.

This does not have to be limited to more modern history, although the plethora of data and the still-living survivors certainly help. Using Digital Maps we can create 1st Century AD Rome, the size, the scale, the traffic. Rome was, first and foremost, a city. A big, loud, dirty city. A well done reconstruction, with dingy buildings, cook fire smoke, traffic and (simulated with actors) noise could bring the heart of the Empire back to life. Rome stops being an unchanging image and becomes- well, a mess. But a living, realistic mess much closer to the truth.

Nevertheless, the strength of the Digital Map lies in our ability to change it’s scope at a moment’s notice. Whether an event with worldwide significance or a local car crash, the Digital Map can focus on it- and provide us with the information we need.

Stuck on Street View,

Scott W. E. Dickinson