Disney using 3D printing to create expressive (but not creepy) eyes for robots

If you give robots eyes that are similar to a human’s, but not quite similar enough, it freaks people out. It’s called the uncanny valley, and it informs how robots are designed. New 3D printed eyes from Disney let robots express emotion while still having a cutesy cartoonish look that stays far away from the uncanny valley.

Disney 3D printed robot eyes

The eyes, called Papillon, are made of a translucent dome of white plastic that covers a bundle of optical-fiber-like structures called light pipes. All of the components are 3D printed, which is highly unusual for parts that resemble optical fibers. It also makes the parts cheaper.

Each of the pipes delivers a point of light that creates the robot’s irises. They can shift size and color to display feeling or a shape, such as a heart. The resulting eyes are lower resolution than a Furby’s, but more friendly.

“One of our goals was to create minimal displays, to figure out how much resolution do you really need to express emotion,” Disney Research, Pittsburgh research associate Eric Brockmeyer said in a release. “It turns out you really don’t need that much to convey a compelling interactive experience.”

Disney demonstrated the Papillon project at the SIGGRAPH conference in Anaheim, Calif., this week. The Disney Research, Pittsburgh team brought three Papillon characters called Beep, Boop and Iggy for the demo. For now, the characters are just immobile hunks of plastic with shifting eyes. But that could change in the future.

“Pappilon is a technology that is scalable and flexible,” senior research scientist Ivan Poupyrev said in the release. “We envision it being used for building interactive toys, supplemental characters for video games, robots or perhaps eventually even human prosthetic eyes.”