'Big Hero 6' movie origin story found in Pittsburgh
When Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor Chris Atkeson suggested it was time Hollywood put a robot on the screen that could be viewed as a hero, rather than a troublemaker, director Don Hall agreed.
The result is Hall's “Big Hero 6,” based on Marvel comic-book characters. It stars Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit of TV's “30 Rock”), a gentle robot designed to care for people, and his “human” friend, teen Hiro Hamada, voiced by Ryan Potter.
It's being called one of the best science-fiction films in ages, a celebration of science and the joy of innovation, telling a smart, inventive tale about young science enthusiasts who grapple with issues around the responsible use of technology.
“I haven't met anybody who has seen it that didn't love it. I can't tell you how many people told me they loved Baymax,” says Atkeson, a Shadyside resident. “The transformation of a bag of air into a lovable character was amazing. In robotics, we try to storyboard possible use of our robots, to guide our research. Seeing what the professionals can do blows me away.”
It might be said that Hall was himself blown away when he visited CMU's robotics lab on a research trip for the film in 2011. He and his co-director Chris Williams very much wanted to offer filmgoers a robot that had never before been seen and one designed, in Hall's words, to be “appealing, but also huggable.”
Atkeson told Hall that CMU had “huggable” — boy, did it have huggable! A colleague there was explicitly designing soft, inflatable, balloon-like robots that one day could assist residents of nursing homes.
When the director was shown an inflatable robotic vinyl arm, the practical application of which would be in the health-care industry as a nurse or doctor's assistant, he told Atkeson, “I knew we had our huggable robot.”
Hall and the Disney researchers visited MIT and Harvard, but Carnegie Mellon was what inspired Baymax and gave him his whole persona as a health-care robot.
Atkeson says the University of Pittsburgh has played an important role in the collaborating with CMU on nurse/care robots and environments since 1999.
“In my view, each project led to the next,” he says. “Baymax is a nurse/care robot because of Pitt's involvement in this research. I was certainly thinking about health-care robots because of Pitt's involvement.”
Atkeson says Hall was impressed by Girls of Steel (girlsofsteelrobotics.com), the all-female robotics team based at the university. The director told Nathan Hurst, an editor of Make, a technology magazine, that their spirit inspired the film's inquisitive characters of Honey Lemon and Go Go Tomago.
Atkeson says CMU was so inspired by Baymax that the university wants to build a real personal health-care companion for people with disabilities and injuries. “These people need help. It is a tremendous burden on caregivers, typically a spouse, to provide 24/7 care and many people would rather have a machine change their diapers than a stranger,” he says.
Rory Cooper, director of Pitt's Human Engineering Research Laboratories, says he sees Atkeson's “teddy-bear persona and visage” in the Baymax character.
The movie, Atkeson says, is a tremendous win for soft robotics. “There is always competition for funding in science, and soft or inflatable robots sound like a crazy idea,” he says. “I think this movie will make it much easier for soft robotics researchers to get funded and make more progress.”
He thinks “Big Hero 6” will be inspirational for many people.
“There is a powerful message in this movie that people can use science in a positive way,” Atkeson says. This message often gets lost, he suggests, and the old feeling that “progress is good” has been somewhat replaced by “progress is disruptive and I am worse off.”
He believes science and technology can be a powerful tool for good.
“I want to build robots to help people,” he says. “In Japan, people love robots. Americans are more practical, wanting value for their money. Europeans fear robots. If American and European views of robots change, it is much less of a fight to get people to give technology a try.”
What is it about a huggable robot that seems to intrigue many people?
“Touching is an important social interaction,” Atkeson says. “We want to bond with other humans, and presented with technology that seems human-like, we want to bond with that, too.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.