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Technology

Disney closes Carnegie Mellon lab; collaborations expected to continue

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, 3:57 p.m.
The Walt Disney Co. logo appears on a screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
The Walt Disney Co. logo appears on a screen above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Mickey Mouse may have left the building, but the cartoon mouse isn't leaving Carnegie Mellon University completely.

Disney closed its lab at CMU's Collaborative Innovation Center but is expected to continue working with students at the university's Entertainment Technology Center.

Disney opened the lab 10 years ago to develop robots that moved and acted more like humans. The lab and collaborations with CMU have explored 3D facial modeling, using human motion to animate nonhuman characters, capturing motion from body-mounted cameras, creative and interactive uses for RFID tags and other entertainment technology.

Drew Davidson, director of CMU's Entertainment Technology Center, and Byron Spice, a spokesman for CMU's School of Computer Science, confirmed that the lab had closed. Further questions were referred to Disney. Disney did not respond to emails or calls seeking more information.

Abby Simmons, associate director of media relations for CMU, released a statement that did not address Disney specifically.

“Corporate partnerships are highly valuable to Carnegie Mellon University and the companies with which we work,” the statement read. “Together, we propel cutting-edge research and bring groundbreaking innovations to market.”

The website for Disney Research no longer lists Pittsburgh as one of its labs. Pittsburgh was listed as of October, according to a saved version of the website accessible through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine . Labs in Los Angeles and Zürich are still listed. Disney also operated a lab in Utah that is no longer listed on the webpage.

Davidson said he expects collaborations between Disney and students in his programs to continue. Davidson said students at the ETC worked with Disney directly, not with the lab.

Disney opened the CMU lab in 2008. The collaboration was praised as among the first times an entertainment company funded academic research. In 2009, Disney funded two graduate fellowships at the university in honor of Randy Pausch, a computer science professor who worked for Disney's Imagineer group in 1995 during a sabbatical and was a consultant for the company. The two fellowships, one in computer science and one in fine arts, were last awarded in 2014, Spice said.

Disney moved into about 17,000 square feet of space at the Collaborative Innovation Center in Oakland in 2011 after Google left to move its operations to Bakery Square.

Jessica Hodgins, the former director of the Disney lab and a professor at CMU, said the lab would work to make robots more lifelike.

“It would be really nice if a robot would be able to interact with a crowd for a long time, maybe 20 minutes or 15 minutes,” Hodgins said when the lab opened.

Hodgins became vice president of research at Disney. She returned to CMU as a full-time professor in 2017. Hodgins did not return a phone call or email seeking more information.

CMU did not answer questions about what is next for the space. Spice said CMU's engineering department has space at the center, as does the university's Robotics Institute and Software Engineering Institute. Google, Intel, Apple and other technology firms have been tenants.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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