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Disney's working on robots that mimic people's movements

A prototype robot can do things like play a xylophone, thread string through the eye of a needle and play catch with a balloon.

Disney's research arm is working on robots that can mimic the moves of humans.

That Mickey Mouse greeting you at Disney World may one day contain a robot instead of a very petite person.

Disney Research, an international network of research labs to "push the scientific and technological forefront of innovation" at the company, is working on what it calls a "hybrid hydrostatic transmission and human-safe haptic telepresence robot." That's a very wordy way to say the robot essentially mimics the moves of its puppet master, an operator viewing everything through the eyes (i.e. cameras) of the robot.

"The operator is visually immersed in the robot's physical workspace," the researchers wrote in a technical paper for the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation on May 16.

Cameras mounted on the robot, which is wearing a "Jimmy" nametag, stream video to an operator who's wearing a head-mounted display (which appears to be an Oculus virtual reality headset). The operator's motions are mimicked by the robot, and the haptics feedback, which is sort of like the iPhone's 3D Touch, allows the operator to almost feel what the robot is feeling. This lets the robot handle delicate objects, carry out precise motion and interact with humans.

A video released by Disney shows the robot playing a xylophone, picking up and then cracking an egg, threading string through the eye of a needle, patting a girl's cheeks and playing catch with a balloon.

"The current hydraulic robot offers incredibly smooth and fast motion, while maintaining backdrivability and bidirectional force reflection, allowing safe interaction with people, and the handling of delicate objects," the researchers added.

Disney didn't immediately respond to a request for more information. It's pretty safe to assume we won't see these robots in Disney theme parks anytime soon, but it's not crazy to imagine them rolling out in Disney World one day.

This article also appears in Spanish. Read: Disney trabaja en robots que pueden imitar los movimientos de la gente