February 27, 2012      

Trevor Blackwell has no problem remembering the first robot he saw. ?Star Wars came out when I was 7, so that was pretty influential to a technology-minded 7-year-old,? he says. ?I thought, ?Wow, these things need to exist?lots of these robots would be really useful for cleaning my room, going to school for me.?” Blackwell, who in 2001 founded Anybots Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., telepresence robotics developer, is one of many industry executives and designers who can trace the roots of his career to the inspiration received inside a darkened theater.

Beginning with ?Maria? in Fritz Lang?s 1927 silent classic Metropolis, and on through thousands of other films, movie robots have sparked the imaginations of many, perhaps even the majority of, robotics innovators. In return, the same techniques used in the robotics industry have enabled Hollywood to create robots that entertain, terrify, and even enlighten audiences worldwide.

From Screen to Reality

Probably the most important thing he [R2D2] does in the movie is relay messages as holographic imagesGrinnell More, co-founder of VGo Communications Inc

Grinnell More, co-founder of VGo Communications Inc., a telepresence robot developer based in Nashua, N.H., is another robotics innovator inspired by Star Wars. ?The robots in Star Wars were communicators,? he says. C3PO was an electromechanical diplomat; R2D2 was, among other things, a 3-D video projector. ?Probably the most important thing he [R2D2] does in the movie is relay messages as holographic images,? More says. ?It’s a long-range communication droid giving critical information at the right time to the right people.?

More says the little robot made a big impression on him. “Is it a coincidence that VGo is delivering communications robots today?? he asks. ?In a way, we’ve come full circle.”

More also says he was profoundly affected by Silent Running, a movie that debuted several years before Star Wars. Released in 1972 and starring Bruce Dern, as well as three valiant robots named Huey, Dewey, and Louie, Silent Running tells the story of an astronaut who is commanded to destroy the last of Earth’s plant life, which is being kept alive in greenhouse pods on his spaceship. By the film?s end, (spoiler alert!) Dewey becomes the spaceship?s sole survivor, left to tend to the remaining plants after Dern?s character blows up the vessel and himself in order to save the sole remaining greenhouse with Dewey aboard

?I relate mechanically; I think mechanically,? More says. ?So I’m watching this movie, and I’m a kid, and I’m thinking mechanically and I’m thinking, ?This mission is doomed?this robot is going to break; it’s going to wear out.” The film, and its robots, stuck a chord deep within More. ?Did it have an impact on me? Yeah!?

Over the years, inspired by fictional robots, More created a career for himself in robotics. Even when he worked on military robots, Huey, Dewey, and Louie always remained with him. ?I built things and I thought: ?What happens if it gets stuck? What if it just takes a wrong turn, and one of its little legs or wheels goes into a ditch? The whole future of these species is depending on this one mechanical droid. What happens when the bearings wear out? What happens when it gums up? What happens if it has a failure and things wear out?” More believes that thinking about Dewey’s vulnerabilities at an early age helped him craft more reliable robots during his career.

Ellen Ripley with Power Loader

Go Shirogauchi, chief engineer and vice president of Activelink Co. Ltd., a Panasonic subsidiary headquartered in Kyoto, Japan, says the powered exoskeleton he helped develop was partially inspired by the 1985 movie Aliens. Activelink?s ?dual-arm power amplification robot? features a set of 18 electromagnetic motors that will allow its user to lift 100 kg (220 lbs.) even while wearing a shirt and tie.

Power Loader bears a more than passing resemblance to the exoskeleton in Aliens (also called Power Loader), which was used to move cargo in and around spaceships and colonies, as well as to clobber the occasional angry alien. Like its fictional inspiration, the real-life Power Loader is designed to help users handle an array of stock management, construction, and disaster relief tasks, although it?s alien-fighting capabilities have yet to be proven.

Movie robots often look like the real thing, but that?s where the similarity usually ends.

Andrew Clement, owner of Creative Character Engineering, a Van Nuys, Calif.-based provider of physical and digital character effects for film and television productions, notes that appearance is everything with a movie robot. Like a human actor, a movie robot aims to create the illusion of reality, not actually perform real-world activities. Also like their movie star counterparts, movie robots are very appearance-oriented and often not very durable. ?We use this silicon skin that’s just loaded with plasticizers for movie animatronics,? Clement says. ?You’re never going to shoot for more than six months and, if you do, you can swap out a skin.? Human actors should be so lucky.

More agrees that a robot?s on-screen appearance largely defines the way it?s perceived by the audience. ?The image, the shape, the physical presence of the robot goes a long way to communicating its purpose, its personality, its goodness or evilness,? he says.

While robot good guys like R2D2, C3PO, and Forbidden Planet?s Robby are beloved by many movie viewers, ?bad? robots such as Terminator and Blade Runner?s Pris have their fans, too. ?There are many movies in which the robot is drawn as a bad role,? Shirogauchi says, noting that R.U.R., the 1920 play that coined the word ?robot,? featured a hostile robot rebellion that exterminated the human race.

A growing number of movie robots are not robots at all, but sophisticated animated graphics created with computer-generated imagery (CGI) on specialized computer workstations. ?CGI is so good that even most of the real actors are half CGI now,? Anybots? Blackwell says. ?So there’s not much reason to have a physical anything in movies.?

Clement, however, believes that there?s still plenty of movie life left in physical robots, noting that animatronic systems can often give producers a less expensive and more realistic portrayal than CGI. ?I prefer it when a director will come to me, and we’ll discuss it rather than automatically pulling the trigger on doing something in CGI, because a lot of the times they don’t realize there is a cost savings,? he says. ?I think CGI has been sold so effectively lately that it seems to be the obvious choice for everybody, even though it may not be the right choice?it’s just something people seem to go to.?

Jonathan Bohren, a roboticist and a mechanical engineering graduate research assistant at Baltimore?s Johns Hopkins University, notes that movie viewers often tend to favor robots that look like a robot over machines that are designed to look human. ?People have so much affection for R2D2 because R2D2 doesn’t look anything like a human,? he says. ?Some films where they have CGI humans?Polar Express was one of them?there were a lot of reports that the computer graphics, the simulated humans looked … not right.?

Animatronic systems vs CGI

Clement bemoans the fact that CGI?s arrival has had a damping impact on the development of new film-oriented robotics technologies. ?The disappointing thing is we were making such leaps and bounds with animatronics, and bringing the cost down, and bringing up the realism and the reliability of it,? he says. ?When CGI came along, it really swept the table and removed a lot of the R&D money that we were using to make some great advances.?

Bohren says he has found a great deal of robotics inspiration in the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. ?There you had Data?one of those instances where you have a robot trying to become human, or approach humanity,? he says. ?For people studying robotic ethics and the way robots integrate with law, Star Trek: The Next Generation, in particular, brought up a lot of interesting questions and perspectives on how sentient robots should be perceived and treated in the future.?

The challenges presented on the TV series were both deep and complex. ?Once you solve the hard problems, then you have harder problems,? Bohren says. ?Issues like: How do robots integrate into society? What rights do robots have?? Then there?s the issues associated with human-like machines that possess superhuman capabilities. ?As a roboticist, I think about those problems,? Bohren says.

Helping Hollywood

Just as movie robots have inspired the development of real-world systems, many movie makers draw motivation from real-life robot designs and technologies to create their fictional machines. Clement says that many of the people he collaborates with on movie robots are also engaged in the creation of real robots. ?Some of the people that do this are very cagey about it, so I assume they’re working on other things that are in development, and they don’t want a leak,? he says. ?There might be some military applications?I’m not exactly sure what some of these people are doing.?

Bohren feels that robot designers help filmmakers showcase robots with cutting-edge designs and technologies?attributes that even the most imaginative screenwriters can?t conceive of. ?In all the action movies, whenever there’s some fighter jet, they always pull the latest high-tech jet out of the military’s roster,? he says. ?They do the same with robots sometimes, presenting the robots with the most advanced designs and capabilities.?

Movie makers also draw motivation from real-life robot designs and technologies to create their fictional machines

Although many movie robots have their roots in reality, filmmakers often have the machines behaving strangely relative to their capabilities or surrounding conditions. Blackwell says that movies tend to give people wrong ideas about real-world robots. ?They certainly give people the impression that things are possible that aren’t yet possible,? he says. Yet he adds that this isn?t necessarily a bad thing. ?Movies and literature should show us the way, rather than talking about what already exists,? he says.

More points to one of R2D2?s iconic Star Wars scenes as a prime example of Hollywood?s careless treatment of robots. ?You basically had to suspend belief as it’s supposedly trundling through the desert,? he says, noting that the plucky little robot wasn?t exactly equipped for reliable movement over arid terrain. ?There’s no way it could do that; it would simply sink into the sand and get stuck,? More says.

Blackwell, for his part, believes that movie robots are perhaps a bit too autonomous. ?Hollywood tends to prefer individual robots that can do things on their own?everything is kind of built in,? he observes. Technologies such as wireless networks and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication are hardly ever mentioned in movies featuring robots. ?In the real world, the robots shown in movies would certainly have connections to each other and be able to coordinate among themselves,? Blackwell says.

He also feels that many Hollywood productions tend to sentimentalize robots, sometimes to a sickening degree. ?For dramatic reasons, it always has to be sad that the robot dies,? Blackwell says. ?In fact, it’s really no more sad than if your cell phone dies.?

Movies featuring advanced robot technologies sometimes present some strange contradictions, observes Bohren. He points to Surrogates (2009), the Bruce Willis-led cyber mystery, as an example of a film in which technology advancements are applied unevenly. ?In the movie, you have these super-advanced telerobotics systems?remotely operated robots,? he says. ?The robots are moving around with superhuman strength, speed, and perception.? Yet the rest of the world appears to remain mired in conventional technology. ?The characters get into their super-advanced robotic avatars, and then they take those robots and get into a car that’s still using an internal combustion engine,? Bohren says. ?The idea that a company would develop something like that [robotic avatar], and then not use it in other applications is insane.?

Strange contradictions

Shirogauchi says that robot movie nitpickers need to remember that Hollywood?s primary duty is to entertain people, not to slavishly follow the rules of robotics, physics, logic, or even common sense. He feels that it?s perfectly OK for a movie to portray robots with a bit (or even a lot) of artistic license. ?A movie is not interesting if there is no misleading,? he observes.

Ready for Their Close-Up

Like it or not, robots will almost certainly continue to play major roles in movies for many years to come, inspiring new legions of robot developers and supporters. Blackwell feels that in the not-too-distant future a robot may even land a leading role in a major motion picture. ?But it won?t have a robotic personality,? he predicts. ?It will be replicating an actor who’s long dead, maybe.?

VGo?s More, on the other hand, says a robot with a robotic personality would make an ideal lead for a TV reality show. ?I predict that the first real robot character, not an animated or computer-generated robot character, is going to appear in a reality show type of format,? he says.

More even has some specific ideas in mind. ?How about a robot whose mission it is to climb Mount Everest? Or a robot whose mission it is to traverse the United States from one coast to the other?? He says that such a robot, created in the form of something resembling a souped-up version of a Mars rover, would create a compelling show. ?Make it more interesting … have it where it has to interact with the complexity of the infrastructure?roads, and people and stuff along the way,? More says.

For his part, Clement say he?s pleased by the way today?s movie robots, as well as cherished past creations like R2D2, can touch an audience in much the same way as a living actor. ?That’s one of the things that I find most exciting about the business,? he says. ?When you can have an audience that’s having this profound emotional response to a piece of rubber and some aluminum, that’s fantastic.?