Yes I had a to do a double take as well when I originally read about this! Walt Disney Imagineering has been working on this project for a few years now, but apparently as of this year Groot is now freely walking and doing a little jig around Walt Disney Imagineering in Southern California!
Before I go into details, you have to see this video for yourself:
Matthew Panzarino from TechCrunch was able to see this robot for himself and states:
The gait is smooth, the arms swing in a lifelike manner and the feet plant realistically. The body sways exactly as you’d expect it to. There’s no other way to say it, it’s ambling. This is Project Kiwi, a small-scale, free-roaming robotic actor — the first of its kind for Disney and a real robotics milestone.
The pint-sized character has accurately rendered textures on its face, hands and feet. It’s dressed in a distressed red flight suit that you may remember from the films. And its eyes are expressive as it looks at me and waves. This is the moment, the one that Disney Imagineers and park goers alike have been waiting decades to realize. This is a real, walkaround character that is at the proper scale, kid scale.
He goes on to state that various non-mobile levels of this vision have been achieved at parks around the world, including the A1000 figure that powers characters like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge’s Hondo Ohnaka and the smoothly expressive Belle from Beauty and the Beast at Tokyo Disneyland.
Matthew was able to speak to the lead on Project Kiwi, R&D Imagineer Principal Scott LaValley, as well as Advanced Development Studio Executive SVP Jon Snoddy, about how the platform came together over the past few years.
“Project KIWI started about three years ago to figure out how we can bring our smaller characters to life at their actual scale in authentic ways,” LaValley says. “It’s an exciting time for bipedal robotics and with an incredible team and our combination of technology, artistry and magic, we are bringing characters to life that could not have happened anywhere but Disney.”
The end-goal with this project is for a character to be able to walk on its own and interact with park Guests. Matthew reports that the next step for Project Kiwi is a new set of actuators that can dynamically apply torque plus added sensing capabilities for more stability and reaction to uneven ground or interactions. He states, “You can imagine that, as a free-roaming character people will want to take pictures with it and I doubt kids would be able to resist running up for a hug. The skeleton must be able to sense and react quickly and smoothly to those sudden external inputs in order to stay upright and keep looking natural.” What a crazy concept!
Project Kiwi is still a work in progress, but it’s so impressive to see how far the project has come and it is wild to watch Groot walking around in real life! Hopefully we get to see these types of projects walking around in the parks sometime in the future!
You can read Matthew’s full article at TechCrunch here.