Tag Archives: Disney Research

Turning an NES into the ultimate 8-bit game console

This system transforms 8-bit side-scrolling console video games into totally immersive multiplayer experiences.

There’s no denying the nostalgic appeal of blowing into a Super Mario Bros cartridge, slipping it into your Nintendo Entertainment System and immersing yourself in an 8-bit world of blocky graphics and chiptunes. The side-scrolling game that we all grew up playing in our family rooms is pretty limited, though. You constantly move forwards, jumping over obstacles and hitting blocks, until you get to the end of a level — that’s about it. There’s no going back, you can’t zoom out and you can only have a maximum of two players.


What if there was a way to transform the beloved game into a collective, totally immersive experience? That’s exactly what a group from ETH Zurich and Disney Research set out to accomplish by developing the world’s first cooperative 8-player, 8-bit NES capable of continuous, panoramic side-scrolling.

For this endeavor, the team employed a real NES with real cartridges, giving it a true old-school effect. And it should be pointed out that there was no hacking of the actual console; instead, its creators enhanced the game using DIY hardware and software that multiplexes eight gmepad inputs to automatically handoff control from one pad to the next.


To connect eight controllers to the NES, they used an Arduino (ATmega328)-based multiplexer. Video from the NES is fed through an upscaler to get the output up to a solid 576p at 50Hz, whereas audio output goes directly from the NES to the room’s sound system.

Meanwhile, the NES output video signal is first captured and sent for analysis. A “tracking PC” running custom software processes the video stream, tracks the background and creates a wide, panoramic image. This image is then sent to a media server, which outputs the stream via eight projectors — two for each wall. Ars Technica notes that the tracking PC also has a real-time GPU algorithm to correct any distortion, enabling it to display clear graphics.


The Arduino multiplexer has two modes of operation: it can either cycle through each gamepad after a fixed amount of time, or the tracking PC can let the Arduino know to change to a specific gamepad, depending on where the players are in a level.

Once complete, the researchers tested the impressive system at a gathering with over 400 guests inside a Swiss night club. As you can imagine, it was a hit! The hope is that it will bring an entirely new level of social interaction to traditional game play. Think about it: Partygoers can swap in and out as they attempt to go from level to level, all while adding a unique ambiance to the environment. (Not for anything else, it can surely make for one heck of a drinking game!)


For those who don’t happen to have several projectors or giant walls, not to worry. The platform supports a virtual reality version as well, which reproduces a similar environment using an Oculus Rift headset.

Intrigued? Head over to the researcher’s official page to see how they’re ‘unfolding the 8-bit era.’ You can also head over to Ars Technica’s writeup or simply watch it in action below.

[h/t Ars Technica via ETH Zurich]

Disney researchers found a way for devices to communicate using LEDs

Visible Light Communication enables the interaction between objects using only LEDs.

If devices are going to communicate with one other, more times than not it’s going to be done through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. However, wireless networks aren’t always available and Bluetooth can drain battery life. Knowing this, a Disney Research team has come up with an alternative way for Internet of Things objects to ‘talk.’ How, you ask? Through LED lights.


Unlike incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, the brightness of LEDs can be controlled with extreme precision. Meaning, they can be turned on and off at very high frequencies that are faster than the human eye can detect. Aside from that, LEDs can even be used as receivers just like photodiodes.

Similar to how two ships passing in the night can communicate via Morse code, a couple of IoT gadgets can now secretly converse through the visible light generated by an LED — a method that the team calls Visible Light Communication, or VLC. Not only can it illuminate a room, but the MCU inside each bulb is capable of transmitting and receiving data.


“VLC creates opportunities for low-cost, safe, and environmentally friendly wireless communication solutions. We focus on connected toys and light bulb networks,” the team writes. “Our work targets a full system design that spans from hardware prototypes to communication protocols, and applications.”

Though the concept of “Li-Fi” has been around for a while, as expected, it would appear that many of VLC’s initial examples are focused primarily on toys. (It is Disney, after all!) Among them included a toy car that can turn on its own lights and come to life when placed near a lamp, as well as a princess dress whose embedded LEDs are activated whenever a wand with its own light comes near.

“LED-to-LED Visible Light Communication allows interaction between toys by only using LEDs. No dedicated hardware is required. When multiple devices are networked with each other, we organize the communication with our software protocols,” the researchers add.


However, the technology has other potential applications as well, with an adapter connected to the headphone jack of a smartphone or tablet to receive signals from overhead lights operating at wavelengths unnoticeable by the human eye. This, for instance, opens the door for LED emitters to be placed around a store to beam notifications to the smartphones of shoppers.

Using a simple mobile app on the device, the lightbulb data can be used to tell a story and visualize both pictures and text. When off, no data is transmitted. When switched back on, the storytelling continues.

As you can see in the photo above, the researchers employed various Arduino Uno boards (ATmega328) as part of the study’s testbed. Read all about the project here.

Disney uses store-bought conductive thread to build robot muscles

Researchers have developed an inexpensive way to make artificial muscles using off-the-shelf supplies.

They say Disney World is the most magical place on Earth, but we’d argue that it may come second to their research lab. From 3D-printed plush toys to autonomous sand drawing robots to bipedal droids that walk like animated characters, the Disney Research team continues to dream up some impressive innovations that blend fantasy with the real world.


In an effort to make robotic arm automation more lifelike, a group of Disney engineers have found a way to develop strong, artificial muscles using inexpensive, store-bought conductive sewing thread coiled into a shape that resembles somewhat of a DNA helix.

“Natural muscles exhibit high power-to-weight ratios, inherent compliance and damping, fast actuation and high dynamic ranges. Unfortunately, traditional robotic actuators have been unable to attain similar properties, especially in a slender muscle-like form factor. Recently, super-coiled polymer (SCP) actuators have rejuvenated the promise of an artificial muscle,” the researchers write.

Movement is facilitated through the heating and cooling of the off-the-shelf strings. As the strands fluctuate in temperature, the cables contract and expand like a human muscle, which in turn, pulls the fingers causing the artificial hand to close. While the researchers initially set out to find a low-cost way to create artificial muscles, their project yielded controlled forces in less than 30 milliseconds — actually outperforming the capabilities of a human muscle.


“The average human skeletal muscle has a twitch cycle of over 100 ms, and reaches a steady-state force in hundreds of milliseconds. Furthermore, the peak power- to-weight ratio of mammalian skeletal muscle is 0.32kW/kg, whereas these actuators have been shown to generate up to 5.3kW/kg,” the team adds.

For their demonstration, Disney Research employed a 3D-printed robotic hand — which had been crafted using an AVR powered Makerbot Replicator 2 machine — comprised of four fingers and a thumb with actuators on each tendon enabling a full range of motion. The muscles were strewn along the forearm of the robot to mimic the physical locations of a human arm, while four small computer fans were used to cool the actuators during relaxation. As for its electronics, the arm was driven by an Arduino Nano (ATmega328) along with some simple MOSFET PWM-switching supplies.


“The robot arm was able to perform various grasping maneuvers. The grasps were performed in under a second without the benefit of any feedback sensor, using a lead compensator to improve the speed of finger motions. Each finger can be manipulated individually, and there was no noticeable crosstalk between actuators.”

Does this mean that in the future we’ll see more realistic movements by Disney automations at its parks worldwide? As we wait to find out, you can read its entire paper here.

BeachBot is an autonomous robot that creates giant sand art

Leave it to Disney to magically turn the beach into a giant Etch-a-Sketch. 

Sure, robots that could paint, doodle and write are nothing new. However, a team from Disney Research Zurich and ETH Zurich has conceived a mobile bot capable of autonomously creating giant sand drawings by dragging a rake-like tool on the beach.


The aptly named BeachBot — which measures 60cm in length and 40cm in width and height — features “balloon” tires that traverse sandy beaches without leaving any noticeable tracks. To provide optimal mobility and robustness, a three-wheel arrangement with differential drive back wheels and a steered wheel in the front are used. Drawing is done through a controllable rake consisting of seven movable parts actuated by servo motors, attached at the rear of the robot.

Instead of GPS, the BeachBot is equipped with a system like that used by many of today’s robotic vacuum cleaners. The desired canvas is marked by four reflective vertical poles at each corner. In order to draw precisely, the BeachBot requires accurate localization, and must first determine its position on the drawing area using depth sensing and IMU technology.

It should be noted that the gadget is, in fact, embedded with an ATmega32U4 — which is responsible for connecting the ESCONs of the BeachBot.


Artwork can either be preprogrammed to draw lines or create block-filled areas via its accompanying app, or manually to transform the beach into a real-life sketchpad. At the moment, the Wi-Fi-enabled BeachBot only works on 10 x 10m canvases with each drawing taking just about 10 minutes. In addition, individually controllable pins can be raised and lowered to create thick or thin lines in the sand.

What will the Roomba-sized, turtle shell-like bot be used for? Potential applications may include drawing large advertisements, designating private beaches, or allowing resort guests to reserve an exclusive spot.


BeachBot is only one of many Disney Research projects in the area of mobile robotics, ranging from path-planning and robot choreography to localization and human-robot interaction. Intrigued? You can learn all about the creation here. In the meantime, you can watch it in action below!