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Disney Research and Robotic Interaction

on Thu, 05/30/2013 - 22:04

The Walt Disney Company has always been at the forefront of innovation. Founded by legendary animator Walt Disney in 1923, the company rapidly revolutionized the cartoon arts with a string of “firsts” during it early years, including the first cartoon with fully synchronized sound in 1928, the first full-color cartoon in 1932 and the first animated feature film in 1937. Disneyland, meanwhile, became the first modern theme park in 1955. Not content to rest on its laurels, the Walt Disney Company made a number of strategic acquisitions in recent years, including Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm. Pixar had an effect beyond the media giant’s bottom line, however, resulting in the formation of Disney Research shortly after the purchase, a division inspired by Pixar’s work in computer graphics.

“Disney Research was launched in 2008 as an informal network of research labs that collaborate closely with academic institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich,” the company’s website states. “We’re able to combine the best of academia and industry—we work on a broad range of commercially important challenges, we view publication as a principal mechanism for quality control, we encourage engagement with the global research community, and our research has applications that are experienced by millions of people. We’re honoring Walt Disney’s legacy of innovation by researching novel technologies and deploying them on a global scale.”

The DARPA Challenge and CMU

on Wed, 05/29/2013 - 22:14

In 2002, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced the DARPA Grand Challenge, a robotic road race through the Mojave Desert starting in Barstow, California, and ending just beyond the Nevada border. Part of DARPA’s mission, as outlined by the United States Congress, is “to generate groundbreaking research and development so that future robotics can perform the most hazardous activities in future disaster response operations, in tandem with their human counterparts, in order to reduce casualties, avoid further destruction, and save lives.” Sponsoring the Grand Challenge was a way to foster that goal, while offering both prestige and a one million dollar prize to the winner of the competition.

Many within the robotics industry initially questioned the wisdom of participating in the Grand Challenge, doubting the potential of finishing the race as well as the fact that one million dollars would not be enough to cover the costs of building the necessary robotic vehicle. One “believer” in the contest, however, was William “Red” Whittaker, a chief architect of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. In the book Almost Human: Making Robots That Think (W.W. Norton, 2010), journalist Lee Gutkind details Whittaker’s refitting of a 1986 Humvee into the flagship of Team Red for the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge. Although the futuristic Humvee, named Sandstorm, travelled further than any of its fellow robots, it was unable to finish the race after toppling over an embankment twenty-three minutes into the competition.

The Big Brain Theory Features Local Competitors

on Wed, 05/08/2013 - 09:56

Given the overabundance of Reality TV shows and the success of The Big Bang Theory, it was only a matter of time before the two were combined. The Discovery Channel series The Big Brain Theory does just that as it merges elements of Big Brother with the “smart is the new sexy” tagline of the CBS sitcom. Like Big Brother, The Big Brain Theory takes ten strangers and forces them to live together while subjecting them to “challenges” each week, with the losing team being forced to jettison one of their members from the show. The twist, of course, is that the challenges are often complex and mentally demanding, the type of exercises that only the Sheldon Coopers and Leonard Hofstadters of this world could pull off.

While it may not be unusual to find Pittsburghers on reality shows—Jenna Morasco and Amber Brkich from Survivor immediately come to mind—it is uncommon to find the Steel City playing such a prominent role in the makeup of The Big Brain Theory. Two of the ten contestants, for instance, have direct ties to the city, while a third hails from nearby West Virginia. Welding engineer Joel Ifill, for instance, works at Bechtel Marine Propulsion Corporation’s Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin, while Eric Whitman is working towards his master’s degree in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University.

A Star Wars Cinco de Mayo in Stowe Rocks

on Thu, 05/02/2013 - 09:51

Everybody loves a good pun, even the British. When Margaret Thatcher was elected the first female Prime Minister of England on May 4, 1979, the headline of the London Evening News declared, “May the Fourth Be with You, Maggie,” a witty take on the classic Star Wars line, “May the Force be with you.” During the decades that followed, Star Wars fans across the globe began uttering the phrase themselves on May 4th of every year, resulting in not only the popularity of the phrase but making the day an unofficial holiday for follows of the George Lucas saga. Despite the designation, very few organized events have actually occurred on May 4th, with the first taking place in Toronto in 2011. Two years later, however, Pittsburgh finally has its own “Star Wars Day” celebration at the Parkway Theater in Stowe Rocks.

“I was planning on having a Cinco de Mayo Party at the movie theater, and someone I was talking to noticed that the date I picked was May 4th,” Aaron Stubna, owner of the theater, explains. “He mentioned I should throw a ‘May the Fourth Be with You’ party. So I thought why not combine the two events and throw one unique party—Cinco de Mayo the Fourth Be with You.” Cinco de Mayo, which is Spanish for the “fifth of May,” is a yearly celebration of Mexican heritage and culture, and combining the two unofficial holidays does indeed offer the opportunity for a truly unique occasion.

Free Comic Book Day

on Wed, 05/01/2013 - 10:17

In August of 2001, independent store owner Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California, floated an idea in Comics & Games Retailer magazine—a once-a-year event in which comic book stores across the country promoted the industry and thanked their regular customers by giving away free comic books. The following May, in conjunction with the release of the first Spider-Man film, Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) officially launched, and has been annually held ever since. “FCBD is part of a healthy comics market and I’m always gratified to see how much effort everyone puts into it,” Field told Scoop, the newsletter of Diamond Comic Distributers.

“FCBD puts comics and comic shops into the public consciousness in substantial ways,” Joe Field continues. “Besides the tie-in to movies, there’s a huge out-pouring of support from the education community. Many libraries participate in conjunction with local comic shops, and many teachers at all levels from elementary school through college give students extra credit for attending FCBD events and then reporting on the comics and the scene.” In Pittsburgh, meanwhile, all of the local comic books stores participate in Free Comic Book Day with not only “free comics” but huge sales and special events designed to bring in fans of the medium, both old and new alike.