From Illinois to Disney & back again: Introducing Joohyung Kim
It has been called the most magical place on Earth. But the secret to much of Disney’s “magic” is actually state-of-the-art engineering. For the past seven years, Joohyung Kim has helped to create the science behind the robots and animatronics that entertain millions each year. Kim, previously a visiting research student at CSL, has returned as an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering after 13 years in various industry and academic jobs, the most recent of which was at Disney Research.
Can you give me an overall summary of your work?
I’ve been a robotics researcher since 2001, mostly working on humanoid robots. After I got a PhD from Seoul National University in Korea, I worked in Samsung Electronics for 4 years, developing a humanoid robot. In early 2013, I joined the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University to participate in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). While I was working for DRC, I had a chance to interview with Disney Research and joined them in December 2013.
At Disney, I worked on character robots and animation, which involved capturing interesting features of characters. This involved motion control, design optimization, and also human-robot interactions. What we did in Disney Research was for future park projects. This meant writing papers and getting patents for future projects that Disney Imagineering (the division that is responsible for designing theme parks and new attractions) could use to base their decisions on up-and-coming attractions.
You visited Illinois, specifically CSL, as a research student from 2005-2007. Can you tell me about that experience and what brought you back to Illinois?
Illinois is a really good school for engineering and I really enjoyed the time here. In 2004 I got interested in passive dynamic walking control at a time when there were few researchers working on it. One of them was Professor Mark Spong (then a professor at CSL). I joined his lab for two years to work on dynamic walking and it was really great.
I came back to academia because robotics is a multi-disciplinary field and I really want to collaborate with lots of people. At a university like Illinois, all the engineering fields on campus are good and also connected to other universities so I can have more collaborators.
What can you share with us about your experiences with Disney?
I had to capture the interesting features of an animation character and build everything from scratch, so actually most of my work involved characters. Most Disney animations are drawn by artists with pretty good tools, including engineering tools, but those animations still don’t have any physical simulation, so sometimes it’s not quite possible to make the robotic character do a particular motion in real life.
My research was how to keep all the components of the robot in the character’s shape while keeping the motion as similar as possible, which relates to design optimization. I had developed a hopping robot inspired by Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, and there was a robot named SnapBot with detachable/reconfigurable parts that was inspired by Olaf from Frozen. I also worked on some human figure animatronics, I worked on capturing an actor’s motion and retargeting (or replicating) it to robots. This was mostly for theme parks, because there are tons of human shaped robotics and animatronics at Disney.
What are some things you’re currently working on?
I will keep working on the motion retargeting but I want to recreate daily life motions in the robot. It’s very important to convey all the expressions of humans, because if people cannot understand what the robot or humanoid is doing, it could be dangerous. I am interested in building some motion generators driven by all the motion data, allowing people to understand the intention of the robot, and in developing more human-like structures that will make more natural motions.
One of my previous interns from Disney is a current MechSe student here, so we are continuing to work on a second version of SnapBot.
What are your research goals?
I want to help people with robotics technology. Up until now, my goal was to make what I wanted to make or to entertain people. That’s very important. I really like Disney because it motivates lots of kids to dream or even actually motivates people to come into the scientific field. Disney makes a huge contribution to getting kids interested in STEM careers. Now I want to do something more. In the robotics field we could use humanoids for providing labor in daily life, or helping disabled people, or elderly people. I am interested in that and that’s why I am working on the daily motion capture and I want to make really natural, safe motions for daily use.