Designing for realism
“Knowledge of human anatomy is essential to making lifelike figures with lifelike motions,” says Kuebler. “Cylinders become muscles. This doesn’t mean they have to be located in the same places as muscles, but they usually have to produce motion from the same places as a muscles. Sometimes this means running a cable or rod link from the cylinder to a frame member. In many cases, we locate cylinders that drive the eyes in the figure’s torso,” as shown in Figure 3. Cables run from the cylinders to the eye mechanism.
Many design techniques for placing cylinders in figures border on illusion. Perhaps the best example of this is a Louis Armstrong character, Figure 4, made for a museum that just opened in Chicago. The exhibit, called “Capone’s Chicago,” is located at 605 N. Clark St. in downtown Chicago; building facades on the entire block were modified to give a 1920s-era look. The character’s fingers appear to push down on the valves of a trumpet as he plays “Chicago. . . Chicago.” Kuebler reveals that, “the cylinders that generate the finger motion are actually in the trumpet valves, so the valves move by themselves and the fingers go along for the ride.”
A similar illusion is used for moving the head back. Normally, a cylinder in the torso would pivot a figure’s head back. Doing this was not practical for the Armstrong character because the cylinder would have to move the head, trumpet, and arms — quite a large mass mounted on a long moment arm. Instead, cylinders move the arms, which are connected to the trumpet, which is connected to the head. The head is mounted on a universal joint and follows the motion of the trumpet.
An important point is that these elements are not rigidly connected to each other. Ball-and-socket rod-end bearings are used extensively to allow individual elements to shift. And because body joints are anatomically correct, these reaction movements look natural, not stiff.
This illusion is repeated over and over. The Edison figure, for example, sits on a swiveling chair during its presentation. The chair turns left, then right as the character gestures and appears to scan and make eye contact with the audience as it speaks. Kuebler explains that, “People assume that his legs make the chair turn, because that’s what people do. Actually, actuators underneath the chair move it, and his legs simply follow this motion. It’s the same concept. Other movements make him shift in his seat. So after he’s been talking awhile, he begins to act uncomfortable, as anyone would.”
Companies capable of making sophisticated, lifelike animated figures traditionally have targeted theme parks as primary customers, according to Poor. “But figures like ours offer comparable realism at a cost of only 10% that of the flashy theme park ones. Because our figures are much more affordable, a whole new market has opened up for trade shows, museums, building lobbies, travelling attractions, and the like.”
Furthermore, Poor points out that audiences at theme parks represent a cross-section of the general population. At trade shows, museums, etc., members of the audience have something in common: they are there to learn about history, new products, new technologies, etc. This makes animating inanimate objects, such as furniture, light bulbs, or electronic instruments possible, because the audience will know what the animated object is.
Poor reveals, “We made a chart recorder that talks, sings, and even dances as part of a trade show exhibit for an instrument company (Figure 5). People attending the trade show certainly recognized that the figure was a chart recorder, but it spoke directly to them and entertained them — a form of infotainment. Another figure for the same company is an Einstein-like scientist that interacts with the chart recorder. “
Some of their clients were drawn to Life Formations by their own displays at shows. “We had a booth at a restaurant show, and except for a large crowd gathered around our booth, a hall the size of a football field was virtually void of attendees. Consequently, other exhibitors saw the attention we were getting and wanted us to do something similar for them,” says Poor.