With the aim of providing some physical interaction between entertainment robots and guests at its theme parks, while still maintaining a safe distance between the two, Disney Research has created an animatronic robot that can play catch and juggle balls with a human partner.

A Kalman filter algorithm is used to analyze video captured on an external camera system consisting of a Kinect-like ASUS Xtion PRO LIVE to track a colored ball in three-dimensional space and predict its destination and timing. The ball's predicted location is then relayed to the robot, which moves its hand accordingly.

The balls need to be thrown in the general vicinity of the robot’s hand, which has been modified with a cup-like shape to boost its catching ability. The camera system also tracks the human thrower’s head to orientate the robot towards them and the robot’s head will move to give the impression it is tracking the ball through the air with its eyes.

Caught balls are thrown back 2.5 meters (8 ft) to the thrower, while the developers have given the robot several different animations that play out when it drops a ball. These include a shaking of the head, looking behind, looking down, or a shrug of the shoulders.

The developers were also able to speed up the throw/catch cycle to give the robot the ability to juggle three balls with a human partner. While not quite on a par with the three-fingered robotic hand developed at the Ishikawa Komuro laboratory at the University of Tokyo, it's still pretty impressive.

There’s no word on when visitors to Disney theme parks can expect to enjoy a game of catch with a robot, but we don't imagine the technology will be used in Disney World’s Hall of Presidents.

The video below shows the Disney Research robot's catching and juggling ability.

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