Hitting the Big Screen: Pitt, CMU Robot Inspiration for Disney Movie

By: Chuck Finder


An idea that germinated from a professor’s notion– a robot nurse for the elderly – ultimately sprouted into a collaborative University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University effort that continues today and was the inspiration for an animated Disney movie coming to theaters near you this weekend.

Yes, the “Big Hero 6” opening Friday can be traced back to Oakland and 1999.

Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob, Ph.D., then a professor and now the dean of the Pitt School of Nursing, put together a “quality of life” workshop where the then co-director of CMU’s Robot Learning Lab, Sebastian Thrun, now of Stanford University and Google, opined aloud that it was the perfect time to create a robotic nurse. A telephone conversation between them one week later gave rise to a joint project. . . but what precisely?

That nebulous future fell to Rory Cooper, Ph.D., in the early days of directing Pitt’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories plus Chris Atkeson of CMU’s robotics lab. “Chris had a real strong interest in how robots could help people, how humans and robots could interact,” Dr. Cooper recalled.

“Our team, which grew to include many others such as Judith Matthews, Ph.D., (from Nursing and the University Center for Social & Urban Research), sought out a way to use technology to assist the elderly – who were living longer – to live more independently,” Dr. Dunbar-Jacob said. “Judy was instrumental in envisioning a robotic walker, known as the Intelligent Mobility Platform, and Pearl, a second-generation, more human personal-service robot.”

Their work begat Pearl the NurseBot, whose combined effort between Pitt and CMU begat the National Science Foundation grant that formed their joint Quality of Life Technology Center (QoLT), which begat more grants. As Dr. Cooper said with a laugh: “So Chris and I. . . were partnered together for another 10 years.

“[NurseBot ] in some ways was the foundation for the NSF Engineering Research Center grant. We had formed those collaborations across Pitt and CMU, of engineers and clinicians and to a lesser extent social scientists working together. Chris and I worked on the robotics aspects.”

Next came Strong Arm to help assist with transfers from and to wheelchairs, a step beyond NurseBot, and soft robotics, which additionally has involved the UPMC Center for Assistive Technology.

“It’s kind of that NurseBot, Strong Arm and soft robotic combination that was the inspiration for the new Disney movie – the robot in the new Disney movie,” Dr. Cooper said.

In particular, a QoLT robot arm made of balloons caught the fancy of Disney co-director Don Hall. Although Dr. Cooper also sees the Baymax character in the previews for the movie that opens today, and he sees the teddy-bear persona and visage of Atkeson in it.

“They are creative people,” Dr. Cooper said of Disney, which later became a partner