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Interview with Morgan Pope

📷 Walt Disney Imagineering

Journalist: Allison Yan

Allison: Hi there! My name’s Allison, and I’m very, very excited for today’s SciSection guest! Joining me, I have Morgan Pope, a research scientist for Walt Disney Imagineering’s Research and Development team, where he works on projects including Stuntronics, which is essentially an advanced, aerial, acrobatic robot. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me this morning!

Morgan: Sure! My pleasure.

Allison: Yeah, we’re excited to hear from you! So just to get right into it, as a part of the Disney family, your work is very interdisciplinary, even going beyond combining different sciences like compsci or physics or engineering. You even incorporate storytelling, so how would you say this aspect of storytelling is integrated into your work?

Morgan: Well, I think that’s one of the reasons [why] I love this job as opposed to any other kind of robotics job that I could have. It’s because story is so integrated. It's interesting; of course that’s fun creatively, and I’ve been really lucky to work with some fantastic creative leads who are very generous in allowing me to be part of those conversations. And I love that.

Morgan: But I think also, storytelling as a focus gives you some really cool technical opportunities.

Morgan: So the fact that we’re telling stories allows us to do different kinds of robotics. Most of the rest of the field is about performing a specific function, and it’s not as critical that it has a certain look or a certain emotion. But that is all of what we’re trying to do: is create a feeling, an image, a sensation. And that pushes you to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. So for instance, Stuntronics. There’s not really a good reason to throw a robot 65 feet in the air, unless you’re trying to provoke emotion. I think the fun part about that is I get to explore different parts of the robotics world because it does have a different focus. So you get to do kinda new, fun stuff, not necessarily because it’s impossible or hasn’t been thought of before, but because you have a different context. Because you’re trying to achieve a different goal. And so that’s, I think, one of the best parts of this job.

Allison: Wow! That’s so awesome! I really like to hear from everybody during all my interviews about combining different branches of knowledge, and it’s really interesting to see how everybody’s job kind of does that a little bit. You touch on different things besides your one title.

Morgan: Yeah I think that’s also why I like being on the research side. Because when you’re doing something in the early stages, you do get to touch a lot of it. As we get more developed with a project, you bring on specialists, and the work gets bigger, and you have to subdivide it among mechanical and electrical and programming teams. But when you’re starting out with just an idea, you get to touch all of those aspects. You probably get to do a little firmware, you probably get to maybe solder together something, you get to do the basic mechanical design. And then at Disney, you also get to do a little of ‘How does this look good? How does this tell a story?’ And so I love that. That’s my favorite because it feels so authentically creative, and it feels so holistic. I feel like that’s probably one of the main reasons why I love being in research. I love the idea of delivering things directly in front of guests. And that’s something that when in research you’re a little further away from, but one of the big benefits is being able to be fully integrated into a project at the early stages and really kind of use all of the sides of yourself. All the things you’ve been trained to do.

Allison: Wow! And then as someone who doesn’t really know too much about physics and engineering, I can only imagine how much goes into making those really intricate actions, so can you describe some of the science behind these robots?

Morgan: Yes! And actually, this is one of my favorite things to talk about. We actually found something really great in the way that 3D objects travel through space. So in general, we as humans have a reasonably good idea of what’s going to happen in a 2D rotation. And we actually use this a lot in Stuntronics. So I’m actually on a swivel chair right now; if you spin and you throw your arms out, you slow down. And if you tuck them in, you’ll speed up.

Allison: Like a figure skater right?

Morgan: Like a figure skater. And that’s something we all understand. Basically your angular momentum is conserved, and then you can change your moment of inertia, and that changes your angular rate. But then things get really interesting, actually, when you start going into if you’re rotating in more than one axis. So if you're starting to rotate - you're doing a big flip, and then you also start to add some twists. Well now, twists couple and then a lot of really fun stuff can happen. So for instance, let’s say you’re doing a big front flip. You do a big front flip, and you’re all stretched out. You throw one arm down. If you weren’t doing a front flip, you can imagine: you throw one arm down, [and] the rest of your body has to react a little bit. So it’s going to tip a little bit to react to that motion. So you’re going to get a little bit of a tip. If you look at the physics, it’s actually a fairly simple equation with just a really surprising result. If you’re doing this big front flip, you throw your arm down, you tip a little bit, then suddenly you’re gonna also be twisting.

Allison: Ohh ok, because of that tip?

Morgan: Mhmm, it’s basically conserving angular momentum again, but in 3D, you also have to preserve the direction of the angular momentum. So when you tip, the direction’s wrong, and you need to add a little bit of twist in order to get it back to the right direction. It’s all vector math. And it’s not that hard to do the math, but then the results are really surprising right? Because you don’t expect that you could be doing a front flip and without pushing on anything, without touching anything, you could suddenly be doing a bunch of twists as well. And that’s kind of the fun part. That kind of falls out of the dynamics. It’s really neat; when things are spinning in the air, kind of weightless, they do all kinds of fun stuff. And stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily intuit, but that looks really cool and has a bunch of this twisting, curving motion to it. And so in robotics, we’re always trying to jump over that uncanny valley of something that looks human or alive enough. And a lot of times what that means is we have to add more and more actuators to try and simulate the idea of aliveness. So some of our best animatronics in the park have dozens of actuators in the head alone, just to try and jump over that, to give you enough resolution to make it feel alive. Because [our robot is] moving fast - it’s doing this big parabolic arc - and because of these really cool things that fall out of the dynamics, you get all this really nuanced, fun, complicated motion that really, I feel, makes it seem like a living thing. And so that’s sort of the fun thing, the physics thing. The gift of physics that we're leveraging on this project is the way that when things rotate through space, they are both counterintuitive and surprising, and beautiful.

Allison: Wow! And that's why math can be so interesting. Like you said, it can be super simple, but then the applications of it are really astounding.

Morgan: Yeah exactly.

Allison: And then going back to like you talked about earlier, the early stages of building these robots; so you had to go through many, many prototypes. I read that there was a project called BRICK, then Stickman, all growing up in complexity up to Stuntronics. So what were some important things that you learned in those early stages that contributed to the robot’s current model?

Morgan: Well I say, maybe at a high level, just the fact that there are stages is a big lesson. I think that the culture in the Research and Development department is [that] it’s great to have an idea, and sometimes we have these ideas that we want to execute on, but it’s way better to have something physical that you’ve built. And even if that thing is small and low resolution and doesn’t look at all like the final show, if you’ve built something, you know so much more than if you just have a concept. And the idea being that the process, when it works right, is really empowering. So what you try and do is have some kind of distant vision, and then you say ‘Okay what is the thing that I know the least about?’ It’s the biggest risk to this vision. And ‘What is the simplest thing I can build that will make me smarter about that thing that I don't know about?’ And so if that process is working well, then you build. So for instance in our situation, it was just ‘Hey, can we repeatedly control something that’s spinning through the air? Can we repeatedly change it’s spin rate?’ So that’s when we built the BRICK. And then we were like eventually, we want to have it be something that has limbs probably. We’re a company that builds characters, so we don’t want to just have tubes with weights moving around in them. So what changes if we now have the internal rotation of these limbs moving? And so we built that Stick, the 2 by 4. And then we got more refined versions of that. Then, there were questions about actuation, power density. Questions about how close you could do the sensing, how well you could track the motion. And [with all of] those, you just build something. And it’s amazing how even if you build something, and it’s not right, you learn so much more than if you just tried to go through theoretically and figure out what you would need to do. And so those kind of iterative prototypes, that’s the biggest lesson. What we also learned along the way is, for instance, at one point there was a robot that was just three aluminum sticks that would bend together look kind of like a Z. And this robot, when we threw it through the air, would crash. Sometimes we would drop it, we would crashland it, on these foam mats. And if it landed funny, I would be like ‘Oooh!’ Like I would feel bad for it. And that was a good learning, that wasn't technical learning necessarily, but it was an important creative learning that like ‘Oh I already have empathy for this object that really looks nothing like a human being.’ But when it’s going through the air, and it’s tucking, and it looks like it has intention about how it’s spinning, it does start to develop a little bit of a character. And when it hurts, you hurt. So that was kind of a nice insight: that you could see the creative being functional as well as technical. So you learn stuff like that along the way.

Allison: Wow so like everytime, each stage, whether or not things work, you're going to learn something for the next prototype?

Morgan: Absolutely, yes exactly. Yeah, you learn how not to do it, and you learn what the really tricky parts are. And I think a lot of the times, I will say, that probably one of the best things about prototyping is - and I think prototyping is a great way to approach life - you just try and see how it works. And I think a lot of times, what we think will be the hard part isn't hard, and what we think will be easy, turns out to be quite difficult. And you don't know until you actually get into it. And it's wonderful. What the great thing is, is sometimes a really tough technical problem, if you find a place where you build a prototype and it just works, you know you're onto something fun. Because sometimes you find these kind of rich loads of things where it's just working, working, working, and you haven’t hit the problem yet. And you chase those as far as you can until you get to the point where [clap!] you smack up against a big technical hurdle. And then you chip away at that. But those moments are always so much fun to be like ‘Oh this is working! This is working faster than I thought! This is working better than I thought!’ And then you run up against the technical challenge, and then that's fun too because you bring to bear all that you can, and see if you can solve it or if you can come at it from a different angle. But anyways, I think prototyping and just trying something out is a good way. I feel like it's a philosophy of life. Like I'll try that out with friendships. Let’s prototype this, let's try this out!

Allison: All this prototyping, so it’s built up to your current model, which like you said: the movements are really realistic, it looks like a character. So I read that you were in part inspired by the gymnast Simone Biles, and we had mentioned, the actions are similar to a figure skater. How has her athleticism or that of any other human model kind of carried over, and where is it seen in the robot’s movement?

Morgan: Right yeah, so ultimately, people are amazing sources of inspiration, and there's this amazing athleticism that goes on that allows us to even conceive of these kinds of ideas of backflips, front flips, and twists, and cartwheels. And I would say that we definitely drew inspiration from gymnasts. And actually we ended up having, on our team at one point, … a net specialist. But his background was a trapeze performer in the circus for however many years. And the fun thing was probably the intersection of those two worlds: of my dynamics, physics, computer science world and this artistic, gymnastic, acrobatic world. [There] was this book I read called Twisting Somersaults; It’s [by] a guy named Fred Yeadon. He spent 40 years of his academic life studying twisting somersaults. And he wrote a book; you print it one at a time from Amazon, and I got it and read the whole thing. I don't know how many other people read the whole thing, but I did. It was extremely relevant for me! And that book was extremely valuable because he had spent 40 years studying the things we talked about. This subtle arm motion producing a twist; that’s the stuff that Dr. Yeaden had really dug into and written equations that made sense and helped me to understand how we could go about it as a robotics team. So what would happen is I would go through - using simulation, using the prototypes - and develop ways that I would achieve certain moves. And then it was great because our trapeze specialist would watch us launching the robot, and say ‘If I were doing this, I would do a little more of a kick here or an arch there.’ And it was fun to see how you kind of got to the same conclusion coming from a very scientific, mathematic simulation based frame and from a very acrobatic, traditional performance based frame. And we kind of converge on the same idea. So it was fun to see when he would observe us doing something ‘Like are you trying to get more backflip?’ And we’d be like ‘No, I'm trying to get rid of backflip.’ And he'd [say], ‘Oh good cause that's what you're doing.’ And it was fun to see how these two worlds of thought, which seemed very different philosophically, end up coming to the same truth about how you produce cool shows.

Allison: Wow so everyone's training kind of comes together.

Morgan: Yeah exactly, and it's super neat. And I think…I found it very valuable when I had something that I thought worked from the math, to have someone who had an intuition for it from performing, to be able to say ‘Ya that makes sense to me too.’

Allison: Oh yeah so confirming it! And lastly, just to finish us off: being an Imagineer at least to me is such a cool job! I remember when I was younger, I had friends who, when asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ would always answer ‘Become an Imagineer!’ And that’s how I heard about it. So to help somebody who is, let’s say, really interested in robots or in science or for those kids who dream of becoming Imagineers, what guided or helped you to get to the job you have today?

Morgan: Hmm that’s a good question. So I came to engineering kind of late. I didn’t start doing engineering, I didn't even start studying it, until my junior year of college. I didn't work in the lab until after my junior year. I took five years in graduate school before I actually got a job in engineering. And I would just say that, for me, maybe there’s a lesson there: which is, where you end up isn't always what you planned from the beginning. And that’s completely fine. That’s probably best. I would say that you don’t necessarily want to be living the dream that you had when you were seventeen, because when you were seventeen you weren’t as smart as you are now. And that dream might not actually be that great. Like you should feel fully authorized to create a new dream as you go along. And I guess I would only say it’s important to prototype and pay attention. So for instance, when I first started engineering, I thought it would be cool to work in a robotics lab. So I did; I went and did a summer internship in a robotics lab. And that's a way to prototype it and to actually see what are people really doing with this degree? What are they really doing in their day to day life? Do I like it? Because something that sounds great on the surface can not match you. So just a little bit of a tangent, growing up I wanted to be a paleontologist. I still think that's a super cool career, but as I got into more of what paleontologists actually do on the day to day and realized that it wasn't fighting velociraptors, I kind of realized that I wasn't going to be a good paleontologist because I didn't enjoy the day to day activities of paleontology. You can enjoy the concept of something, but what's actually happening on the day to day? And so I would say: prototype, get experience in what you think you want to do, and find out if it's really what you want to do. And then the other thing I would say is, regardless of where you end up, I think the most important parts of your job are what you bring to it and the people that you work with. And so even if you don't get exactly the job that you were aiming for as a kid, you can get something that’s much, much better than what you were aiming for if you pay attention to the things you’re doing. If they light you up or not. And you pay attention to the people you're working with. And if you find good people to work with, then you're gonna be really blessed by your whole life. That's one of my favorite things about working at Disney: (I came here; it was my first job out of school) just to be surrounded by really talented people. I got a chance, for a little while, to work with Grant Imahara when he was contracting here, and to learn from. And then there's some amazing older Imagineers, new interns: people I'm learning from all the time. The richness and the depth of experience and creativity and technical ability has been phenomenal here. And just seeing how people are able to design things, build things, deliver things; that’s been the best part of my job. Has been working with and learning from amazing incredible people.

Allison: Wow that’s wonderful! I love that! So that wraps us up actually, thank you so much Morgan for joining us today!

Morgan: That was so much fun! Thanks for having me!

Allison: Ya of course! And make sure to be on the lookout for more from SciSection!


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