'Big Hero 6': Why the Cuddly Robot Is Closer to Reality Than You Think

Disney animators found inspiration for the huggable Baymax at Carnegie Mellon's robotics lab
Courtesy of Disney
An actual inflatable robotic arm led to the creation of Baymax.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In developing Walt Disney Animation Studios' Big Hero 6, based on a Marvel property about a scientific-minded teen named Hiro and his robot, the filmmakers visited various universities to discover what is happening in the robotics field. It was the soft robotics work taking place at Carnegie Mellon University that ended up serving as the inspiration for the film's inflatable health care provider, Baymax — and it turns out a real-life version may not be so far off.

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"Robots as caregivers — it's going to happen," insists Chris Atkeson, professor at the university's Robotics Institute. "There are a lot of people who need physical help — people with disabilities, older people. Terminator-like technology is scary; if it falls on someone or closes its hand [at the wrong time], it could seriously injure someone. So how do you build something where even if it crashes, you are still totally safe? The idea was to make them as light as possible, and one way to do that is to make them inflatable," adds Atkeson.

"He had me at 'inflatable,' " says Don Hall, who, along with Chris Williams, directed the film, which opens Nov. 7. Before the research trip, the filmmakers were considering a more traditional-looking robot, perhaps made of found parts. "We've seen a lot of robots, and we wanted this one to be fresh and new. He had to be appealing and huggable. Once I saw a very crude arm that was inflatable and could do very simple tasks, you could extract the character from there. Baymax's entire persona came from that research trip," says Hall.

How far off are these man-made caregivers? "The body part is relatively close," says Atkeson. "The 'brain' part is still very hard. [The technology would] have to be able to see and tell what's going on, make good decisions and be able to interact with people."

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The idea of Baymax interacting with Hiro on an emotional level also is grounded in research. "There's a big interest in handling depression," says Atkeson. "And the notion that a robot could provide therapy, that's very popular in autism. Some autistic children relate much better to, essentially, machines. Crude versions are not too far off, but it's going to take a while before we get good at it."

After the trip to Carnegie Mellon, character designer Shiyoon Kim, as well as the story team, went to work. And in the end, in addition to helping Hiro solve a mystery, Baymax also helps him, emotionally, to overcome grief. Says Hall: "That concept of Baymax treating Hiro emotionally is something that came later in the process and cracked the movie wide open."