Several months ago, I was asking Frog’s chief creative officer, Mark Rolston, about the rumored iWatch. But all he wanted to talk about was dolls. In the next five years, he said, a doll will come out with a face made from a curved display, and that will change the way toys are made forever.
It was a tough scene to imagine, until a Disney Research/Carnegie Mellon project (led by Eric Brockmeyer and Ivan Poupyrev) revealed Papillon, a 3-D printed eyeball that’s capable of giving toys glowing animation where glass eyes once lived. The project is based upon Disney’s research in printed optics, which crafts sculptures in a stack of fiber-optic light pipes so that each undulation on the surface can be a pixel. The resulting Papillon prototypes transform a face into a digital caricature capable of displaying everything from hearts to messages to disco balls in a toy’s eyes.
It sounds fun, right? But for Disney, Papillon is a breakthrough very much in line with its business of animatronic robots, interactive characters, and of course, toys.
"Making eyes has been always a problem, and eyes are the most important element in face-to-face communication," Poupyrev explains. "[And] when you go into non-realistic characters, such as in manga, comics, and animations, eyes take a whole new shape and sizes that have nothing to do with real eyes and behave in a physically impossible ways. Think Tom and Jerry cartoons."
Indeed, despite all of the technology and filigree behind Disney’s amusement parks, Mickey Mouse’s eyes are still just a pair of unblinking glass ovals filled with paint. It’s easy to imagine Mickey, not just glowing with green money signs, but retrofitted with tasteful, subtle black and white animations that could bring his eyes alive.
Yet Mickey’s use case is just one reason why the core technologies behind Papillon are incredibly exciting. Because once we break free of rectangular screens constraining today’s electronics, interactive pixels could scale to almost any object you could imagine.
"The real world is not flat, and future display technology has to conform to the milliards of shapes that we have around us," Poupyrev says. "Eyes are just one example."