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Disney Turns People Into Human Puppets

An eerie VR demo from Disney Research demonstrates what humans look like under the influence of machines.

Disney Turns People Into Human Puppets
Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Computers are like a bicycle for our minds, Steve Jobs once said. It remains a wonderful metaphor to this day. With a stroke of the key, just like a stroke of the pedal, computers amplify our intelligence, allowing us to beam tweets to servers to satellites without a second thought.

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But a new demo by Disney Research prompts the question: Are humans still riding the bicycle? Or is the bicycle now riding us?

Watch around 1:50 for the most chilling bit.

The experiment was simple: Researchers wanted to see if they could toss a real ball to someone in virtual reality. To do so, they placed a subject inside a motion tracking room, tossed a tennis ball, and used a computer to track the ball’s trajectory. Inside the VR headset, the user could see a digital version of the ball, flying through the air with 1:1 accuracy.

However, the researchers didn’t stop there. Computer vision is so good that it can do much more than recreate the ball’s trajectory in real time. So Disney programmed its machines to actually predict the arc of the ball faster than the user’s brain could–to the point that, right after the ball was thrown, the machine knew where it would land. Like a pirate treasure map, X marked the spot of the user’s next catch.

That meant that the human in the demonstration didn’t even need to watch the ball. They simply had to place their hands where the interface told them the ball would arrive–and it would land in their palms.

From a design perspective, it’s a kind of perfect UI. Imagine an MLB player who runs into the outfield, sprinting to make a catch. Rather than squinting through the sun, doing instinctual trigonometry to figure out where it might land, he could merely stroll to a dot on the field indicated by a heads-up display in his sunglasses, hold up his glove, and catch. Could anything be easier?

However, just look at the human inside Disney’s machine. As the video describes, the “user moves to catch the ball faster, in a robotic-like fashion.” Indeed, “robotic” is the perfect descriptor. Through this handy, predictive UI, the user goes from being unsure where a ball might land, making micro adjustments over the course of several seconds, to being puppeted with sharp, sure motions that somehow look devoid of life.

There’s no doubt, Disney made a very efficient interface for catching a ball perfectly. Any excess movements disappeared. That proverbial bicycle–the human-computer interaction between the user and the technology–never ran so smoothly! And yet, who are we if we hand over our own decisions, born from our own experiences and derived skills, to a machine that can tell us exactly where to go, what to do there, and when to do it?

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As this demo so perfectly, unintentionally demonstrates: We are just robots, pedaling in whatever direction we’re instructed.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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