Business Technology

The inspiration behind Big Hero 6's huggable star Baymax

11 min read

17 March 2015

Academy Award winning film Big Hero 6 has received great praise, but what makes the movie so thrilling – apart from the cute antics of healthcare robot Baymax – is the portrayal of real-world science. Believe it or not, Baymax was inspired by several existing robots and research in the field.

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Baymax’s characteristics of being inflatable, intellectual medical expertise and super-strength, have all been researched at Carnegie Mellon University, where Chris Atekson believes that healthcare companions will arrive much sooner than anyone expects.

Back in 2011, Atkeson said: “There’s been a lot of interest at Carnegie Mellon University: ‘How are we going to get robots to take care of people?’ And it was very clear to me that no matter what we do, it’s going to be dangerous to get a big metal monster close to a human being. The answer is we need to make the robot as lightweight as possible – put it on a very severe diet – and one way to do that is to essentially make it inflatable. Then it’s like a balloon and doesn’t weigh very much.”

Since then his team have gone about creating a prototype inflatable arm to test the concept. Such inflatable technology, leveraged in the film to power Baymax, is currently being used to lift pieces of buildings and cars.

“It’s very good for that,” Atkeson said. “Not only that, but the space suits they use for space walks on the space station are essentially inflatable robots. They’re Baymaxes in armour. The only thing we’re missing are the rocket shoes. And the rocket hand. I’ll leave that to the people at Caltech – I don’t have a clue how to make a rocket.”

Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams were adamant about using real-life technology, so went on a mission to scout out various robotics labs. It was at Carnegie that Hall stumbled across the arm in his search for robot designs for Big Hero 6. 

“It has to be grounded in a believable world,” said Hall. “We tried to look five to ten years down the road—and already that seems dated.”

“With Baymax we wanted to create a robot we had never seen before, one that was huggable,” said designer Shiyoon Kim.

With that in mind, Hall then adapted Baymax’s body in the film to fit around the concept.

“[Disney] does research to do these movies,” Atkeson explained. “For the Frozen movie, they had to go research snow, because none of them had seen snow, so they went off to Norway or something.”

He then added: “I urged [Hall] to put robots in a good light,” he said. “Make it a pro robot movie.”

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It’s a great point. Robots in movies are rarely ever the good guy. Just look at The Matrix, or even Terminator.

Atkeson wasn’t the only inspiration for the robot. Most technology behind Baymax already exists in some shape or form. Once all of those elements can be bought together, healthcare companions will no longer be a piece of fiction. And Atkeson suggested that this could happen “relatively soon”.

Of course, the tricky part would be creating his artificial intelligence, so that it could hold conversations with its patients. With software like Siri already in full swing, however, intellectual medical conversation could be the next step. It was also mentioned that Baymax’s medical scanning technology is in use as well, we just don’t see it happening. Take the FitBit, for example. It monitors fitness levels and transmits the results to a smartphone.

And as odd as it sounds, the scouting team found inspiration in…a rice cooker?

“Everything is cute and adorable, and you don’t see the technology behind it,” said Shiyoon. “We wanted to include that feeling in Baymax’s shape language.”

The University of Highlands and Islands (UHI), which is known for exploring the use of robotics in healthcare, isn’t far behind Carnegie in terms of creating a healthcare companion.

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It was reported that a robot teddy bear, known as Huggable, was being tested at children’s hospitals in the Highlands. It’s paws were fitted with pressure sensors and the screen of a smartphone snuggled into the robots head shows animated eyes. A speaker, microphone and camera was also used to sense the changes in a patient’s wellbeing.

It is their theory that the Internet of Things (IoT) will be the first step. This is something that Atkeson agreed with.

“We’re probably going to see all kinds of apps in your phone that connect to sensors on your body,” Atkeson suggested, “and it may be the first Baymax you interact with is a face on your phone. I think it’s gonna be a while before we essentially have a doctor in a box. But that’ll happen.”

Kamel Boulos, an expert in digital health at UHI, explained that any tech they come up with will first be trialled in remote areas of Scotland.

“In this age of IoT, there is no reason why the populations of smaller and rural settlements should be left lagging,” he explained. “Smart technologies can help to reverse the ‘brain drain’ from the countryside and smaller towns by making them more connected and attractive to young professionals, with better services, akin to those found in larger metropolises.

“They can also help people better help each other and can play a major role in reducing the social isolation of older people.”

But let’s not forget about Japan’s RIBA-II. The robot, used to care for the ageing population, can lift a patient up to 80kg in weight off floor-level bedding and into a wheelchair. Joints in the robot’s base and lower back enable RIBA-II to crouch down and lift a patient off a futon at floor level.

Robear, as it is otherwise known as, is capable of gentler movements because it has capacitance-type tactile sensors that feed data to its actuators. This in turn can quickly sense any resistance to exerted force from patients’ bodies.

Another robot that inspired the creators of Big Hero 6 was HAL. Cyberdine, not to be confused with the fictional Skynet intelligence seen in Terminator, designed a product that could assist the human body in moving. The aim is to use the suit for rehabilitation programs.

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HAL is mainly used by disabled patients in hospitals, but the exoskeleton can be modified so that patients can use it for longer-term rehabilitation. In addition, scientific studies have shown that, in combination with therapeutic games, powered exoskeletons can stimulate cognitive activities and help disabled children walk while playing.

The suit can also be used to support workers with physically demanding jobs such as disaster rescue or construction.

HAL can still be attached and detached at will, so the user doesn’t get stuck with the device.

Cyberdyne began renting the HAL suit out for medical purposes in 2008. By October 2012, over 300 HAL suits were in use by 130 medical facilities and nursing homes across Japan.

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Another suit, which looks more like the one Baymax gets squeezed into, is the TALOS.

Made by the US army, Special Operations Command wanted its operators to be protected with what it informally calls an Iron Man suit, named specifically after the comic book hero. Much like Tony Stark’s own version, the suit can monitor the user’s vital signs. It is also bulletproof.

“We’ve lost a lot of guys to gunshot wounds and explosions,” said James Geurts, deputy for acquisition of the US Special Operations Command at MacDill. “If there’s anything I can do to more rapidly field technology, give better protection, better capability, any progress, I think we’ve done well.”

Michael Fieldson, TALOS project manager, said: “Nature did a pretty good job of designing the human body and we’re trying to mimic that. Hollywood did a pretty good job of showing us what Iron Man could do on the screen, and the system may do some of those things – but we’re not planning on flying.”

It certainly does seem that Baymax could become reality pretty soon, especially since after the movie was released, Atkeson announced plans to attempt making one.

Amazingly, Atkeson released a guide on how to build your own Baymax.

And the city of San Fransokyo, gadgets included, will be following closely behind.

In fact, the swarming microbots invented by Hiro Hamada were inspired by a drone swarm video, consisting of “nano quadrotors” developed by the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Lab, the filmmakers found on YouTube. 

By Shane Schutte