Dr.Haiyan Qiao talks about the animatronics figure robotics Dec. 4 at the Santos Manuel Student Union at Cal State San Bernardino in San Bernardino.
Dr.Haiyan Qiao talks about the animatronics figure robotics Dec. 4 at the Santos Manuel Student Union at Cal State San Bernardino in San Bernardino. (LaFonzo Carter/ Staff Photographer)
SAN BERNARDINO -- In the not-so-distant future, theme park visitors could be greeted by name by animatronic characters in the park. The characters would know how long ago the visitor came to the park and would be able to maintain eye contact with them as they carried on conversations. And Cal State San Bernardino students would be partly responsible for bringing it all to pass.

For more than two years, CSUSB students have been working with San Bernardino-based Garner Holt Productions, which produces animatronic figures for theme parks and businesses around the world, including Disney parks and Chuck E. Cheese restaurants, on making their animatronics smarter.

"We've been calling it `Yeti-Vision' around here," CEO Garner Holt said. The yeti in question will be a 9-foot-tall, bigger-than-life figure that will serve as the proof-of-concept for future technologies the company will have available for next-generation animatronic figures. "Something the kids would be attracted to, a superhero-type character the kids would want to hug."

But first, the yeti needs to be able to look customers in the eye. That's tougher than it might appear at first: The device would need to be able to identify a face from any angle, not be fooled by pictures of faces on T-shirts or confused by sunglasses, hats or facial hair and would need to track the face as it moves around.

And that's where the CSUSB engineering students come in: They're working out the software and hardware issues necessary for the yeti - and his descendants - to look at customers and actually see them, and behave in a human-like (or at least animal-like) fashion, as customers might respect.

"It's time-consuming and requires a lot of man-hours," Holt said. "It's perfect for a university."

Cal State's San Bernardino campus has had an engineering program for only about five years, and has spent seven quarters having its seniors work on Yeti-Vision as part of a year-long project.

"Every time I talk to them, they're very bubbly and excited to be doing this work," Holt said. "They're really feeling this has a serious application in the world."

Beyond allowing cartoon characters to greet patrons at amusement parks, the same technology could spot card-counters banned from casinos or let banks know when an armed robbery suspect has entered their building.

"I've never seen students in other courses so motivated," said Haiyan Qiao, the associate professor who oversees CSUSB's work on the project.

Timothy Usher, a physics professor at Cal State San Bernardino, looks at the animatronics figure robot Dec. 4 at the Santos Manuel Student Union at Cal
Timothy Usher, a physics professor at Cal State San Bernardino, looks at the animatronics figure robot Dec. 4 at the Santos Manuel Student Union at Cal State San Bernardino in San Bernardino. (LaFonzo Carter/Staff Photographer)
And their enthusiasm has paid off: One senior has already gotten a job offer and another just interviewed for a position at Microsoft.

Beyond the technical skills learned - what Garner Holt Productions is attempting to do can't be handled with off-the-shelf hardware and software, and students have had to build their own solutions - they're also learning how to work in a team-based environment and to give professional-quality presentations on their project status. And, of course, this is a real-world project.

"We would often joke about ... `it'd be great to see, hilarious to see this at Disneyland,"' said Sean Finucane, a new CSUSB graduate from Hesperia.

Partly on the strength of the Yeti-Vision project, Finucane recently interviewed with Microsoft. The blind alleys and deadends involved in the project - and Finucane and the others actually worked on it over the summer, after the class had officially ended, because they wanted to get some of the more advanced technologies they were working on into the yeti - ended up being appreciated.

"It gave me a good opportunity to work on these (code) libraries, and there are no courses on them," he said. "We got so used to pushing through the problems."

And that's different than their usual coursework.

"In a regular course, there's always a correct answer available from the instructor," Qiao said. The professor's regular area of research is in machine learning and pattern recognition, making her a natural fit for the project.

Student Junior Polomino, 20, of San Bernardino, uses his cell phone to operate a small robot that’s equipped with whiskers, photo transistors and
Student Junior Polomino, 20, of San Bernardino, uses his cell phone to operate a small robot that's equipped with whiskers, photo transistors and infrared headlights during a demonstration Dec. 4 at the Santos Manuel Student Union at Cal State San Bernardino in San Bernardino. (LaFonzo Carter/Staff Photographer)
 

The limited budget available in the current budget climate was also a learning tool.

"You never have exactly what you need and you always wish you had more money," Holt said. "That's exactly what they'll encounter in the real world."

Even though the CSUSB yeti project is done for now, it's not truly over. Future students will likely return to the yeti project and refine what their predecessors started, using as yet-uninvented cameras, processors and software. The next likely step will be making the software independent of the yeti framework it's currently designed to work with.

"As long as they want to keep it as part of the (engineering) program, we'll keep supporting it," Holt said.

Beau.Yarbrough@InlandNewspapers.com, 909-483-9376, @InlandEd animatronic characters in the park. The characters would know how long ago the visitor came to the park and would be able to maintain eye contact with them as they carried on conversations. And Cal State San Bernardino students would be partly responsible for bringing it all to pass.

For more than two years, CSUSB students have been working with San Bernardino-based Garner Holt Productions, which produces animatronic figures for theme parks and businesses around the world, including Disney parks and Chuck E. Cheese restaurants, on making their animatronics smarter.

"We've been calling it `Yeti-Vision' around here," CEO Garner Holt said. The yeti in question will be a 9-foot-tall, bigger-than-life figure that will serve as the proof-of-concept for future technologies the company will have available for next-generation animatronic figures. "Something the kids would be attracted to, a superhero-type character the kids would want to hug."

But first, the yeti needs to be able to look customers in the eye. That's tougher than it might appear at first: The device would need to be able to identify a face from any angle, not be fooled by pictures of faces on T-shirts or confused by sunglasses, hats or facial hair and would need to track the face as it moves around.

And that's where the CSUSB engineering students come in: They're working out the software and hardware issues necessary for the yeti - and his descendants - to look at customers and actually see them, and behave in a human-like (or at least animal-like) fashion, as customers might respect.

"It's time-consuming and requires a lot of man-hours," Holt said. "It's perfect for a university."

Cal State's San Bernardino campus has had an engineering program for only about five years, and has spent seven quarters having its seniors work on Yeti-Vision as part of a year-long project.

"Every time I talk to them, they're very bubbly and excited to be doing this work," Holt said. "They're really feeling this has a serious application in the world."

Beyond allowing cartoon characters to greet patrons at amusement parks, the same technology could spot card-counters banned from casinos or let banks know when an armed robbery suspect has entered their building.

"I've never seen students in other courses so motivated," said Haiyan Qiao, the associate professor who oversees CSUSB's work on the project. And their enthusiasm has paid off: One senior has already gotten a job offer and another just interviewed for a position at Microsoft.

Beyond the technical skills learned - what Garner Holt Productions is attempting to do can't be handled with off-the-shelf hardware and software, and students have had to build their own solutions - they're also learning how to work in a team-based environment and to give professional-quality presentations on their project status. And, of course, this is a real-world project.

"We would often joke about ... `it'd be great to see, hilarious to see this at Disneyland,"' said Sean Finucane, a new CSUSB graduate from Hesperia.

Partly on the strength of the Yeti-Vision project, Finucane recently interviewed with Microsoft. The blind alleys and deadends involved in the project - and Finucane and the others actually worked on it over the summer, after the class had officially ended, because they wanted to get some of the more advanced technologies they were working on into the yeti - ended up being appreciated.

"It gave me a good opportunity to work on these (code) libraries, and there are no courses on them," he said. "We got so used to pushing through the problems."

And that's different than their usual coursework.

"In a regular course, there's always a correct answer available from the instructor," Qiao said. The professor's regular area of research is in machine learning and pattern recognition, making her a natural fit for the project.

The limited budget available in the current budget climate was also a learning tool.

"You never have exactly what you need and you always wish you had more money," Holt said. "That's exactly what they'll encounter in the real world."

Even though the CSUSB yeti project is done for now, it's not truly over. Future students will likely return to the yeti project and refine what their predecessors started, using as yet-uninvented cameras, processors and software. The next likely step will be making the software independent of the yeti framework it's currently designed to work with.

"As long as they want to keep it as part of the (engineering) program, we'll keep supporting it," Holt said.


Reach Beau via email, call him at 909-386-3826, or find him on Twitter @InlandEd.