Celebrating a New Dolphin Prototype That May Just Change History

Goodnet interviews the innovators behind a tech-led wonder combining Disney creativity and VR gaming prowess to bring exquisite ocean mammals to a pool near you!

May 20, 2020

Did your heart just skip a beat? Did you see this gorgeous bottlenose dolphin, think it was for real and wished, just like us, that you were swimming in the cool water right next to it? While this cutie is a life-sized “animatronic” dolphin, an advanced AI-led robot delighting kids and adults in a San Francisco pool, lifelike robots just like it could soon spell an end to the “marine captivity industry”.

This could bring a smile to the faces of marine park and aquarium visitors, their owners, and animal campaigners. And, of course, the wild-caught Beluga whales, orcas and dolphins themselves, who may never be held captive in confined spaces again, but be free to roam their ocean homes forever!

Goodnet caught up with the main actors behind this exciting initiative. Roger Holzberg is a former vice president and creative director at Walt Disney Imagineering, the Theme Park arm of The Walt Disney Company that creates Disney attractions worldwide. He has collaborated with Walt Conti at Edge Innovations in California on animatronics for films like Star Trek 4 and Jurassic World and has co-designed the 279 kg prototype dolphin you see here.  We also spoke with Melanie Langlotz, a New Zealand-based augmented reality gaming expert and designer. These two, and their partners like Eutopia and Marinescape aquarium designers, are pooling their abilities to make using robotic animals happen for a growing portfolio of global clients.

While the Coronavirus has delayed some of their plans, the silver lining, Roger believes, is that just as heightened awareness of risks is causing fresh bans on wildlife trade, interest in convincing replicas may expand even more.

Melanie describes how Roger’s original robot dolphin technology, first trialed at Disney back in 1999, was brought back to life in mid-2019 when she and her business partner had ethical misgivings about animal captivity and tried to convince an aquarium client to go with animatronics instead of live animals like show dolphins, Belugas or whale sharks. It was her idea to reach out to two animatronics experts, Roger, and Walt Conti at Edge Innovations in California to show their client a [realistic, robot] dolphin!

Roger lets us into a secret; the pool experience you see in this video was actually a test! The client agreed to pay for a dolphin encounter in a swimming pool in San Francisco, and that was our only chance to prove that the dolphin would be so realistic, normal people from the street would have trouble spotting the difference. We succeeded!

Roger previously told Radio New Zealand that the real magic lies in the dolphin’s anatomical engineering: This dolphin weighs, feels and has been engineered to simulate everything from the skeletal structure, to the muscular interaction with that skeletal structure, to the fat bladders and weight deposits on a real adolescent bottlenose dolphin." This has helped captivate many people, including an enthralled, non-verbal child with autism who became “astonishingly focused.

Melanie is keen to emphasize the cruelty-free aspects of this innovation: What we are now doing is developing a portfolio of animals for the entertainment and aquarium industry as an alternative for live animals. We offer everything from building the aquarium tanks to the show design and of course the robotic animals based on what they are required to do.

But she is also focused on the practical pluses of these innovative replicas: Robotic animals can work 24/7, require less maintenance and looking after than real animals plus they don’t mind having taken endless numbers of selfies with them! They are built to last for 10 years with the usual servicing just like any electric car. The batteries run for 10 hours before they need to be recharged which is enough to provide a few good shows.

Roger has high hopes for the future of these robot animal replicas based on the value they offer. He has ambitious plans to overhaul the whole marine tourism industry and explore potential in the movie industry and other storytelling media, and even therapy.

For him, the animatronics are just as entertaining and educational as their real-life counterparts, and offer other practical benefits: There is more to this than just providing aquariums with mechanical dolphins. It's a great opportunity to design shows with an entertainment and educational message side by side. And we plan to utilize other creatures never before seen in parks and aquariums —great white sharks, baby whales, prehistoric monsters. And we can put performers and guests in the water with them—safely.

The long-term advantages include lower operating costs for businesses too: Remember, no vet bills, no breeding tanks required, no animal campaigners [as robots are cruelty-free],  he explains.

And “the wow factor” shouldn’t be underplayed:We believe that the new types of entertainment we can deliver with these extraordinary, really realistic and interactive animals, can exceed the imaginations of what audiences think is possible, he shares.

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DAPHNE KASRIEL ALEXANDER, EDITOR IN CHIEF
Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.