A Hollywood robotics company is vying to replace sea life attractions with robot dolphins and animatronic great white sharks.
Edge Innovations, the San Francisco-based special effects company behind such epics as Free Willy, the Aliens and Star Trek franchises, wants to revolutionise theme park shows at time when calls are mounting to put an end to marine life held in captivity.
It hopes cruelty-free remote operated robot sharks, whales and dolphins will become familiar sight in marine park shows, replacing controversial performances by captive creatures.
The company already has a pilot scheme underway at a Chinese aquarium and is in talks with other companies in China and South America – with the long term vision to have several aquariums with robotic dolphins, sharks and whales.
Edge has pioneered submersible creations for film since being founded in 1991, with over 100 effects systems up its selves as well as working on the design and build for director James Cameron’s deep-diving submersible the Deepsea Challenger, which he used to plunge to the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench in 2012.
The company’s most famous big project was creating the “full-size, self-contained, free-swimming” orca models for the 1993 Free Willy movie, about a child who sets free a whale held in captivity.
Now Edge has is taking that conservation message forward with big plans to transform the future of aquariums.
Chief among its prized innovations is the 2.0 version of its robo-dolphin, but sharks, whales, and even more realistic version 3.0 dolphin are also in development.
Edge designer Roger Holzberg told SYFY WIRE in August: “The goal of this initiative is to reimagine the entertainment, educational, and business potential of the marine animal industry.
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“Real-time animatronics are hyper-real creatures capable of delivering any experience you can imagine.
“From dolphins sharing their dreams with your children, to great white sharks inviting you to be a part of their feeding frenzy, to sea dragons breathing fire in a nighttime fountain show. Safe, up close, personal engagement with the creatures of our world ocean is finally possible.”
Getting the models to this stage has been a labour of love for the team, with version 1.0 of its robot dolphin first deployed at Disney’s private Castaway Cay island in the Bahamas.
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“Version 1.0 of the dolphin, the one featured in the pilot with Disney, was run entirely by two animators,” Holzberg says of the creature’s evolution.
“Version 2.0 of the dolphin, the one featured in the more recent pilot has enough AI to be able to do a shallow dive, remain appropriately buoyant, return to the surface, lift its blowhole to simulate taking a breath, and also to be able to realistically complete turns.”
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And only the most experienced robot operators will be used to bring the machine animals to life.
"Any up-close animation, though, is the work of human animators taking over the work of controlling the dolphin’s movements from the AI, similar to piloting a drone. This experience and talent of these animators makes the performance of the dolphin intimate, real, and safe,” Holzberg says. “Our real-time animatronic animals can do anything that their real-life counterparts can do.”
And the version 3.0 dolphin is set to offer as magical an experience for curious youngsters as meeting the real thing up close.
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"Version 3.0 (in development) will have an 'Exhibit Mode' that will enable it to behave realistically like a swimming and breathing dolphin, then the controls will override the AI to enable the dolphin to perform in the educational and entertainment shows on regular intervals. This version will have a 10-hour battery life and a 10-year life cycle," Holzberg explains.
The entire experience is meant to create an impression so real as to be indelible.
“The personalized, real-time experience is what differs this from any film or theme park experience which is fixed and permanent,” Holzberg says. “When a child is less than two feet from a dolphin and asks their new friend if she's afraid of sharks too, and the dolphin looks that child in the eyes and slowly nods yes, you have created a memory for life.”
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