An Inside Look at Technology Used in Animated Films, Gene Editing, and Robots

Presenters at the IEEE Vision Innovation Challenges Summit included Boston Dynamics, Pixar, and Toyota

31 May 2018

This year’s IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit covered the physics used in making animated movies, a gene-editing technique that could cure a blood disorder, and cutting-edge robotics projects. The event, held on 11 May at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, preceded the annual IEEE Honors Ceremony, which took place that evening.

More than 300 people attended the summit and heard speakers from Boston Dynamics, MIT, Pixar, and the University of California.

Here are some highlights.


Most of us who enjoy watching The Incredibles or Finding Dory probably don’t realize the amount of physics that goes into animating the scenes. To make animated characters appear lifelike on the big screen, filmmakers take the laws of physics into account.

Mark Meyer, a senior scientist and lead of the research group at Pixar Animation Studios, described how his team uses physics to solve challenges. They’ve developed digital sculpting software so fabric can appear to be pinched and twisted—which can be complex. Called grab sculpting, it infuses the animation process with physics to speed things up for digital sculptors. The technique gives objects physical attributes, like smoothness, allowing the artists to focus on getting the shapes they want, Meyer said.

Machine learning is used to light scenes, he added. Up through Toy Story 3, he said, the characters and props had their own set of lights, which were manually adjusted. Starting with Monsters Inc., Pixar movies have employed his group’s lighting system, which incorporates machine learning. The system simulates how light interacts with materials in real life, providing effects such as soft shadows, he said.

For its long history of pioneering discoveries, Pixar received this year’s IEEE Corporate Innovation Award.


IEEE Fellow Glenn Zorpette, executive editor of IEEE Spectrum, moderated a discussion with two experts about CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat), a new type of gene therapy. The bacterial defense system forms the basis for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology, which could cure sickle cell and other diseases, the experts said.

 CRISPR can disable a gene or add DNA at precise locations in the genetic code. It can target parts of a gene and cut them out, like a pair of molecular scissors, according to Dr. Bruce Conklin, deputy director of the Innovative Genomics Institute, a partnership of the University of California, San Francisco, and UC Berkeley. The institute focuses on biomedical CRISPR applications.

Dr. John Tisdale, director of cellular and molecular therapeutics at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, in Bethesda, Md., likens CRISPR to a typewriter’s backspace key. The key backs up the machine over the incorrect character, deleting it and allowing the typist to insert the correct letter in its place.

The two researchers say they believe gene-editing technology could cure sickle cell disease by snipping out the C-shape blood cell after which the disease is named.

 “It’s about time we did something with sickle cell disease,” Tisdale said. “We’ve known it’s a genetic defect for more than a half century, yet we haven’t had any therapies derived from that knowledge.”

Conklin said gene therapy also could be used to cure blindness and other eye maladies. He noted that the U.S. Federal Drug Administration in December approved gene therapy treatment for those with retinal dystrophy, a rare inherited disease.

“When we talk about gene editing,” he said, “we’re not talking about a temporary treatment but a cure for life.”

Zorpette asked the researchers whether gene editing could have unintended consequences. They agreed it’s a possibility.

“It sounds like science fiction, but it is happening in animal models now,” Conklin noted. “It opens the door for this therapy to change the genome—which could get passed on. For example, we might fix the sickle cell gene but then unintentionally alter another gene that then gets introduced into the human population.”


A panel on the future of robotics and AI, moderated by IEEE Life Fellow Oussama Khatib, included representatives from Boston Dynamics, MIT, Toyota, and Stanford University.

Khatib, a roboticist and computer science professor at Stanford, invented the OceanOne, a swimming android. Two years ago the robot dived 91 meters to retrieve items from the 17th-century shipwreck La Lune, a prized ship in King Louis XIV’s French navy. From a ship on the surface, Khatib used a haptic joystick and visual interface to direct the robot.

IEEE Senior Member Eric Krotkov, chief science officer at the Toyota Research Institute, said the car company is putting more focus on designing, manufacturing, deploying, and servicing robots for homes and factories.

“Toyota is poised to make breakthroughs in manipulation,” Krotkov said. “You’ll see our robots picking things up, using tools, and helping a person put heavy things away, like items from a grocery bag.”

IEEE Life Member Marc Raibert, founder and chief executive of Boston Dynamics, discussed some of the robots the company is working on. He brought along SpotMini, a smaller, commercial version of its popular Big Dog quadruped robot. The SpotMini, scheduled to hit the market next year, could be used to survey construction sites and help with office-building security.

Boston Dynamics is creating mechanical designs using 3D-printed parts that can perform multiple functions, Raibert said.

“These are strong and densely packed but compact lightweight structures that produce 1 kilowatt of power for about 1 kilogram of weight,” he said. “We were able to go from a humanoid that weighed 375 pounds [170 kg] to about 190 pounds [86 kg].”

IEEE Member Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, is the founder of its Social Robots Group, which produced Jibo, a social bot. She talked about the science behind designing robots that are socially and emotionally intelligent. Future robots and autonomous machines, she said, will not only be tools but also collaborative partners that will help transform people’s lives.

 “AI in the home will be about helping humans to flourish,” Breazeal said. “It will be a system that can engage with you over a long period of time to really get to know you and to help you.

“That’s the promise of social robotics. It’s really about the democratization of personalized services and support across many sectors.”

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