I recently began a project that combines new media art with robotic design. It is a fascinating new direction for me and I was quite surprised to see the recurring mention of animation within the field I was venturing into. Only lately has Disney Research developed cable-driven mechanisms that help give physical form and motion to animated characters, mechanisms that are also suitable for devices such as robotic hands. Similarly, international courses in Engineering & Technology routinely include character animation and machine design. In fact, recognizing that widespread views of robots have been shaped by cinematic and animated representations, the 2018 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (one of the largest international conferences on robotics) hosted a special workshop dedicated to animation titled “At the Crossroads: Blurring the Lines between Animated and Real Life Personal Robots”. Human-Robot Interaction researchers are definitely beginning to reach out to fields not traditionally associated with robotics, such as the performing arts and animation, in order to gain new insights. Lately, the use of animation in the design of robots and Human-Robot Interaction is gaining recognition. Recent work has used animation to study different design dimensions of robotic systems, e.g movement, gestures, readability and interaction (Hoffman and Weinberg, 2010; Hoffman and Ju, 2014). Indeed, as robots proliferate in our everyday lives, new approaches and the role of design become central since it is designers who shape the interfaces between humans and machines.

What struck me is the discrepancy between the central role animation is now receiving within the robotics community versus the somewhat minor place that robotics has within animation research circles. (That said, this is the place to mention the excellent and related keynote about gender, sexuality and fembots that Mihaela Mihailova gave at the 2018 Society for Animation Studies conference). It was for this reason that I hoped to start a conversation about the cross-pollination between the two subjects by proposing an Animation & Robots theme on the Animation Studies 2.0 blog. By exploring the concepts, technology, history and philosophy of the intersection between robotics and animation studies new connections between these disciplines and industries might be forged.

It has been intriguing for me to read the contributions we have received, that range from a historical view of Disney’s animatronics, to contemporary uses of animation for the design of social robots and a study of how animated robotic characters shape users’ expectations, to research into animated depictions of futuristic societies where robots are fully integrated into the daily life of humans or replace them completely. These animated explorations question larger issues about where our future as a species exists, leading to important practical, communicational, design and ethical questions about Human-Robot Interactions.

Animation has been researched as the graphic user interface in today’s media environment but since robots are also tools (albeit often seen and imagined as machines that transcend their initial functioning role), I wonder if additional directions of thought that link animation with robotics may also prove useful to consider. I am thinking of robot visions, or the way robots are being programmed to “see” and process the world from a visual perspective.

Fig. 1. Two shots from the series Futurama representing robot vision.

These new forms of visualization may not fall into neat definitions of what animation is (that is a whole other discussion right there). However, since they vary from photorealism but at the same time require some form of recognizability and thus referencing of the physical referents they detect, I think much may be learnt from the theorization of animation in these topics (in relation to semiotics, for example). This could be linked to Paul Virilio’s concept of machine vision, to the field of computer vision that deals with the way artificial systems identify and extract information from images, or to non-human photography, which is about images made by non-human systems for non-human viewers (Zylinska 2017). As robots slowly become part of our everyday lives and certain post-humanist ideas may seem more and more relevant, these are additional directions I think would be worth exploring and definitely ones that I would personally like to start a conversation about. Rather than an argument about a specific intersection between animation and robotics, this is one more potential direction of many that can be explored when contemplating what designing artificial life means today and what it may become. Indeed, asking new questions and identifying the many and perhaps unexpected crossovers between animation and related fields can only expand the discourse and lead to interesting convergences between fields that can shed new light on each other.



Hoffman, G. and Ju W. (2014). “Designing Robots with movement in Mind”, Journal of Human-Robot Interaction – Special Issue on Design in HRI: Past, Present, and Future, 3 (1), pp 91-122.

Hoffman, G. and Weinberg G. (2010). “Gesture-based Human-robot Jazz Improvisation”, Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2010 IEEE International Conference, pp. 582-587.

Virilio, P. (1994). The Vision Machine, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Zylinska, J. (2017) Nonhuman Photography, London: MIT Press.


Nea Ehrlich completed her PhD in the Department of Art History at the University of Edinburgh in 2014. She was a Polonsky Postdoctoral Fellow at The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and is now a lecturer in the Department of the Arts at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. Her work lies at the intersection of Art History, Film Studies, Animation, Digital Media Theory, Gaming and Epistemology. She has published articles in edited volumes and journals and is co-editor of Drawn from Life, the forthcoming 2018 anthology about animated documentaries published by Edinburgh University Press. She is currently working on a book on documentary aesthetics in a virtualized culture.