Fursuit Animatronics: the future is now with Ocelynk of Feliform Labs
by Dogpatch Press Staff
Thanks to Ocelynk for this guest post. To submit for public access, get in touch from the About page.
As night falls in the South American jungle, an ocelot comes out to hunt. The small spotted cat’s ears perk at the sound of a snapping twig in the trees above, and the pursuit begins. Eighteen razor-sharp claws extend to grip a branch for an effortless ascent, and a tail balances every movement. With its prey in sight, the ocelot pounces, its fangs glistening in the moonlight…
Imagine if the furry fandom could develop fursuits that do all that, in addition to being friendly. Since the summer of 2018, I’ve been working on animatronic technology to make it possible.
It all started when I came across a post about fursuit technology that opened my eyes to the possibilities of fursuit animatronics. This was an opportunity to apply my experience with electronics and robotics to a new and exciting area.
Before long, inspiration struck. I decided that I would make a realistic fursuit with all the animatronic technology I could build. I wanted the animatronics to work without anyone actively controlling them. To decide which projects to start with, I thought about my favorite features of cats: the ears, eyes, claws, and tail. Since then, I’ve developed working prototypes for all four features.
I started working on the ears by reading every book I could find about feline anatomy to see how real cats move their ears. Each ear has at least five muscles that pull the ear in different directions and give it an impressive range of motion. To make the project manageable, I decided that my ears only needed to rotate to point forward or sideways.
Next, I considered how the ears would move. I noticed that real cats move their ears around constantly and often point their ears toward sudden noises. I decided to replicate this behavior with several microphones hidden in the fursuit head pointing in different directions. The ear controller analyzes the audio from the microphones to detect where sounds are coming from, and points the ears toward sound sources.
My first ear prototype had foam ears moved by small motors, and four microphones to detect noises. It had some unexpected behavior and its motion was not expressive enough, but it did show that the concept was sound. With a few more iterations, I found an ear design that allows expressive and fairly realistic movement.
I wanted to make eyes that would do something interesting but not too obvious. Real eyes respond to ambient light: their pupils get larger in darkness to help with night vision. I realized that a fursuit could use an ambient light sensor for the same effect. Each eye uses a small LCD display to show the iris and pupil. Depending on the ambient light level, the size of the pupil changes. The color or other properties of the eyes could also vary based on input from other sensors.
I recognized that retractable claws might not be the most useful feature on a fursuit, but I decided to work on them anyway as a mechanical engineering challenge. As with the claws of real felids, my fursuit claws extend by rotating out from each fingertip. The entire mechanism needs to fit within the tight space constraints of a handpaw. To solve this problem, I tried muscle-like actuators and solenoids, which all turned out to be impractical. I settled on a simple motor mounted on the back of the wearer’s hand that pulls on cables to extend all five claws at once. To control the claws, I use a non-invasive muscle sensor that lets the wearer extend the claws by flexing their forearm muscles.
The tail presented a different kind of engineering challenge because it is a whole extra appendage that needs to support its own weight and move. I started by finding out how real cat tails work. Their basic operation is simple, with vertebrae connected by flexible joints and muscles that pull in different directions. I designed my tail to follow this model closely, with four control cables to move the tail up, down, left, and right. Two motors at the base of the tail pull on the cables as necessary.
While the ears, eyes, claws, and tail can each do interesting things on their own, they all need to work together to unleash their full expressive power. Real cats communicate not only through body movement, but also with eye contact, ear movement, tail positioning, and purring. Animated furry characters also have familiar forms of expressive ear and tail movement. A fursuit with interconnected animatronics could use all its features to more clearly communicate the character’s emotions and intentions. To make this possible, all my animatronic control modules can communicate with each other. Future software updates will let them use this communication to work together.
Building one fursuit with animatronic ears, eyes, tail, and claws is a formidable task. Still, it is only the first step. There will always be opportunities to make the animatronics lighter, quieter, more reliable, more expressive, and easier to use. As long as I have inspiration, there will be new goals to achieve.
More information and updates on the animatronic projects: https://feliformlabs.com/
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