Just as software made it relatively easy for ordinary folks to animate fun cartoons on a computer, software is on its way to making it easy for ordinary folk to animate real-life figurines—like the 3D-printed cyber tiger strutting its stuff in this video.

A new paper published by Disney Research describes "an interactive design system that allows non-expert users to create animated mechanical characters." Physical characters, unlike their digital versions, can only be animated by creating a mechanical system that can control and power their motion. For example, when you go to Disney World and see a weird bear in a party hat dancing and waving at you, all of that motion is being controlled by turning gears—much like a clock. This technology, as the researchers point out, predates computers, video, or film.

Disney's new system attempts to bring the art of powered animatronics into the computer age. Their software lets the would-be animator concentrate on the creative part of the project, while the computer deals with engineering the actual movements of your character. So let's say you want to design a cyber tiger, like the one in the video. With Disney's new system, you sculpt the figure, pick the different points you'd like to see move, and describe the motion as curves. The software then overlays a "motion library," piecing together the best combination of mechanical systems and components to match what you're trying to do.

Why on earth would we ever need this? Well, on the one hand, you might see this as Disney just trying to streamline the design of the next batch of creepy animatronic characters for their next ride. But really, as 3D printing and modular manufacturing become increasingly accessible to more and more people, it's not out of the question that an average consumer would want to design their own animated figures for a home-made movie production—or whatever else. With just a little bit of cash, my dystopian cyber tiger slasher flick could become a reality. [Disney Research via GizMag]