The reason your favorite cartoon or movie character hasn't appeared in Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day Parade isn't necessarily because they're not popular, it might be that crafting an inflatable likeness has just been too difficult. But to ensure no fad gets left out, the folks at Disney Research have developed special software making it easy to turn any 3D model into an inflatable balloon without it getting deformed or bloated in the process.
Once a 3D model has been imported, the software allows a designer to specify areas that should be treated as seams. Using cloth physics and something called "tension field theory" the software can simulate what a 3D model would look like inflated, allowing the designer to test revision after revision until it looks right.
When they're happy with the results, the software will then generate patterns for the individual pieces needed to assemble the balloon, taking into account how the pieces might stretch and buckle as per the simulation, to ensure that when the creation is inflated it looks exactly like the original model. Gone are the days when kids might confuse Garfield with Heathcliff, but they'll still be confused as to who exactly Felix the Cat is. [Disney Research]