WATCH | How robot dolphins are redefining the future of theme parks

Would you swim with a pod of robot dolphins? Roger Holzberg’s encounters with these mammals have always been unusual.

“As a kid, I would have been out on the ocean seeing hundreds of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and then in the afternoon I’d see them in pens,” he says. “Something felt very odd about that.”

Though they belong to the sea, thousands of these cetaceans are forced to live in captivity. In confined spaces, they feel stress, anxiety, and depression which can lead to self-harming behaviour and death.

Yet the practice of keeping dolphins in entertainment parks and aquariums persists. One of the most common justifications is that it contributes to education, research, and raising awareness. But what if there was a different way?

At the intersection of art and technology, Holzberg is transforming people’s experiences with marine life.

He’s the creative director for the Real-time Animatronics initiative at Edge Innovations, combining puppeteering and artificial intelligence to design and construct robotic sea life.

These illusory creations can engage with audiences in theme parks and provide the same level of interaction and excitement a real animal would.

The Dolphin Spirit venture will soon enable people to get up close and fulfil their dreams of swimming with the animals – without any of them in agony. An artificial dolphin may seem like a bizarre concept, but not to Holzberg.

“We are only limited by our imaginations,” he says.

As the former creative director and Imagineer for the Walt Disney Company, Holzberg has spent a lifetime dreaming up creative inventions that spark joy.

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“Technology that creates storytelling, that elicits emotional connections, is what we are all about,” he says.

In 2020, Holzberg and his team were honoured for their work with the PETA Innovator for Animals Award.

They’re creating a future where animals don’t have to suffer in captivity for people to learn to appreciate them.

“Our hope is that our technology will enable us to create characters that people fall in love with,” Holzberg says. “Because ultimately, we don’t hurt what we love.”

Footage and photos by Edge Innovations were used in the creation of this film.