How Engineering Brought an Iconic Animated Character to Life

Because it’s so time intensive and unglamorous, the work of engineering can sometimes feel uninspiring. However, this discipline can make our boldest dreams become reality. Talented engineers across the world have brought fictional concepts like submarines, the internet, flying motorcycles, and bionic limbs to life.


Earlier this month, an engineer used his skills to bring one of animation’s most iconic characters to the real world: Pixar’s Luxo Jr.

Real World to Animation and Back Again

In the mid-80s, Pixar animator Jon Lassiter created a two-minute animated film called “Luxo Jr.” He created the video to highlight the capabilities of the firm’s then cutting-edge digital animation computer. The short depicts the relationship between a father and son, both of which happen to be lamps. Lassiter based his character designs on desk lamps made by a Swedish manufacturer called Luxo.

Pixar exhibited the short at the 1986 SIGGRAPH computer graphics festival. Festival attendees praised “Luxo Jr.” The short later went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Film.

Nine years later, Pixar released its first feature, “Toy Story,” and its massive commercial and critical success helped mainstream computer animation. Subsequently, Pixar made Luxo Jr. part of its logo, so it appears in the opening credits of all the studio's films.

Twenty-six years after John Lassiter took a physical object and gave life through animation, engineer Dheera Venkatraman brought Lassiter’s animated character into the physical world, truly bringing things full circle.


Real Life Luxo Jr.

Venkatraman is the co-founder of a Silicon Valley-based robotics company called Robby Technologies. The firm specializes in making food delivery robots, but like many engineers, he sometimes tinkers with non-work related projects. Following the conclusion of the Maker Faire Bay Area 2019, the CTO showed off the fruits of his labor.

While attending OSH Park's Bring-a-Hack after party on May 19, Venkatraman unveiled a rendition of Pixar’s Luxo Jr. Using five skillfully integrated servos, the engineer's robot can jerk and wobble just like its animated counterpart. Though modeled after a 33-year-old film icon, the real-life Luxo Jr. was made using some advanced technologies.

Venkatraman painstakingly re-created the original Luxo’s design, and then 3D printed parts he needed to make his incarnation. The engineer used a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ computer to control the bot’s movements and an Adafruit NeoPixel ring to make it light up.

Currently, the eye-catching machine can’t hop, but its creator is working on that function. The tech executive gave his Luxo Jr. a built-in camera so he can improve its agility through reinforcement learning.

As such, Venkatraman’s lamp bot shares more in common with Lassiter’s short than just the obvious. The older man made his film to sell software, but it made him a titan of modern animation. Similarly, the younger man made his machine to show off at a party, but he made an appealing machine learning-empowered toy.

In addition to affirming that the science of engineering is cyclical, Venkatraman’s Luxo Jr. also highlights the discipline’s capacity to turn dreams into reality.

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