Forget the days when dinosaurs, Disney pirates and other animatronic figures talked at you.
Steve Axtell’s artificial intelligence featuring speech recognition makes otherwise inanimate objects carry on a conversation with you.
Lifelong puppet maker and owner of Axtell Expressions (www.axtell.com), in Ventura, Mr. Axtell, 60, has done work for the biggest names in entertainment, including Dreamworks, NBC, Universal Studios and Disney. He’s so well-known that even the Muppets – OK, the people who make the Muppets work – send him personal greetings.
His latest venture is a system that makes any animatronic figure, from an old man to a tiki pole to a parrot to anything your mind can imagine, carry on a conversation.
“Artificial intelligence is basically just something that appears to be real and has some responses that make it appear like it’s alive,” Mr. Axtell said while taking the News-Press on a tour of his shop.
“What we’re doing with our animatroics is we’re making them speak and have them respond and move according to what they’re saying.”
The responses are all prerecorded and can be sent as digital files.
Let’s say you own a saddle shop in Santa Ynez and want a talking horse to be the “greeter,” Mr. Axtell can make the movable figure and make it talk to customers.
Ask where to find the boots and it could say, “Down yonder to the right.”
Ask his cranky old man, Howard, whether he needs a nap, and he might respond, “Well, yes I do. And I see you do, too.”
And when a character needs updating, say, when people start asking questions that no one had thought of yet, Mr. Axtell (or whoever is doing the voice work) can update the client file remotely.
“It’s all in the cloud. It’s seamless to the user.”
The biggest library of commands (questions) and actions (responses) to date is 80 and 150, respectively. But an almost endless number of responses is possible for whatever the figure.
“It all depends on the level of programming that we do,” said Mr. Axtell.
And the speech recognition can be tailored to whatever language the client chooses in a “native” voice.
“We can do about 100 languages,” Mr. Axtell said. “We just did our first test with a man from Denmark.” He recorded his statements, and now the interface can be used for whatever application he has in mind.
One client is a foreign digital news site that uses the Axtell system to bring its country’s leader to life in a humorous way.
“You can now have a full conversation with our animatronics, unmanned,” he said. “It’s really quite a different experience, nothing quite like you’ve ever seen. It’s all new and we’ve got people coming in from all over the world to see it.”
A patent is pending for a system that’s taken about two years to perfect.
The interface figures out what response to provide for a given question and then tells the animatronic figure how to move for a given response.
Mr. Axtell’s entry into this wacky world began at 6 when, with his mother, Catherine’s, encouragement, he sewed his first puppet by hand.
“I saw ‘Kukla, Fran and Ollie’ way back in the black-and-white TV days and I told my mom I wanted to make a puppet. She said, ‘If you want to make puppets, you’re going to have to learn how to sew and cut.’ “
Using scissors, a needle and thread provided by his mom, the boy went to work. That creation hangs on the wall in his shop.
At 14 in Ohio, he first saw “Sesame Street” and knew what his future would be.
“They were walking around on camera like people,” he recalled of the handmade creatures. “They weren’t like Kukla, Fran and Ollie sticking out of a puppet stage.”
He made his own versions of Kermit, Ernie and other Muppets, drawing a local newspaper’s attention, and his mother sent the clipping to Jim Henson in New York.
“I got a letter back from them saying, ‘Don’t make copies of our characters, but find your own look and make it yours.’ “
Upon reflection, the letter was not putting him down but trying to be encouraging.
He acted on it, and set out on a quest to make his own characters.
After moving to California at around 21, he started working as a psychiatric technician in the state psychiatric hospital system, using puppetry in his therapy work with everyone from mentally disordered sex offenders to autistic youth. It was then he realized what puppets can bring to people, “not only for fun and entertainment, but I actually saw autistic children speak, for the first time in some cases.”
He also started making puppet videos – and the people at “Sesame Street” took notice.
“I get a call from a producer at ‘Sesame Street’ … and he says, ‘Mr. Axtell, we want to let you know how much you inspire us … we watch your videos every day here.’ “
What followed was a poster signed by all those talented Muppet people.
Axtell Expressions started as a side job. Thirty-six years later, he’s got a hand-puppet division as well as a tech division that makes animatronics. His 10-person crew, including John Schmeling, tech department manager, and Wesley Gonzalez, animatronics mechanic, create everything from the soft exteriors to the machined-metal battery- and electric-powered guts that bring them to life.
“Puppets, magic, animatronics and now AI,” Mr. Axtell marveled.
He’s made puppets for Terry Fator and Tony Award-winning ventriloquist Jay Johnson. Ventriloquist-comedians Jeff Dunham and Ronn Lucas have also used Axtell puppets.
“It’s just been an incredible career,” said Mr. Axtell.
“You can now have a full conversation with our animatronics, unmanned.”
Steve Axtell, Axtell Expressions