Disney Research: The best projects, from Magic Bench to talking lights

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Disney has always been seen as a family-friendly entertainment company, for obvious reasons. It's equally been a technological innovator, however, to power those entertainment creations, from animation to merchandise to, of course, theme parks.

For example, 360 cameras and video are hyper popular now, but Disney has been working on its CircleVision 360 cameras and video formats since the 1960s. To fuel these kinds of endeavors, Disney Research was born, investigating new technologies that can be used by its various businesses.

In the past couple of years, thanks to the advent of wearable technologies, AR and VR, this has meant a flux of cool, new technology in those areas. But what are they, and how could they be used? Let's take a look together.

It's a small world of connected lights

Smart lights are still the most magical element of any smart home. It's easy to see and understand how they work, and they can already be set up to alert you of whatever you want via services like IFTTT. Disney Research is imagining a more direct, automatic use for smart lights.

Disney researchers put RFID chip readers inside of smart lights, and then more RFID chips in other places in a home, and together they can be used to alert you of things in your home. For instance, if you take expired milk out of the fridge a red light will flash to warn you. Or, your lights will pulse toward the direction of your lost keys. You could even use this for story time, as the lights in your home can change to match the scenes of a children's book as you turn the pages.

You can do some of this stuff with something like Philips Hue, which can connect to things like a Nest smoke alarm and flash if there's a problem. However, Hue relies on broad geofencing or linking in with other services. The RFID system Disney is proposing is a little easier to blend with physical objects, like turning pages or opening and closing doors. It also relies more on physical hardware, like a chip built into a milk carton that knows if its expired.

That's not all though, Disney is also exploring using something called Visible Light Communication. Basically, LED light bulbs would be used to communicate with each other. So a toy with an LED light could send a signal for action to your LED light fixture, which would send signals to other lights, which could then send signals to another toy and change its behavior.

This, in essence, would create a miniature smart environment wherever a child plays, an automated special spot that could help toys come to life. Obviously, both of Disney's major smart light ideas are aimed at parents who have enough to worry about in their lives. They're designed for as little friction and setup as possible.

The (AR) droids you're looking for

Disney Research: The best projects, from Magic Bench to talking lights

Disney theme parks have always been filled with characters like Mickey Mouse walking around (or in Daisy Ducks' case, sassing around). In more recent history, Disney has experimented with talking versions of these characters. In the future, Disney is looking at augmented reality to make these interactions a little smoother.

It works like this: The character operator puts on a VR headset that's fed a livestream from the character's perspective, which is looking directly at you. That livestream is augmented with dialogue options that the character operator can easily choose from while simultaneously controlling the character.

The example Disney uses is for an audio animatronic waiter at a restaurant. You walk up to the robot controlled by a character operator to order a hot dog and cola. The character operator can see and hear what you're doing, and can use an AR interface to choose dialogue options while also using a VR interface to control the robot.

Alternatively, it's not hard to see that this could easily be used to make interacting with Star Wars droids a reality. Like, say, maybe at a Star Wars land currently being constructed for both Disneyland and Disney World?

Catch this

The best thing about VR is also the worst thing about VR. It transports you to a whole new world, but you're also cut off from reality. Fully immersive VR means being able to recreate the physical world in the virtual one.

Disney wanted to simulate being able to catch a ball in VR, and it did with this now-famous example. It attached some sensors to a ball, which was then rendered into the system via some capture technology. When you throw the ball, the information is transported to a computer, where the system can quickly predict where the ball would go.

The virtual representation of the ball then travels along that predicted path, mirroring the real ball. So when your body is preparing to catch the virtual ball, it'll also be able to catch the real ball.

This is totally a future toy for us to all play with. As we've recently seen with Lenovo and Disney's Star Wars AR kit, Disney is definitely interested in pursuing mixed reality toys for us to feel like we have the force within us, or maybe even catching some MacGuffin from our favorite Marvel superheroes.

A whole new world of haptics

Disney is looking at a number of ways to make VR and AR feel more immersive and real than ever. Haptic feedback for VR applications is nothing new, there are plenty of companies working on haptic vests and suits that make it feel like you're getting clawed by zombies during a game, for instance.

The first way is Power of 2, also known as Po2, two haptic feedback gloves filled with actuators that react to the content you're watching. So if you're playing a game where you shoot from your hands like Iron Man, or push things around with The Force, you'll feel it. If you're Snow White and a bird is bouncing between both of your hands, you could feel that, too.

For more passive VR experiences, specifically mobile options like Samsung Gear VR, there's the Haptic Chair. It's got vibrators alongside the back and bottom of the chair, which can simulate things like rumble, can hit specific spots and can simulate things like rain or crawling and tracing movements. This sounds pretty good for things like 360 YouTube videos or going on VR tours of places you haven't been. Or, hey, how about previewing a Disney ride to whet your vacation appetite?

Speaking of haptics, Disney wants to make it easier for people to design their own haptic systems. Stereohaptics is a little different compared to other haptic feedback creators though, it uses an audio-based haptic system. Basically, it retrofits audio technology, from software to subwoofers to other audio tools, to create haptic feedback. Disney's argument is that people are already well versed in audio equipment, and stereo speakers are already capable of creating haptic feedback when they're really banging.

Combine the two and you've got an easy-to-learn interface that makes it easier to feel the haptic feedback on wearable sensors as you're creating it with the audio-based tools.

Meet Augmented Creativity

Disney makes a lot of apps, games and books. Naturally, Disney researchers are looking at how augmented reality could be used to create next-generation versions of all three, and they call it Augmented Creativity.

Disney coloring books are a staple of many childhoods, and Disney's AR coloring book allows you to point a tablet or iPhone (or, eventually, a headset) directly at a book. The character pops to life in black and white, and as you color in the actual paper, the character fills in at the same time. To a child's eyes, it must be magic.

This extends to things like teaching coding of music arrangement. For instance, a child could move AR cards in and out of view to change how a song is composed. Or to teach how to program a robot with AR. Disney is also exploring gaming in physical spaces at the home and city-wide AR gaming in the realm of Pokemon Go.

And finally, researchers are looking at how to make storybooks interactive. AR would make the characters spring to life, and living out the story like an animated film. The user would then be able to alter the narrative by doing various things, like unleashing a horde of angry bees.

The happiest bench on Earth

Disney's AR and VR research is focused on two things: Make characters feel like they've come to life, and make it feel as immersive as possible. The Magic Bench takes these two ideas and wraps them up in a pretty bow.

It's a simple set up. You just sit on a regular bench, but it just so happens to be in front of a display and a couple of cameras and depth sensors. Eventually, a character can wander into the scene and start interacting with you. Or you can interact with it.

But that's not all, you'll also be able to feel the presence of the characters. The bench has a whole bunch of haptic actuators underneath it that can simulate various interactions. For example, if you anger a donkey character and they kick the bench, you'll feel it. If an elephant lumps onto the other side of the bench, you'll feel it. The bench will also feel like there are raindrops falling on it.

It comes the visuals and haptic with sound design as well, trying to create a full situational experience that engages all of your senses. Well, maybe not smell, but Disney does have those crazy smellitzers they could utilize if they wanted to.

The secret of the bench is that it solves all the design complexities of AR in one swoop. It know where you're looking at all times, It know where you are, it knows what you're listening to, and it knows what you're physically feeling. That way, the Magic Bench can tie everything up to create a truly immersive AR experience.

Re-paint the classics

Museums are lovely places to take in some classic, time-tested pieces of art. They're also kind of boring for kids, but Disney Research is looking to make museums a little more interactive with its AR Museum idea.

You, or your kids, would get to use augmented reality to re-paint classic paintings. If you've ever wanted to see Vincent Van Gogh's classic self-portrait with a blue background, you're in luck. The idea is to make these classics, which practically no one can tough, feel a little more tangible and real to kids. So that they're engaging with it rather than bored out of their minds.


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Husain Sumra


Husain joined Wareable in 2017 as a member of our San Fransisco based team. Husain is a movies expert, and runs his own blog, and contributes to MacRumors.

He has spent hours in the world of virtual reality, getting eyes on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR. 

At Wareable, Husain's role is to investigate, report and write features and news about the wearable industry – from smartwatches and fitness trackers to health devices, virtual reality, augmented reality and more.

He writes buyers guides, how-to content, hardware reviews and more.

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