TechCrunch hosted the 2020 edition of their annual Robotics+AI sessions on March 3rd, 2020 at UC Berkeley in California. As part of this event, one of their panels was an interview with people from Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI). This is the part of the Walt Disney Company that conducts research and development.
What does WDI do?
What do they research and develop? The Disney name itself should be a giveaway. The people working at WDI are the ones who design and construct all the rides and experiences one gets to enjoy at Disney’s various theme parks worldwide.
TechCrunch Editor-in-Chief Matthew Panzarino conducted a panel with WDI’s Dawson Dill, Selina Herman and Joe Mohos. The subject of the panel was their use of free-ranging vehicles in their rides.
Free-Ranging Vehicles As A Character
When speaking about how Disney uses free-ranging vehicles, this is what Joe Mohos (Principal Imagineer, R&D) had to say: “It’s all hidden away, it’s all to tell a story and… it’s all masked. And the vehicles themselves are like characters. We want them to have personalities, we want them to be like living organisms, and to be your buddy.”
He also spoke about how Disney had to adapt free-ranging vehicle technology as per the ride’s requirements. This included interactions with other objects in the surroundings, such as animatronics. “Disney had to code all of that, develop all of that, develop the test procedures and all the synchronisation and communication means to develop that.”
“Is It Fun?”
Dill Dawson (Senior Imagineer, R&D) then spoke about the combination of free-ranging vehicles and Virtual Reality. They’d combined the movement of their free-ranging vehicles with the pre-visualisation of the ride they’d been working on. This ride just so happened to be a Star Wars ride, which we now know is Rise Of The Resistance. “We’ll just use both of these things concurrently and get the motion one-to-one”, he said.
As to how this setup helps them design better rides, he said, “We use these things constantly to just experiment with the greatest metric I think on Earth, which is ‘What’s fun?'”
The Practical Challenges Of Rides
Once the creative side of this experimentation is complete, WDI then has to “productise” this idea and put it out into the world. This brings with it a series of challenges that are difficult to overcome. Selina Herman (Technical Program Manager, R&D) spoke to some of these challenges. “In order for something to be in our parks, they have to be working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, for anywhere from 20 to 40 years.”, she said.
Despite all of these challenges weighing on them, she emphasised the importance of fun when designing these rides. “The fun can be such a core part of a business”, she said. “Sometimes the element of ‘Oh, but we can do this this way’ and it just delights people in an unexpected way.”
For more detail, head over to TechCrunch’s website for the whole panel.