Sunday, April 25, 2010

Disney's Augmented Reality: Seeing is Believing

You're out of town on business and looking for a good place to eat, so you point your smartphone at the neighborhood in front of you.  Not only do you see the camera's view of the streets and buildings on screen, but the buildings within view are highlighted and you can even see what tonight's specials are.

You're at a concert enjoying your favorite music by your favorite band.  Glance up at the Jumbotron and not only do you see a large shot of the crowd, you also see what everyone's posting to Facebook and Twitter.

You're at Epcot, exploring World Showcase with your kids and having an adventure.  Carrying specially programmed cell phones, you receive clues and instructions from Disney characters guiding you on a tour around the lagoon--and helping you solve mysteries and foil bad guys.

Welcome to the world of augmented reality (AR), the place where virtual stories and information integrate with real life in real time.

The term "augmented reality" may be an unfamiliar to you, but the concept certainly isn't.  You most likely see a version of it every day.  It's the news feed banner that scrolls across the bottom of your TV screen when you watch CNN.  If you're a football fan, it's the ubiquitous yellow first down marker that's on your TV, but is completely unseen by the live crowd in the stands.  These AR images aren't real...but we've grown so used to seeing them, they kinda sorta are.

Superimposed TV images are the most basic types of AR, but there are plenty of others types that are much more complex.  Video games are a form of augmented reality--your real life actions affect what happens in an imaginary world--and the Nintendo Wii is probably the best modern day example of it.  With the Wii, you don't just push buttons and flick joysticks, you move your game controller to emulate what's happening on screen. You swing your arm, for instance, in the same manner you would if you were really gripping a tennis racquet or rolling a bowling ball.  Suddenly, your not just controlling the game, you're part of it.

Creative people at numerous technology and entertainment companies are ramping up and pushing the limits of AR.  Joe Garlington, Vice President of Interactive Projects at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), is one of them.  He spoke recently during a panel discussion on AR at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.  Garlington worked at WDI in the 1980s, only to leave a few years later to start his own design and production company.  He returned in 1990 and has since racked up numerous theme park credits including Turtle Talk with Crush, the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor and Toy Story Mania, all of which require real time human interaction with a virtual world.  It's a step beyond passively riding in boats past audio-animatronic dolls and pirates, and it's becoming a style of entertainment more park guests are coming to expect.

"Historically," says Garlington, "our audience was families in which the older parts of the audience were technophobes--not very comfortable with games.  (They) wanted to sit on the bench and be entertained.  But, as our audience is now changing to families where even the adults have grown up their entire lives with game machines in their homes, all of the sudden they expect to be able to participate in these games and activities."

One such game at Epcot is Disney's Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure.  Using special cell phone "Kimmunicators," players of all ages receive clues to solve mysteries within seven different World Showcase pavilions and help Disney's animated super agent save the world.  The pavilions are real, the Kimmunicator clues are virtual, and the objects sought within World Showcase go largely unnoticed except by those playing the game--a perfect example of augmented reality in action.

"Within the constraints of certain story structures," says Garlington, "we can create games that feel like you're interacting in a real way with the live character."

That works in theater experiences too.  Turtle Talk with Crush is Disney's interactive show where audience members talk live with the way-cool reptile from "Finding Nemo."  Using AR technology, Crush is fully animated on-screen, moving and responding to audience questions in real time.  He's operated backstage by a cast member with the help of carefully placed cameras and microphones, but there's never any hint that what's happening in the theater isn't 100% real.

It's a neat trick, but will there ever be a Turtle Talk that doesn't require a CM to assist?  Is there a Crush out there somewhere with the potential for artificial intelligence?  Maybe, thinks Garlington, but not for a while.  "There's both an art and a science to it," he says.  "The science part of AI is a long way away and there's a lot of real smart people who have worked a long time to get that figured out."

Still, even in the short term, there's unlimited potential for AR in the Disney theme parks.  Information kiosks, virtual park tours, more interactive rides and attractions.  So, Joe, what are you working on right now?

With a smile, he says, "We're interested in all those things."

Apparently, augmented reality will never take the place of real-time secrecy.

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