Innovation is at the heart of The Walt Disney Company’s diverse media and entertainment businesses—past, present, and future. “If you look back at the early days of Disney,” Ed Catmull, president, Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, tells D23, “they both used new technology and even developed some themselves, like the multiplane camera.” In fact, Disney is credited with a series of technological “firsts” from the early days of the Company, including Audio-Animatronics® characters, Circle-Vision 360°, and Fantasound.
For decades, world-class technical and creative staff across the Company has led continued exploration in the fields of robotics, animation, special effects, next-generation interactivity, new business initiatives, and advanced design practices. To stay at the forefront of the entertainment industry, the Company recognized the need to commission deeper research initiatives to address new challenges and opportunities in a rapidly changing global market. Enter Disney Research, an informal network of research labs that collaborates closely with top academic institutions, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (ETH). “With ETH and CMU, we have connections into the broader academic community,” Ed says. “Through the universities, through our research and through our publishing, we have valuable connections all around the world.”
Disney Research officially launched in 2008 and has since been involved with a broad range of research and technical innovation for the Parks & Resorts Division, Disney Media Networks, ESPN, Walt Disney Feature Animation, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Disney Interactive Media Group, and Pixar Animation Studios. The research labs—located in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Zürich —are managed by an internal Disney Research Council, co-chaired by Ed and Bruce Vaughn, chief creative executive, Walt Disney Imagineering. “Within WDI, we’ve always looked for innovative ways to enhance guest experiences,” Bruce says. “It’s part of the cultural DNA. The collaboration with Disney Research has provided our Imagineers access to some of the best academia and industry thinking. After just three years, the team has made a number of significant contributions to upcoming robotics and interaction projects in our Parks and Resorts.”
Some research engagements come directly from the business units and others are developed based on business model opportunities identified by the Disney Research team. “The projects we work on directly impact the business units,” Jessica Hodgins, director, Disney Research Pittsburgh, and operating chair, Disney Research Council, explains. “We spend time working with and understanding the drivers of our business units and focus our research on what’s relevant to them. Our goal is to be forward looking.” Disney Research engagements generally have a lifespan of five to seven years, with topics ranging from computer graphics and video processing to computer vision and human-computer interaction.
Here’s a look at just a few of Disney Research’s projects.
All Tangled Up
When artists at Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS) needed to create realistic atmospheric effects—think smoke, clouds, and mist—for scenes in Tangled, they turned to Disney Research Zürich for access to their latest research results. The folks in Zürich teamed up with researchers, developers, and artists at WDAS to decompose atmospheric effects into individual streaks of light through space, which they call “photon beams.” This enabled artists to define the movement and appearance of smoke or mist using streaks of light, much like an artist defines shapes using lines or curves in traditional sketching. Instead of relying on a computer simulation to determine the lighting, artists can now bend or break the rules of physics to create stylized yet realistic-looking effects.
Getting in the Game
Disney Research Pittsburgh is currently in the process of developing new production tools to improve the quality of small-market sports broadcasts, such as lower-tier college games. To do so, they are integrating computer vision and artificial intelligence into the equipment, which will allow a handful of semiprofessionals to operate more like a large production crew. For instance, a touch screen interface enables a single individual to control and cut between multiple cameras, as well as display instant replays or graphics during breaks in play. Disney Research has also produced new algorithms for calibrating cameras and tracking players, which allow computers to learn how games typically evolve by analyzing previous matches.
Can You Feel It?
Scientists at Disney Research Pittsburgh have developed a new technology that allows Disney parks ride artists and designers to create customized tactile patterns on guests’ bodies. Now, in addition to seeing and hearing content during attractions, guests at Disney parks around the world will also be able to feel creeping, crawling, and more! This new technology, known as Surround Haptics, places multiple vibrators on the skin. The technology creates an illusion of a denser array of vibrators, and modulating these real vibrations gives the sensation of uninterrupted, smooth movements on a guest’s body.
Face to Face
Every little girl wants to be a princess, and Disney Research is finding ways to make that happen—using dolls. With facial capture technology from Disney Research Zürich, guests’ faces are captured in a single-shot, camera-based scanner, and then transferred onto a three-dimensional modeled body of a chosen Disney character. The model is then printed to create personalized figurines, which come in a variety of body types and styles. This technology was play-tested with more than 500 guests in Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World in August and October 2011. “We are creating a transformative experience for our guests,” Jessica says. “Parents can capture a memory, a moment in time, when their little girls love being a princess.”
When Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger stepped into his current role, he identified three key goals or growth areas for The Walt Disney Company: technology, innovation, and globalization. Through ongoing research, partnerships with universities worldwide, and the development of new and innovative technologies designed to support business units, Disney Research is helping the Company achieve all three. “I believe that research is fundamental to keeping a creative environment exciting,” Ed says. “It’s part of our legacy. It takes a long time, but you have to keep introducing new ideas and keep solving problems.”
By D23′s Sarah Smith