Sunday, December 04, 2005

Disney's Magic Kingdom of IT

We just got back from three days at Disneyland. In addition to having a great time in the physical world (California Screamin's 0 to 55 in 4 seconds is just plain fun, even if it is tame by today's standards), I also enjoyed some glimpses into the magic kingdom of technology.

No deep thoughts this time - just some interesting trends and gadgets:

  • AstroBlasters: The newest ride at the park is Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters. It's a very simple ride - your two-person buggy follows a flat track through a bunch of scenes of aliens and evil robots; you have a joystick that lets you spin the cart to a new heading, but no control over speed or path. The twist is that you have a "laser pistol" that you can use to shoot targets in the scenery, and the ride keeps track of your score as you go. And -- it automatically takes your picture, superimposes your score, and lets you email it to yourself (or to anyone to whom you want to brag). And -- to blur categories even further -- there's an online version of the game that lets people at home form teams with people physically in the park, cooperating to earn even higher scores. Is it a ride? Is it a video game? Is it an arcade game? Is it a mMORPG? I find the blurring of the lines fascinating, and expect to see many more experiments in that kind of blurring in the future.

  • VMK: Disney introduced the Virtual Magic Kingdom, www.vmk.com, this summer. It's a fairly standard MMORPG along the lines discussed in my earlier post on virtual worlds. One small twist is that a big piece of the commercial model is pure marketing -- they're creating more reasons for more kids to want to visit the parks. (See this article on "advergaming" for some examples of and concerns with this sort of marketing to children.) Another, and IMO more interesting, twist is the crossovers they built between the real and virtual worlds. If you correctly answer a few questions in a park scavenger hunt (e.g. "which of the following five animals is not found in Critter Country?"), you get a code good for some virtual schwag (e.g. a fancy sofa for entertaining virtual guests in your virtual house). Again, I expect to see many more experiments with these sorts of crossovers in the future. (FYI - my kids didn't find vmk.com very interesting - other virtual worlds were more captivating. Your mileage may vary, though.)

  • May I take your picture? I once worked with a CFO who started his career as a beach photographer - he'd walk up to people on vacation and offer to sell them a picture of themselves, following up (I believe) by snail mail . Technology is changing the mechanics of that business for the better - we saw several generations in play at Disney. (These aren't unique to Disney; I was struck by how many different versions were in use at once, though.)
    • Wandering photographers offer free 60-second photo shoots at key points in the park, handing you a slip of paper with a serial number. On your way out of the park, you can walk up to a counter, preview your photos, and pick up instant prints of any that you choose to buy. (One small fun twist - a "point to the ground and look surprised" shot that's doctored to show you looking at a creature popping out of the pavement.)
    • Major rides automatically take your picture at key points (e.g. the big drop), have a bank of displays at the exit to the ride where recent photos are visible, and a counter to buy/pickup prints if you like them.
    • AstroBlasters (see above) not only displayed your picture; it superimposed your score and let you email it to yourself. Note the different commercial model here - the cost was low enough that they made it a feature of the ride, not a direct revenue opportunity.
    • The "visit with Stitch" booth (see below) gave you a wallet-sized card with a personal URL to access your photo online.

    I predict many of these mechanisms will converge by tying more and more to your user ID, which you'll carry around on your park pass (as a barcode today, and RFID tomorrow). All sorts of images, events, points, and promotions could be tied to your ID, resulting in a personalized "My Visit To Disney" web page to view when you got home (or from your PDA while waiting in line at the next attraction). If done right, I'd like it as a consumer, and it could easily lead to both more repeat visits and more opportunities to sell me stuff. (Of course, if done wrong, the privacy concerns could kill it before it got off the ground.)
  • Picture picture. There were many pictures hung around the park of classic Disney scenes - no surprise there. The fun part is that the pictures were actually collages of many small (~1"x2") snapshots of people. Sort of like a full-color version of those old ASCII-art renditions of the Mona Lisa, where each pixel was made up of a character with the right amount of black. To my eye, the visual effect was just okay; the concept, with its implied message of "Disney is 50 years of people", is what made it neat.
    Mashup suggestion: select an image on Flickr/Riya, and auto-generate a collage by replacing rectangles with appropriately colored miniature pictures containing the same tags/people as the original. For example, how about a graduation photo made of scenes from four years of college life, or a 50th wedding-anniversary photo made of scenes from 50 years of of family life?

  • Innoventions is a showcase of almost-available products and technology, often with some heavy-duty advertising for its sponsors. A few things that caught my eye:
    • Touchscreen virtual aquarium: a large flatscreen display running a virtual fish tank program (like the screensavers), but interactive - click on a fish and it changes to another, draw a fish and it swims around the tank, click up top and it adds food that the fish swarm to eat, etc. No rocket science, but nicely done.
    • Who needs a lap?: a video display built into a pair of sunglasses, and a little box that projects a working picture of a keyboard by detecting finger motion. Put them together, and we're not far from being able to pack everything a laptop does into an iPod-sized package. (Unfortunately, you couldn't actually play with these, so I'm not sure how usable they are.)
    • Talk to Stitch: step into a small booth with a person-size video screen at the front, and have a conversation with a cartoon character. The sense of actually talking to a character was very good - enough motion, body language, and emotion to feel real (or at least, as real as talking to blue cartoon aliens ever feels :). There's clearly a human operator - the technology here isn't about speech rec and AI; it's about creating a convincing virtual avatar.
All in all, a great trip. I haven't been to other parks recently, so I don't know if Disney is still pushing the edge of what's possible, but I certainly liked what I saw.

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