Every movement begins with a moment.

Extracting the Magic: The Hidden Tech of Disney World

Posted 22 June 2016 9:00 AM by Beth Godfrey @MoxieUSA, @be_frey

Walt Disney has been referred to as the world’s first UX designer, espousing principles that sound like they could be taken directly from a modern-day user experience handbook, like “wear your guests’ shoes,” a reminder to practice user-centered design, and “organize the flow of ideas,” a method of using storytelling to both engage users and describe designs to stakeholders.

As a 21st century UX designer, I traveled to the happiest place on earth to experience the magic for myself. From projection mapping and virtual reality to the seemingly ubiquitous MagicBands encircling park-goers’ wrists, technology and experience design went hand in hand.

Projection Mapping

As I crammed myself together with a few thousand of my closest friends for the nightly Magic Kingdom fireworks show, I was completely taken aback as Cinderella’s Castle suddenly came alive with an explosion of color and movement.

Well-known and beloved characters climbed around the exterior of the castle, painting it with splashes of bright primary colors. A child behind me gasped in horror as Wreck-It Ralph appeared to demolish the towering castle into a crumbling pile of bricks. As the castle restored itself, intact and shaded a lovely lilac, I realized what I was seeing: projection mapping on a gigantic scale.

Sometimes known as video mapping or spatial augmented reality, projection mapping is used to transform irregularly shaped objects into video screens, sans distortion. Rather than projecting moving images onto flat surfaces or screens, projection mapping uses an array of ordinary video projectors in tangent with specialized software to turn common objects into interactive displays.

The technology may sound unfamiliar, but you have likely seen instances of projection mapping in contexts as far ranging as advertising, live concerts, gaming and computing.

Projectors on the interior of animatronic dwarves create the animated expressions viewable on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (left). Textures are projected onto a modern shape to show different stylized cars in the queue of Test Track (right).

Although projection mapping is a relatively new term, the very first instances of the technique date back as far as 1969, with Disneyland’s opening of the Haunted Mansion ride, which made the heads of fake dead bodies seemingly come to life by projecting 16mm film on them to make them appear animated.

Now the technology is seemingly ever-present in Disney’s park — the affordances of which are cleverly leveraged in site-specific instances to incite surprise, wonder and — at least, for me — an appreciation for the near-perfect melding of technology and narrative.

Virtual Reality

Disney has recently made a substantial investment in virtual reality (VR) systems — from funding Jaunt, a startup that has developed an end-to-end cinematic VR content-creation platform, to releasing Disney Movies VR, a package of VR content advertising recent movies like The Jungle Book and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, on Steam this past May.

Visitors to Disney World have been able to play VR games like Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride since 1998, but something more interesting goes on behind the scenes. In the back lot of Epcot, Walt Disney’s Imagineers have built their very own holodeck.

The Digital Immersive Showroom (DISH) is an empty room until the 3D glasses go on and the lights go out. DISH allows designers and technologists to physically explore their created spaces through full-scale digital models. They can walk through a newly themed area, ride a new attraction or stay in a new hotel room before construction even begins.

Though imagineers have traditionally relied on physical architecture models, it has become increasingly complex to visualize these physical spaces in tangent with the integrated media, moving vehicles and interactive characters that exist within. VR provides a uniquely robust method of displaying these complexities, dramatically enhancing the ability of both experience designers and architects to create immersive tangible spaces.

VR is gaining steam as the industry finds its stride. Individuals, startups and corporations alike are creating and funding thoughtful, quality content ranging from independent, narrative-driven games to branded content and advertising. 

MagicBands & RFID

It’s a ticket! It’s a key! It’s a credit card! It’s… MagicBand!

I would be remiss not to mention the golden child of Disney World’s UX: the ubiquitous MagicBand. This colorful, lightweight wearable band is an all-in-one device that allows entrance to Disney’s parks, unlocks your hotel room door, makes dining reservations and operates as a form of payment. It was designed as a replacement for tickets, turnstiles and credit cards, reducing the items a guest has to keep track of while exploring the parks.

Inside this colorful piece of plastic is a 60-year-old technology: radio frequency identification (RFID). RFID is commonly used to track inventory. In fact, if you’ve ever visited your local library, you’ve probably noticed the rectangular raised sticker on the inside cover of many books. This is an RFID tag, allowing librarians to “check in” a book by scanning it with a reader.

The MagicBand works in the same way, with a tag and a tiny antenna contained within the band itself and various readers that are designed to query information at different proximities. Thousands of sensors are embedded throughout the parks, identifying visitors by name and enabling highly personalized experiences.

Be Our Guest is a quintessential example of the personalized MagicBand experience. As you walk up the pathway to Beast’s castle, a host greets you by name before guiding you inside. After ordering your food via a mounted touchscreen, you are prompted to find a seat in one of the three dining rooms. Within ten minutes, your food finds its own way to you, pushed on an ornate cart and then set before you.

Your MagicBand has alerted the host of your approach, notified him/her of your reservation and, once you’ve ordered, triangulates your position through sensors embedded in the restaurant.

Creepy? Maybe.

As much as people may raise concerns over technology invading their privacy, it turns out they are perfectly content when they are delivered what they want before they want it. The key is to make transactions seamless and natural — never showing the user the effort behind the experience.

Magical Learnings

My first trip to Disney World was not only an unforgettable personal experience, but it also taught me a few valuable lessons for my professional life.

1)    Invisible design = magic. Sometimes the best design is the design we don’t even notice. Frictionless design fades into the background because the technology, data systems, physical artifacts and digital interfaces work seamlessly together and require a minimal learning curve.

2)    Context is key. You’ll never find a cowboy in Tomorrowland or a robot in Frontierland. Set users expectations about a product or experience and don’t bog them down with unnecessary marketing or contextually irrelevant content.

3)    Formulate a flow. Traversing Disney parks is effortless because they are laid out in a predictable, pattern-oriented way. Communicate to users where they are in a process, what they just completed and what steps to take next. Don’t overburden them with pathways to follow. Choice overload leads to analysis paralysis.

4)    Technology is secondary. While we deal with new technologies on a daily basis, focusing on technology for its own sake neglects the user. First consider a user’s wants, needs and motives, and then choose a technology or medium to match.

5)    Design for delight. Disney World creates such memorable experiences because it pays great attention to delighting the user in new and unexpected ways. Even when designing something complicated and somewhat dry (like a checkout flow), there is always room for a little bit of fun.

We may not be imagineers ourselves, but we can always inject a touch of magic into the everyday.


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