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Using Disney's MagicBands to open Pandora's box

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Published: October 18, 2013 at 12:28 AM

With Disney's release last weekend of concept art for for its new Avatar land, we've seen the next step in the company's implementation of its MyMagic+ wristband technology. What's that, you say? You don't remember seeing any wristbands in those pictures? Well, there probably weren't any. But Avatar will mark the largest implementation to date of the "theme park as platform" ideal we've been writing about over the past many months.

Avatar boat ride
Concept art courtesy Disney

This isn't anything Disney's officially provided details on yet. Heck, Disney's still working on inventing some of this technology. But designers inside Walt Disney Imagineering are a lot more excited about what they're trying to do with the RFID-enabled wristbands than some Disney fans have been with what (at this point) essentially amounts to wearing a glorified room key around your wrist. And those designers' excitement is beginning to leak out of the company.

The tags embedded in each MagicBand wristband allow Disney to do far more than admit you into a hotel room, theme park, or attraction. They give Disney the build systems that can identify distinct individuals within those environments, and to react to them. This isn't a new concept, of course. Think of the plastic cards you now use to design your ideal car on Test Track. Or even ET saying your name at the end of that Universal ride. But those were relatively low-tech systems that reacted when a particular seat passed a certain point in the ride, based on input provided by a cast or team member at the loading point of the ride. They didn't read and react to the person in that seat, during the ride itself.

Disney's goal with Avatar is to use MagicBands to dramatically increase the number of reactive elements in the entire land, and to have those reactions trigger in real time, without cast assistance. And MagicBands won't be the only technology Disney uses to implement a more interactive theme park land. At the recent D23 Expo in Anaheim, Disney's Imagineers showed off an artificial "plant" that reacted to human touch, a nifty little piece of tech that's straight out of James Cameron's Pandora. Why shouldn't we expect to see that tech playing in the new land, animating the environment around visitors?

A reactive environment that "plays back" with its visitors allows Disney to create an experience that further blurs the distinction between waiting and experiencing. As much as theme park fans and designers like to talk about immersive environments and storytelling, theme parks retain a lot of their carnival DNA -- you wait, you ride, you wait, you watch, you wait, you ride. And so on. Themed queues, such as on Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean started the process of evolving beyond the carnival model. Alternate play areas, such as Dumbo's Big Top, took us the next step in that process of evolution away from simple queuing. Avatar, Disney hopes, will represent the culmination of that process, where any perception of "waiting" simply melts away as its interactive environment adjusts to entertain visitors at all times, in ever-changing ways, until their turn on the "big ride" comes around.

How silly might the current controversy of GAC and DAS disability access systems seem once a park designs a fully accessible physical environment where there are so many options, so many things to engage you along the way that you never feel like your "waiting" for anything at all?

And what of those big rides? How about ride systems that can read your MagicBand to tell if, and when, you've ridden before, then react to ensure that you get a unique experience each time? RFID readers could trigger different film and practical effects in a ride in combinations that might make Star Tours: The Adventures Continue's randomly selected 54 potential combinations look simple.

Then, as all this is happening to and around you, imagine that cameras triggered by your presence were recording your adventures on Pandora, for a personalized DVD of your experience, in high definition 3D. You'll literally star in your own Avatar movie. (Worried about privacy? Certainly some visitors will. Bit it's also hard to imagine money-loving Disney wasting its time and bandwidth tracking and cutting videos of people who aren't paying for this extra.)

Much of this sounds like hazy vaporware, I know. And that's what it is, until it happens. If you're having trouble wrapping your head around what Disney's trying to do here, that's understandable. I can't envision it with any clarity myself. I feel a little like someone trying to understand what a website is before ever going on the Internet. We need to see this new interactive environment in order to understand it.

But Disney isn't spending more than a billion dollars on MyMagic+ just to make a new ticketing and payment system. This is the key that unlocks a new stage in the evolution of theme parks, where interplay between visitors and the park itself becomes something that happens in real space, instead of people's imaginations. Yes, Disney's Imagineers still needs to make this happen. They haven't yet pulled it off. But they're trying, and that should excite any theme park fan with a love for innovation and experimentation in the parks.

Readers' Opinions

From O T on October 18, 2013 at 1:35 AM
This sounds like going to a cinema and watch the exact movie, cut and pasted, with elements I like, in the hope I get a great movie. Or going to a restaurant and get exactly the food the system envisioned I wanted. It sounds great but it isn't. Why? Because it lacks the infusion of new things, of someone else's vision about what a movie can be or a great meal. It gives me more of the same and doesn't expand my horizon. It enforces a world that is tailored around me and not a new world for me to explore. New art, new ideas, new music everything will be categorised and injected and I won't grow into classical music or Jazz or Rock.
I'm sure Disney will have a blast feeding me stuff to consume. In the end my wallet will be drained and I'm ending up with stuff I already have in one shape or form. In the end that will be unsatisfying and I will feel used.
From Annette Forrest on October 18, 2013 at 2:12 AM
I can't believe how you are just hitting it out of the park lately Robert. This is an incredible article. It's brilliant. You are totally making the connections that no one else is making. I love this article!
From Kelly Muggleton on October 18, 2013 at 3:54 AM
It would be amazing but... I don't, have never and will never stay on Disney property. Therefore I feel I am being totally alienated as a 1 or 2 day guest. I won't have one of these bands - I dont actually want to wear one all day anyway, can you keep it in your pocket? - so does my (no doubt by then) $120 entrance fee mean I don't get full value for all attractions. Does it become a band thing for a one day pass? I just don't know.
Impress me too Disney, impress me.
From 74.235.192.240 on October 18, 2013 at 4:59 AM
Wow can I link my magic band with a girl Navi and become one.

They should use this technology at gas stations too. It could be called speedpass.

From TH Creative on October 18, 2013 at 5:16 AM
OT writes: "It sounds great but it isn't. Why? Because it lacks the infusion of new things, of someone else's vision about what a movie can be or a great meal."

I Respond: Why are these conditions mutually exclusive? Why can't the experience combine reactionary technology to suit the interests of individuals and (AT THE SAME TIME) provides "the infusion of new things, of someone else's vision about what a movie can be or a great meal?"

From 63.76.5.3 on October 18, 2013 at 7:03 AM
I have mixed feelings if this technology comes into place. First of all, it basically forces people to get the Magic Bands and pay an up charge (I presume) beyond the ticket price. Second, I may be old school, but I don't really care that much about personal experiences. I just want Disney to make great attractions and keep things running smoothly. I know that isn't the wave of the future, but a lot of this just feels like smoke and mirrors.
From James Rao on October 18, 2013 at 7:12 AM
Sounds promising. I continue to hope for and expect much from both the Avatar expansion and WDI. The next few years could bring about changes none of us ever saw coming!
From Russell Meyer on October 18, 2013 at 7:41 AM
This would certainly be a quantum leap in immersive and interactive nature of theme parks. I sure hope they can pull it off, and the fact that they don't appear to be rushing this development may ultimately pay off in an experience unlike anything else.

I would, however, be concerned at the reliability of the technology, and guests' reaction to it. Will people take offense to an integration of personal information. I know that while I notice that most websites tailor advertising based on what I look at on the internet, I know some people that get annoyed that advertisers know that they've looked at something and advertise those products/services to them on other websites. It's a fine line with this type of technology, and I think Disney is walking right up to it where some feathers may get ruffled over this. I also worry about the reliability of the technology and the volume of interactive elements within Pandora. The interactive queue elements within attractions like Haunted Mansion, Space Monutain, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, and others work because you have a captive yet contantly progressing and changing audience. What happens if these elements are just out in the open as part of the landscape or themed elements along the land's paths? Will you have lines of people waiting for a chance to interact with the element?

I think about the Agent P Adventure in EPCOT or Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, and how those systems work. They are pretty neat activities, but they work because only a small subset of the guests are participating. In EPCOT they only have so many phones, while in MK, guests seem to be pretty orderly and form lines when it's necessary to interact with the elements. In some cases CMs are there to keep the lines moving in an orderly fashion. However, what happens when every guest can walk up to a plant and have it glow or move? You're going to either get lines of people for these little elements or you're going to get a bunch of kids hogging them and ultimately breaking them. If these things are widespread and relatively innocuous, it would probably work, but I'm curious to see how these type of interactive elements will be integrated into a theme park land, and how they will stand up to constant use. Will there need to be CMs scattered through Pandora just to make sure these things are working and are not abused and that guests take turns?

From 67.8.122.129 on October 18, 2013 at 9:47 AM
TH writes: "Why can't the experience combine reactionary technology to suit the interests of individuals and (AT THE SAME TIME) provides "the infusion of new things, of someone else's vision about what a movie can be or a great meal?"

Anonymous dude replies: It has been my experience that in themed entertainment, the audience by and large has no idea what it wants. It is up to the show business to provide the audience with the escape that they desire.

If an audience does have specific ideas about what they want, it may fly directly in contrast to what was intended in a themed environment that otherwise is executed with 100% precision. Once you bring the audience in, you really have opened "Pandora's Box," so to speak.

From Anon Mouse on October 19, 2013 at 3:47 PM
"Why are these conditions mutually exclusive?"

Because....

We are not quite there yet in technology. And even if we reach such milestones, it is too easy to exploit them and everyone will expect the results to be the same and easily get bored with them same old same old.

The IP gets people through the door because everyone is already familiar with the storyline and the characters and people generally want to experience the high in repetition. To personalize such experience, when it is already personalized in their mind, is offering something else.

Suppose you dream of a prince, a la Snow White. You want to experience Snow White while she pines for the prince (the movie experience). What if you turn it around and you become Snow White and you see the price and you tell him how you feel. That is the a new can of worms... and people didn't that was the narrative of Snow White's perspective in the original dark ride.

Take Pirates. It is too easy to make certain things happen in the landscape. If everyone sees it, it is your rendition of what you expect. There could be a multiple expectations when you're in the boat. How to personalize it so you see what you want to see and everyone else sees what they want.

At minimum, they might just do the equivalent of a wink. "Hello, welcome. We love you (your name). Come on back." Maybe do the hard thing. "Turtle Talk, The Ride" perhaps.

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