Using Disney's MagicBands to open Pandora's box
Written by Robert Niles
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.Tweet
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.
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