Although I tend to stray from the topic of not preserving the magic as much as possible, a recent article by the Orange County Register has gotten the wheels in my head turning and I believe it’s time one seriously begins to ponder just where The Walt Disney Company is planning on taking its technology and just how far it’ll go to turn heads — articulated heads even.
The OC Register article takes a look at the new stage show at Disney California Adventure, Disney Dance Crew, in which Mickey Mouse performs on stage lip-syncing to track and blinking his eyes. While this is new technology for the Disneyland Resort, it’s not all that new for the company. What is new however is just how the articulated head is being used.
For the record, we are not talking about the recent Talking Mickey phenomenon that first reared his articulated head back in May (and then made a subsequent appearance during the World of Color premiere), this technology goes back a few years to early 2007 when the head (or rather, heads) made its appearance during the ‘Dream Along With Mickey’ show at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Donald all received the updates, which incidentally also force-transitioned Captain Hook and Mr. Smee into face characters (just for the show and via prosthetics) rather than update them as well. Since their debut, Walt Disney World has expanded the program to include an articulated head for Timon in Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s ‘Festival of the Lion King’ and has used them in other stage shows such as those during Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.
Walt Disney World wasn’t the only one to cash in on the new technology, however. Disney Live! (which is operated by Feld Entertainment, best known for the ‘..On Ice’ series as well as a particular three-ring circus) introduced the articulated heads in its ‘Mickey’s Magic Show.’
Once the heads started showing up, however, there was an immediate (but not too overwhelming reaction) from the fan community – how does a parent reconcile Mickey talking on stage but keeping quiet (and mouth-open) during meet and greets? You can insert your own family-friendly personal excuse here but what makes the most recent change at the Disneyland Resort most compelling is that Mickey performs a meet and greet after the ‘Disney Dance Crew’ show. Only according to the OC Register, Mickey has a change of head before doing so.
This is why it’s important to note that this technology is not the Talking Mickey technology. Rather it’s a form of puppeteering in which the performers themselves make the Disney characters’ mouths open and eyes close based on finger gestures. The mechanics involved also produce an audible even when the character is at rest, so it doesn’t work for close interaction with guests (it also wouldn’t help that Mickey’s eyes would be closed while he signs autographs). So this of course begs the question: if Disney Parks is that comfortable with swapping ‘talking’ Mickey with silent Mickey that quickly without any fear of repercussion from small admirers, where does Disney draw the line between their responsibility for keeping the magic alive and a parent’s obligation to do it for them?
In an increasingly cooperative effort to create financial opportunities in the network/affiliate relationship, ABC Television Network and its Affiliate Board of Governors, which represents more than 200 affiliates, today announced the Inventory Exchange System (IES), a strategic and systematic way of exchanging ad inventory that creates shared revenue opportunities. For the first time in the history of the network, ABC, through the launch of IES, will create the opportunity to strategically offer ABC affiliates the option to purchase additional network ad inventory packages to sell locally at a profit.
Breaking a decades-long industry paradigm that generally allowed affiliates only a fixed amount of inventory, ABC’s IES addresses the basic tenet of supply and demand by taking advantage of pricing differentials and marketplace dynamics among various regions, markets and stations. With IES, the network creates the opportunity to move additional ad inventory into the local markets at periods of high demand, including holiday shopping, end-of-month car sales, elections, etc.
The first of these packages will run in late October and was strategically timed as a key opportunity to increase local ad inventory during the heavy election campaigning period.
“With this groundbreaking announcement, we’re creating a new industry paradigm, one that benefits both the network and our affiliates,” commented Anne Sweeney, co-chairman, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group. “With a relationship built on trust and cooperation, we’ll continue to work with our affiliates to challenge the status quo and identify more opportunities that leverage our unique national and local strengths.”
Chairman of the ABC Affiliate Board Bill Hoffman, VP /General Manager, WSB Atlanta, added, “IES is the result of some great creative thinking between the ABC network and ABC Board of Governors, and a collaborative back-and-forth process that forged an initiative that looks to be a real winner for both sides. Our relationship is such that we make time to collaborate and discover entrepreneurial ways to help each other succeed.”
The inventory exchange is designed with a complex computer program that models monetization of inventory beyond the traditional value that either the network or stations might have obtained. In fact, the IES is so groundbreaking in its structure and execution that it currently has a patent pending in the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Let’s face it, audio animatronic figures are just a passing fad. Sure they look and move in realistic fashions, even so much as being able to appear to walk steps or be able to twirl a lasso, but it all comes at a high cost — literally and figuratively. They’re expensive to design and create, require expensive maintenance and heavy and large platforms and have extremely limited mobility. And that’s coming from one of the leaders in robotic development at Disney Research, Lanny Smoot. Smoot, Imagineer Gary Schnuckle and Timothy Caldwell are the driving forces behind a new patent application which seeks out the next generation of reliable, consistent, automated performances and they just might have found the answer for 2010 in technology whose origins have been traced as far back as 2000 B.C. — marionettes.
Now we aren’t talking about marionettes in the traditional sense, because that just wouldn’t be patent-worthy or (let’s be honest) time-worthy. We are talking about bringing the traditional art form to a much larger scale. Life-size puppets attached to several strings, manipulating their every move on a full-size stage in front of a live audience. Up until now, the closest performances have come to being able to provide this form of entertainment is the Japanese art of Bunkaru in which the puppeteers wear all black to blend in with the background so that their large puppets appear to move on their own without any sort of human intervention – almost.
The patent application, titled ‘Robotic Marionettes on Magnetically-Supported and Highly Mobile Puppeteer Platforms,’ describes a system in which the life-size marionettes are attached to a device called the puppeteer vehicle. The puppeteer vehicle, in turn, is magnetically attached to the tender vehicle, the two of which being separated by a thin membrane of sorts, which essentially amounts to a physical ceiling to the set. The tender vehicle on top of the membrane/ceiling is programmed to move in specific positions (most likely controlled wirelessly) and drags the puppeteer vehicle with it via the magnetic connection. The puppeteer vehicle, in turn, contains all the mechanical elements to be able to manipulate the large puppets. In certain cases, such as the case of eye movement, robots can be installed on the puppet itself, providing some of the benefits of animatronics/robotics to the anti-technological puppet.
Applying the technology to the traditional art of marionette puppetry has an immediate two-fold benefit. Firstly, while the puppets might be able to walk (or fly) across a large stage with humans in control, they are limited in the Z axis. That is, they could never negotiate the difference between up stage and down stage. Because of the thin membrane which requires no strings to pass through it, the magnetic system would allow the puppets to walk towards and away from the audience. Second, and more importantly, the system allows for the puppets to approach and interact with each other without risking the puppets colliding and/or strings becoming entangled. Although robotic systems have been developed to manipulate the puppets, it’s impossible to have multiple puppets move around each other because of the physical nature of the robotic arms themselves.
Sorry, Pinocchio, but you’ve had your fun.
Making its debut at a Grand Slam tennis event, ESPN’s SpiderCam at the US Open has taken viewers where they’ve never gone before for dramatic shots of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The aerial camera system – which is exclusive to ESPN2 and its approximately 100 hours of US Open action – is suspended by four thin Kevlar ropes connected to large winches via pulleys high above the court surface on light poles at the four corners of the world’s largest tennis arena. It moves in three dimensions, ranging from as low as one meter off the court to 33 meters high, from beyond one end of the court to the other and from side to side. The camera can pan, tilt, zoom and focus, with the images sent via fiber optics wiring within the Kevlar roping.
“We are always seeking new ways to bring the viewer closer to the action and the athletes and SpiderCam has provided an exciting new perspective of the grandeur, ambience and size of Arthur Ashe Stadium,” said Jamie Reynolds, vice president, ESPN event production.
In addition to walk-ons, changeovers, coin tosses, ceremonies and post-match interviews, SpiderCam has been used to advance the viewers’ understanding of the game. “We have started using SpiderCam as a live camera source, bringing a cinematic approach to the coverage,” Reynolds said. “As an analytical device we are using it for replays directly overhead, and then taking it into new areas, as we tie it to use of the Orad MVP tracking technology. This allows us new perspectives to breakdown strategy and deconstruct points.”
Images courtesy of ESPN
There was little surprise yesterday about how quickly the YouTube video of a Talking Mickey character test at Disneyland garnered attention, turning just a few dozen views from when we first reported it to tens of thousands less than a day later, but realizing that there would have to at least be a patent application somewhere before the technology was debuted, we set out to find the source of the marveling magic.
But nothing could have prepared us for the shock when we discovered that not only was there an application in place, but an actual patent had in fact been granted — in 1994. Yes, while everyone you knew was at the movies watching The Lion King, inventors Michael I. Savic, Seow-Hwee Tan and Il-Hyun Nam had created something still portrayed in film and television as sci-fi future tech and had already trained their sights on the world’s most beloved character and the voice of his creator.
‘In 1928 Mickey Mouse was introduced to the public… Walt Disney, who created Mickey Mouse, was also the voice of Mickey Mouse,’ the patent begins. ‘Consequently, when Walt Disney died in 1966 the world lost a creative genius and Mickey Mouse lost his voice.’
Perhaps encouraged by the loss of another creative visionary, Mel Blanc (a.k.a the man of a thousand voices) in 1989, Savic, Tan and Nam created the very thing we got out first look at this past week: a walking, talking theme park character which could — in real time — perfectly replicate the characteristics of any existing voice by transforming it on the fly.
The patent continues: ‘A need thus exists for a high quality voice transformation system that can convincingly transform the voice of any given source speaker to the voice of a target speaker. In addition to its use for motion picture and television productions, a voice transformation system would have great entertainment value. People of all ages could take great delight in having their voices transformed to those of characters such as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck or even to the voice of their favorite actress or actor. Alternatively, an actor dressed in the costume of a character and imitating a character could be even more entertaining if he or she could speak the voice of the character.‘
Of course this leads to dozens of other questions. Why now? Why only this? Could it have been that Disney was simply waiting on the additional technology being used to come into its own? Or does the recent appointment of Bret Iwan as Wayne Allwine’s successor indicate that there was some initial hesitance on someone’s part to already make use of the technology in other areas? Can and should voice actors ever really be faithfully replaced by others who don’t possess or even need those same talents?
For your reading pleasure (if you enjoy reading code that is), we have attached U.S. Patent 5,327,521 here.
And speaking of patents and meet & greets, don’t forget how we took a look at another that may very well be used for a future Disney Fairies meet greet as part of the Fantasyland reboot.
UPDATE: We dug up the patent that Disney has held for YEARS that makes this technology possible. Read more!
The day of reckoning has come, dear readers.
A friend sent us a link to these YouTube videos showing Mickey Mouse greeting a couple of fans at Toontown in Disneyland a couple of days ago and it appears that the technology first used in the character heads of the Dream Along with Mickey Castle show at Magic Kingdom may very well have found its way into the meet & greet scenario in a huge way (and with some further enhancements).
Please feel free to marvel as Mickey’s eyes blink, mouth moves and — most impressively — Mickey greets guests by name in the following clips.
This second clip is actually meant to be first as Mickey introduces himself to the group in the room, but we reversed it so we can provide it as a bonus to anyone whose jaw is still above the floor.
Please note that this does appear to be a test (or — perhaps more likely — a proof of concept) and it’s not likely that you’ll be able to just stroll into a meet & greet with Mickey and interact with him audibly anytime soon, although we certainly hope this will be the case at Disney parks worldwide and with additional characters. As it is, our friends at Inside the Magic have confirmed with the guest who uploaded the videos that Disney management was on hand filming the test and guests were required to sign releases of some sort.
You may recall a couple of years ago, the Magic Kingdom was ‘testing’ a very popular device called the Disney Magic Connection: a special cartridge locked into an otherwise-ordinary Nintendo DS that provided guests beta-testing the device the ability to know where the nearest facilities were based on location, estimated standby times for attractions and more. Many have since wondered what became of the project and we now have an idea.
Last week, a patent application from Disney Enterprises was published and although it describes the Disney Magic Connection system to a tee, what the application covers is ready to propel the entire theme park experience to a whole other level, integrating technology into virtually every aspect of even the most traditional element.
Essentially it describes a wireless device (or, as an example, an exisiting portable video game system with an expansion cartridge (hint, hint)) that relies on both infrared and wireless networks to provide a variety of services. Borrowing from the Pal Mickey technology, the infrared portion will receive a message at certain key points and instruct the device to announce a specific element already stored in its database, while the wireless aspect will provide dynamic updates, information and additional content. But enough with the boring details, let’s look at the device in action. Example:
Lilo and Stitch are visiting Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Lilo wants to go shopping and watch High School Musical while Stitch wants to go ride the Tower of Terror. Using the devices, Lilo is guided to the nearest clothing store while Stitch is directed to the Tower of Terror, but he notices that the standby is much longer than he hoped, thanks to sensors placed inside the actual queue which accurately determine where the end of the line is. So instead, he opts for the single rider line in Rock’n'Roller Coaster. Meanwhile, High School Musical is about to begin and sensors embedded along the walking paths determine that it’s probably best Lilo starts moving along a particular route to make the show. She then sends a message to Stitch via the devices’ friends list and tells him where she’s at. Stitch, not keen on seeing the song and dance show, decides he’ll wait for Tower of Terror after all and while he’s waiting in queue, the device automatically feeds him games specific to the attraction or maybe trailers from upcoming Disney films, etc., to keep him entertained as he waits for the ride.
The show’s halfway over and Lilo gets an alert: it seems the Sci-Fi dine-in, which she is relatively nearby, has a lot of space available so the manager has decided to issue a virtual coupon via the device for 10% off the bill. So Lilo messages Stitch and asks him if he’d like to dine there. Of course he says yes, so Lilo makes the ADR as she’s watching High School Musical and — as if by magic — as soon as the show is over and Stitch exits Tower of Terror, the device alerts them that their table is ready.
All of this and a bit more is actually covered in the patent application. It doesn’t necessarily mean it will ever come to fruition however, but it does give a good sense as to where the park may be heading. The application also covers the device being used in conventions and other types of events where maps and schedules can be instantaneously updated and delivered to the end user, which would easily alleviate many of the problems experienced during the first D23 Expo (mind you this patent was applied for long before the Expo too).