Design Research and Strategy, Graduate Student at Carnegie Mellon University

Disney’s Experience Development Prototype

One time I helped convince some people to write a billion dollar check. Here’s how: first you build a 12,000-square-foot immersive prototype inside a soundstage at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Fill it with recreations of all the magical bits and pieces that make up a Walt Disney World vacation. Let executives tinker with their crazy ideas and when they get bored, dazzle them with impossible things made of foamcore and gaffer tape. Keep it a secret (you’ll be surrounded constantly by tens of thousands of tourists). Then ask really nicely.

Various roles

Disney's Experience Development Prototype

With: David Canora, Jo Gray, Rob Grossman, Jason Kitch, Kristin Ong, Scott Rench, Rebecca Rodriguez, Peter Stepniewicz, and Dave Worrall
For: Walt Disney Parks and Resorts
Tools: Anything imaginable
Duration: 6 month build, 2 year operation

The life-size journey map

The majority of my work on the Experience Development Prototype was the physical construction of its theatrical infrastructure, and 14 set pieces and scenes. Within the soundstage, we constructed, recreated, and/or mocked up two theatres for presentations, two living rooms, a bus from Disney’s Magical Express fleet, the lobby and a room at Disney's Contemporary Resort, the park entrance at Magic Kingdom, an attraction queue, a ride and show area, a quick service dining experience, a central command center, and, of course, a gift shop. Once completed, stakeholders would be able to experience the entire guest journey (the entire demonstration took about five hours).

Each of those scenes had a theatre layer, which included the rigging for lighting and sound; a scene layer which included ambient sound, furniture, and props; and a technical layer which included devices, computers, displays, and networking hardware.

Dreaming in foamcore

Within each scene were prototypes of the enabling products, services, and experiences that comprised Disney’s Next Generation Experience strategic vision. My team and I worked with leaders from across the business and their design teams to continually integrate the latest thinking into the Prototype. The physical nature of the experience meant that we were also tasked with creating physical prototypes of things yet-to-come.

Co-intern Rebecca Rodriguez and I spent an incredible amount of time dreaming in foamcore and gaffer tape—creating the kiosks, portals, door locks, point-of-sale devices, and various other touchpoints that would, over time, become enchanted with the magic of RFID. Destroy, rebuild, create is the incantation for delivering prototypes of increasing fidelity.

 "Immaterials: the ghost in the field" by Timo Arnall is very similar to the experiments we were performing at Disney. Just on a much larger scale.

"Immaterials: the ghost in the field" by Timo Arnall is very similar to the experiments we were performing at Disney. Just on a much larger scale.

Technology exploration

At its fundamental level, the Experience Development Prototype was a deep exploration of RFID as a material for enabling near and farfield interaction. At the time, most RFID systems were applied in industrial and commercial settings—where certainty and predictability could be designed into the system (see also: industrial engineering).

The amount of variability—behavioral and electromagnetic—that humans can introduce to these systems is overwhelming for designing reliable farfield interactions. The shape of this field can be fine-tuned by the antenna’s size, shape, and output, but this intention quickly disappears with the introduction of pesky humans (ugh!).

Rebecca and I worked closely with external partner ThingMagic to understand how this field changes as it's absorbed and reflected by park guests. We constructed various antenna arrays that were likely to appear in park infrastructure, donned the mo-cap suits, and recorded a variety of human behaviors and interactions to measure the changing field. These models helped the engineers ensure that this field remained effective for farfield interaction.

Though the goal was to use a passive UHF RFID system for farfield interaction, the plan was eventually scrapped for an active system (the current MagicBand features a battery-operated active transponder in addition to its passive nearfield chip).

“This better work.”

My experience culminated in one final demonstration and the official greenlight from The Walt Disney Company’s Board of Directors.

They assembled Frankenstein-like mock-ups using spare parts cribbed from hardware catalogs and torn-down gadgets.
— Cliff Kuang, WIRED Magazine

Additional Roles: Intern, propmaker, propmaster, set decorator, set dresser, greensman, gaffer, grip, production sound mixer, cast member, warm body for mo-cap, industrial film star, industrial film extra, executive handler, human meatbag for studying radio absorption and reflection, making copies (but out of shotcrete)

Thumbnail photo from home page courtesy WIRED Magazine, Lab floorplan edited and approved for limited release, "Lab" timelapse edited and approved for limited release, "Immaterials: The Ghost in the Field" courtesy Timo Arnall