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Leading by the Nose

For now, the most visible manifestation of the new strategy is a 10 1/2-inch-tall stuffed doll called Pal Mickey. With a powerful infrared sensor in its nose, the doll acts as a virtual tour guide, providing tips on which rides have the shortest lines and information on events. How does it work? A zipper in its fur conceals a central processing unit, an internal clock, small speakers and a tiny infrared sensor. When the doll is carried into the park, the sensor receives a wireless data upload from one of the 500 infrared beacons concealed in park lampposts, rooftops and bushes, which transmit information from a Disney data center. The signals let Pal Mickey know that it's time to "tell you a secret," says Bruce Vaughn, who led the Disney R&D team that developed the doll's prototype. When the doll receives a new piece of information from a nearby beacon, it giggles and vibrates to indicate that it has something new to say. Squeeze its hand or stomach and it will tell you about an upcoming parade, a shorter line at another ride, or trivia about the area of the park you're walking through.

With more than 700 prerecorded message variations, Pal Mickey always has something to say, whether it's telling a child a corny joke or keeping kids entertained with interactive games while they wait in line. The product was designed for kids, says Michael Colglazier, vice president of operations strategy and technology at Walt Disney World, but "when we tried it out on kids in test research, they'd hear Mickey, and then they'd put him up to their mom's or dad's ear." Vaughn says Pal Mickey also tested favorably on a majority of adults "because suddenly they felt some of the pressure being lifted of having to know everything [about the parks] and make sure they weren't missing anything."

Technologists speak of Pal Mickey as an experiment in bridging the gap between static data about a customer and the customer's dynamic behavioral preferences, which depend on the customer's physical location and movements at any given time. In other words, it's all about dynamically matching data with context—a new concept and the next big development in the evolution of CRM, in the view of futurist Paul Saffo, research director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif., a technology think tank. C.K. Prahalad, the Harvey C. Fruehauf Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan Business School and coauthor of The Future of Competition (due out in January from Harvard Business School Press), agrees. "Disney is experimenting with a customer strategy that goes beyond today's CRM," he says, "using not just the data, but data in the context of individual customer behavior."

The subject of location awareness makes some consumers skittish about the potential for privacy abuse. Indeed, some skeptics warn that such persuasive technologies cross the privacy line, especially when they appear to be friendly. "Is it potentially creepy? Yes," says B.J. Fogg, director of Stanford University's Persuasive Technology Lab. "But because Mickey Mouse is the interface for customer interaction and has such credibility with people, Disney can do things with persuasive technology that probably a Microsoft or a WorldCom could not."

Disney executives acknowledge that there was some worry that Pal Mickey might be seen as a customer tracking device—more of a Big Brother than a trusted tour guide. But Disney insists that as they consider how to make Pal Mickey even more interactive, the intent is to help parkgoers customize their Disney experience for maximum value and convenience. In any event, says Berry, Pal Mickey isn't a collector of personal data. "We push data out to Pal Mickey," he says, "we don't pull anything back." Like other companies, adds Colglazier, "we have other ways of collecting [customer] data."

For now, Disney is betting customers will see Pal Mickey as a convenience. The doll's ability to surprise parkgoers with relevant information in real time—to have Pal Mickey tell you as you're walking through Adventureland, for example, that "pirates are sneaking around," and then to turn a corner and spot Captain Hook and Smee signing autographs for a group of children—has proven to be more of a delight than a cause for alarm over privacy. Already on sale is a Spanish-speaking Pal Mickey, and other languages are being considered. There's also talk of creating other "skins," such as a Pal Minnie or Buzz Lightyear.

This article was originally published on 12-01-2003
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