Bruce Vaughn: The initial idea was five or six years ago. We wanted to create more personalized experiences for the guests. So we started looking at how wireless devices might help people navigate through the park better but also tell all of the rich stories that Imagineers put into these places, especially in what we call the interstitial areas, the areas between the attractions and the shows. So we began looking at wireless, and realizing that people are going to be carrying around more of these devices—cell phones and PDAs—and if you did have some sort of wireless device with you, then you could navigate better and get more and more of the story. But we also wanted something that little kids could use, as well. So we decided to take a character, and at first we chose Simba. It was a product that you wrapped on your wrist. We put some electronics into him so that, as you go through the park, the toy would pick up IR codes and vibrate—you would say he's purring. And that meant that Simba wanted to tell you a secret, so you would hold him up to your ear.
We also did a test about a year later with a PDA. In the Animal Kingdom there's this beautiful little trail that most people zipped through in about four minutes, but there's all this beautiful landscape there. So we got with the landscape architects and the horticulturists, and we found that the people who had our PDA, or were using our toy, stayed in that area for 12 to 15 minutes. So it added capacity to the park in areas that didn't seem like they were attractions.
Kyle Poor: Imagineering does such a great job of really putting a fine level of detail into our parks, but a lot of it goes unnoticed because you can't put a big sign out that says, "Look at this great idea we had here." Mickey, however, can walk down Main Street and tell you that the names on those second-story windows are all people who've had a leading role in the development of our theme parks here.
What were some of the challenges you faced in developing the doll?
Poor: I think the biggest issue with our guests has been the volume. Our parks have so much audio in the background, and they're very crowded, which means there are lots of conversations going on, so if you're not holding the toy up to your ear, then it's difficult to hear. That's probably been the chief criticism. It's something that could be improved. But we designed the experience to be personal. We wanted you to hold it to your ear. And we also have a safety guideline established for talking toys as to how loud they can be, so we have to stay below that line.
Vaughn: Another issue was the emitters. We have a variety of different kinds, but, depending on where you are, sometimes you want a more general wide area, sometimes you want a very focused area, so there are different kinds of emitters that can put out different kinds of beams. We also wanted to make sure that the toy, if you're wearing it, wouldn't get blocked. The receiver has to be able to get the information. And we had to do quite a bit of work in our lab on the acoustic design because we still wanted him to be soft. Even though he has all these electronics in there, he had to be plushy and small because we want little kids to carry him.
Tell me a little bit about the technology. It's infrared, right?
Poor: Yes, it is. It's our own kind of proprietary version of it. The underlying transmission is infrared light, but our engineering team have worked on a system that allows us to transmit the information to the toy. There are more than 400 locations in our parks where he'll respond, though most of them you can't see. Again, to keep the whole theme and look of our parks, they were very careful in how they painted the emitters and where they placed them. Kind of "keep the man behind the curtain." The script content was developed in-house and our character voice organization recorded the talent and edited the audio.
Vaughn: The doll's head is designed so that the speaker actually picks up a little more—it's a better speaker than other toys have. We also came up with a process of recording and compressing the audio that is unique and that allows us to get a lot of information into a small package and keep the quality very high.
Also, you know, that's all pre-programmed stuff in there, and what it's waiting for is a signal from these emitters that says, "Play this joke. Play this sequence." We didn't want to have it say the same thing over and over again, so there's a small computer in there that's making decisions. You can unlock things by the more experience you do, so the more you do, the more the toy has to tell you. We're trying to make sort of a bonded friendship where there is some knowledge of a history and awareness, seeming awareness, from the character.
So what's in store for Pal Mickey and the Smart Toy program?
Poor: At this time there are no definite plans, though we certainly have discussed them. We're still really learning about what our guests like about Pal Mickey. So we're still in kind of the research phase. Minnie is very popular with our female guests, of course. Fortunately, we are a company blessed with great characters, and we have a lot to choose from. As the product line progresses, other characters might have their own different perspective. Who knows, it could be a villain that might have a different perspective. I think you can count on the fact that we're going to continue the product line. Exactly what form that takes, we don't know yet. Vaughn: I think we could see a future where there's a relationship between the park and the guests that makes for a better experience and allows for real-time information and instant feedback. There is a huge focus on what I call personalization and re-programmability, which means that we know you, in a good way, and we use the information that you give us to provide you with a better experience all around.
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