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Article 5 min read

AI is what dreams are made of. Just ask Disney.

By Page Grossman

Last updated December 28, 2020

We talk a lot about artificial intelligence and the impact AI will have on our culture and workforce, and invariably the emotions run high. From frustration to fear to anger—from job loss to cold customer service to disappearing storefronts and careers.

We also get excited. AI brings unparalleled opportunity—into our homes, our schools, and our everyday life.

Artificial intelligence isn’t anything new. Wikipedia speculates that the idea of machine learning has been around since 1300 B.C., with the first foray—a calculating machine—coming in the 1600s. Today we’re taking the idea of AI even further. We want machines that act and interact just like we humans do. And that’s where the fear comes in. But there’s another emotion lurking around; there’s unadulterated joy.

Let’s take a trip to the happiest place on earth. The place where machines have been imitating intelligent human behavior since 1955. That’s right, the home of the Mouse. He’s at it again, challenging his Imagineers to find ways that AI can make the emotional experience of Disney visitors even better than it already is.

So buckle your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen, you’re in for a bumpy ride filled with dreams, imagination, and a little bit of speculation.

At the forefront of technological innovation

Disney being on the cutting-edge of technology isn’t anything new. The dreamers that have and do roam the halls of this hallowed establishment have always been pushing the boundaries.

The 1950s brought us the Submarine Voyage and monorails.

A decade later we were introduced to Audio-Animatronics.

And then came the pollution-free WEDWay People Mover.

As the years grew long, Disney’s innovation grew more advanced—augmented reality, surround haptics, 4-D imagery, and holographic displays. In 2015, Disney debuted a tap-to-pay system inside their Magic Bands. The Magic Bands give guests the ability to pay, get into their hotel rooms, enter the park, and reserve tickets for various rides before even arriving at the park. Because Disney is a special economic zone with only one merchant, they can test the technology and find the drawbacks before it’s implemented to the rest of the world. Don’t think that Apple and Android aren’t watching and learning.

There are also wireless charging rooms—the Quasistatic Cavity Resonance for Ubiquitous Wireless Power Transfer—throughout the Disney theme parks. Just imagine a world where you never have to plug in your phone to charge. Wouldn’t that just be a dream?

Much of the technology that has been invented by Disney has later been integrated into our everyday lives. So what’s next?

Using AI to improve storytelling

Disney is currently using AI to tell greater stories. Using two different techniques, they analyze how viewers and readers react to content. By getting these measurements, Disney improves their ability to create relatable hits instead of flops.

Just think, Frozen or Toy Story versus Treasure Planet. (Do you even remember that one?)

Disney is teaching AI to judge the quality of short stories like a human would; Disney is creating a machine that will help create more human stories. And it works. The neural network AI is better at predicting content popularity than a baseline text evaluation from an actual person. The AI is getting smarter and better at finding stories that humans want to read and watch.

Disney is also improving their storytelling with factorised variational autoencoders or FVAEs. This technology uses cameras to film a moviegoer’s facial expression during a viewing. After just a few minutes, the AI is able to predict how the viewer would react to the rest of the fim. Disney tested this technology (with viewers’ permission) at showings of Big Hero 6 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. From their data, they calculate a stereotypical response to the movie and find out what elements worked and didn’t work. One caveat: humans tend to mimic the facial expressions of others, including the characters on the screen, so the data isn’t exact.

Star Wars land and AI

What’s next? Disney is striving to enhance the emotional experience of their guests through AI and machine learning. Eventually, the technology will be seamlessly enmeshed within the story; we won’t even notice the difference between AI and reality.

“When Disney’s legendary storytellers engage with new technology, a new art form emerges,” said a Disney Imagineer at SXSW 2017. “Today, computers are approaching and even exceeding human performance in areas like vision and natural language understanding. . . . Now imagine if Disney characters were able to interact with you personally, reacting to your own unique traits and style.”

And it’s happening. In a galaxy far, far away (or down in Florida), each person that visits the new Star Wars themed resort will become part of a customized experience.

“It’s unlike anything that exists today,” said Bob Chapek, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. “From the second you arrive, you will become a part of a Star Wars story! You’ll immediately become a citizen of the galaxy and experience all that entails, including dressing up in the proper attire. Once you leave Earth, you will discover a starship alive with characters, stories, and adventures that unfold all around you. It is 100% immersive, and the story will touch every single minute of your day, and it will culminate in a unique journey for every person who visits.”

Guests will be given an immersive experience, interacting with costumed cast members and AI. They’ll have the ability to gaze out of “windows” that look out onto the galaxy.

In the park—Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge—guests will be swept into an individualized experience, with cast members recruiting them to join the Resistance or to become a spy for the First Order. Guests might find themselves bartering with droid or alien servers for their food in the Cantina.

Between the Disney eye for detail and AI, even the most ardent Star Wars fans will feel like they’ve landed upon Tatooine for an afternoon stay. Disney is creating a bridge to link the physical and digital world more seamlessly than has ever before been created. It’s a “reality” that we could only dream of when we were children.

I’m buying my ticket today.

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