Imagineering, the creative development and design arm of the Walt Disney Company that makes magic happen in the Disney theme parks, is known for its innovation. In fact, according to the official Disney web site, WDI (as it is know) has more than 100 patents. And Disney’s magical innovation continues with the latest audio animatronics prototype called The Amazing Destini.

A Technology Evolution

Disney has been hard at work improving the concepts that drive audio animatronics for more than ten years now through its “Living Character Initiative.” Disney understands that today’s culture is creating customization and instant interactivity at a blazing pace. People are used to new levels of interaction in everything from the internet to video games. And they know that Disney and its technology must evolve in order to remain relevant.

One of the first products of the Living Character Initiative was Lucky, a Dinosaur that was twenty feet long and could walk around the Disney theme parks, interacting with guests. He was followed in 2005 by Turtle Talk with Crush, a real-time animated show where the character Crush from the movie Finding Nemo could interact with guests – answering questions and talking with people. Another similar development was introduced with the opening of the Monsters Inc Laugh Floor attraction in 2007 at the Walt Disney World resort, where on-screen animated characters interacted directly with audience members.

In 2009 Disney won the Thea Award for Outstanding Technical Achievement from the Themed Entertainment Association for the Muppet Mobile Lab. The Lab is a free-moving audio animatronic vehicle that looks a bit like a rocket. Two Muppet characters, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his trusty but bumbling assistant, Beaker, ride around in the Lab at Disney parks and interact with guests. Cameras and other sensors allow puppeteers located far away from the vehicle to control the interaction.

The idea behind all this new technology is part of a larger idea of awareness – where characters can be more aware of people and their environment. The idea isn’t meant to replace human performers, but instead is designed to bring characters to life that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. And all of it comes together in an amazing way in The Amazing Destini.

Welcome Destini

Disney continues its interactive innovation with The Amazing Destini. At the 2011 D23 Expo held at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California, the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Pavilion hosted an exhibit called The Carousel of Projects – which pays honor to the 1964 World’s Fair exhibit build by Walt Disney called The Carousel of Progress. As part of that exhibit, Disney Imagineers gave attendees a behind the scenes, never before seen look at some amazing technology that drives a very interesting character – Destini. The Amazing Destini represents an evolution in the tools, technologies, and techniques used to bring living characters to life and allows them to be responsive, immersive, alive, and engaging.

In an interview for Inside The Magic, Josh Gorin, Senior Technical Staff with Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development, talked about Destini. “Destini is a robotic fortuneteller who is telling fortunes and having full unscripted live interactive conversations with guests. There is no live human operator involved – no puppeteer, no performer, no actor. It’s just Destini using sophisticated computers, sensors, and artificial intelligence to understand what guests are saying and doing and respond in character to tell their fortune.”

Disney normally doesn’t talk very much about the technology they are developing for their theme parks – especially technology that isn’t quite ready for prime time. They actually work very hard to hide the technology so that guests can focus on enjoying a great and magical experience with the characters. So hearing about Destini at D23 was something very special indeed.

From Idea To Theme Park – At Least For A Little While

A big part of Disney’s Imagineering process is prototyping, or play testing. This is where the engineers take a technology that they are still developing and put it into the parks, usually without announcing it, for just a short time. During the trial run they videotape people interacting with the technology, or they take surveys to see how well it works in the real world. They then go back and refine the technology. Disney has already had Destini make a few surprise appearances in the parks.

The Technology Behind Destini

How does Destini work, interacting with guests with no human involved to control the interaction? It includes plenty of high technology. There are visual and auditory sensors in the areas around which Destini operates. Software uses input from all the sensors to help the audio animatronic create a picture of his world. That then allows Destini to respond to people – all while staying in character.

All the data gathered from the sensors was displayed and summarized on a large video screen that Imagineers called the “Communicore” which is a reference to a long gone attraction a the Epcot theme park that showcased the computers used to control many of that park’s attractions and audio animatronics.

A first component of the system is a top down view of the space where dots on the screen represent people moving through the show area. Sophisticated software analyzes a vector for each person to determine if people are simply walking by or if they are stopping to talk with Destini. It can also determine if people are traveling together in a group – and it can track the groups moving around just like a human performer would.

Next, the software uses a vision system to look at people’s faces and can read emotion. The software can determine the person’s age, gender, and values for emotions like impatient, surprised, happy, sad, or angry. All of these values are carefully recorded and analyzed. Just like a human actor can view an audience and change their performance based on the audience reaction, Destini does the same thing using data input and calculations.

A third component of the system is called short-term memory. The Destini software looks at faces and remembers them in its memory. When someone visits and then comes back a little later, the software remembers them so that Destini can say something like “I still remember you!”

The Goal Of This Project

The goal of the Destini project is not in the development of Destini per se but rather what the technology being developed for Destini can do for Disney. Josh mentioned that Disney Imagineering is not proposing Destini as a specific character or attraction for a theme park. Destini is simply a new character they have created to test the technologies and showcase the possibilities.

At Disney the technology is all about creating and supporting characters, stories, and theming. The technology allows Destini to stay true to his personality. Josh explained that it’s the personality that guests fall in love with. If Imagineering does its job right, guests aren’t thinking about the technology, the computers, and the sensors. They are just thinking about interacting with an interesting character and having an amazing, memorable experience. That is what all of Imagineering strives to do every day.

Results – Already

Some of these technologies developed by the team creating Destini have already spun off and can be seen in Disney Parks today. For example, the last scene in the Haunted Mansion was reworked using some new technologies where the hitchhiking ghosts can interact with the attraction riders more realistically than ever before.

Imagineering hopes that as the technology evolves and matures they will see even more of it show up in the theme parks.