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Disney is, for many, a company that provides a great deal of entertainment through movies and TV shows, be it in a movie theater or from the comfort of home. But for a great many others, Disney is something to be experienced in a more tangible way, largely through the magic of Disney Parks, such as Disneyland or Walt Disney World. 

Part of what makes that Disney brand of magic so, well, magical, is that its Imagineers never stop trying to innovate and bring the company’s beloved characters to life in new, remarkable ways. At this year’s SXSW, the Mouse House gave attendees a big, first-hand taste of what they’re up to at a panel called “The Art & Science of Disney Parks Storytelling.”

I was fortunate enough to be on hand for that panel, which also included a demonstration of a “real” lightsaber that was, in a word, mind-blowing. But that was just one of many things that Josh D’Amaro — Chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products — showcased, alongside several of Disney’s most experienced engineers. What they brought with them was a glimpse at the future, and that future looks mighty impressive. From life-sized Marvel heroes to futuristic robots, some of what the company has coming our way in the years to come is impressive, and perhaps even a little unnerving. Let’s discuss.

Tinker Bell

The first new innovation D’Amaro demonstrated for the crowd was a brand new, unbelievably authentic way to interact with a beloved character, namely Tinker Bell from “Peter Pan.” While Tink has had a presence at the parks for years, this latest version of the magical pixie is true-to-size and can interact with people in a very real way. Much like the lightsaber I mentioned above, what myself and the crowd on hand witnessed is remarkably close to the real thing.

What Disney managed to do was have a performer act and respond to a person in real time as Tinker Bell, while that performer appears to be small enough to fit in a lantern. Though I wasn’t fortunate enough to be up close and personal with her, it all looked and felt very real — enough to suspend disbelief for a brief moment and allow one to embrace the notion that this is the genuine article. That’s something a performer in a human-sized costume could accomplish.

While D’Amaro and his team would only pull back the curtain so far, the camera on stage made it appear as though they were projecting an image of an actor who was likely backstage into the lantern, or something along those lines. In a practical application, say in Disneyland, for example, one could easily hide the camera and this could make for one heck of an interactive installation. And yet, this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Hulk

Outside of “Star Wars,” arguably the most transformative acquisition Disney ever made was Marvel Studios, in 2012. Naturally, those characters now have a huge presence at the parks. It’s easy enough to have Spider-Man and Captain America walking around, but what about a massive, towering figure like Hulk? Barring some cheesy inflatable option, it seems downright difficult to imagine. Disney cares not about that; in fact, the Imagineers seem downright motivated by such things. To that end, the team proceeded to parade a massive, life-sized Hulk out before the crowd, ripped straight from “Avengers: Endgame” in his Quantum Realm suit. Reader, once again, jaws dropped.

Imagineer Jonathan Becker came out to help demonstrate this one alongside D’Amaro, explaining that they actually designed a massive exoskeleton that a person can get inside and, lo and behold, walk around, bringing the Hulk to life. Currently, this is all in the very early stages, with Hulk about to take a two-week trip to Disneyland Paris to hang out at Avengers Campus. The idea is that they will use these two weeks to learn what they can and improve the exoskeleton tech for the future to bring other big characters to life.

I had the chance to speak with Becker briefly after the presentation and while he couldn’t tell me precisely which characters are in the cards for the future, he teased that there are “an infinite amount of possibilities.” Broadly speaking, he added, “A lot of large characters. [The Marvel] universe, the Star Wars universe, Pixar, Disney, past, present, and future. We’re hoping 10, 20 years from now, you’re seeing exo [skeleton] characters in our parks, and it’s just part of the experience.”

Prototype Robot

Morgan Pope and Tony Doty joined D’Amaro on stage for his last magic trick. While this one was much earlier along in the development phase, it was no less impressive. What we saw was a new kind of robot, one capable of potentially bringing a variety of characters to life in the future in more realistic and interactive ways than any of us likely ever thought possible.

“We’re chasing after this idea of dynamic robots,” Doty explained. “It’s because we’re inspired by this notion that our characters in our films are so dynamic.” Pope added, “You need to build robots that are up for anything if you want to match that.” 

Safe to say, what they showcased matched that indeed. As they continued to talk, a skeletal robot with a bunny head crawled out of the box on stage with no assistance from either of the Imagineers on stage. That was merely the beginning, as this robot, devoid of any definable features other than the metal that made up its limbs, rollerbladed across the stage, and crawled up on Pope’s shoulders after “her” little trick.

It was wild AF. It was also, on some level, the most disconcerting, as it’s downright hard to process just how far along humanity is when it comes to robotics — especially considering that this prototype that we saw was in its earliest stages. One can only imagine where Disney (and humanity as a whole for that matter) will be in another five years.

A Future Only Disney Can Promise

The robot that Disney displayed looked an awful lot like a prototype for Judy Hopps from “Zootopia,” given that it had rabbit ears. However, in speaking briefly with Doty after the presentation, he assured me the current robot is not intended to be any specific character. Rather, it’s about creating something that can be applied to a number of characters in the coming years. As for when we might actually see these things rolling around the parks? “I think it’s a little too early to call,” Doty said. “Part of it is, what’s the best fit for this kind of technology? We want to make sure it makes sense.”

The many, many people that make up Disney Imagineering are steeped in R&D to make these ideas work to their full potential. “We’re in this phase where we’re making the platform a product,” Becker explained of the exoskeletons, for example. The idea, Becker added, is to work towards an assembly line to create exo characters in a 6 to 9 month window. Someone could, for example, say that they need an exo version of Juggernaut from the “X-Men” once this tech is perfected and 9 months later, boom, there he is, interacting with folks at Avengers Campus.

“The onus is on us to push the boundaries,” Becker concluded. Based on what I witnessed on that stage, the boundaries are indeed being pushed as only Disney can push them.

Read this next: Sci-Fi Movies That Accurately Predicted The Future

The post Disney Unveils Unreal New Hulk, Tinker Bell, And Prototype Robot Theme Park Characters [SXSW 2023] appeared first on /Film.

/Film – Disney Unveils Unreal New Hulk, Tinker Bell, And Prototype Robot Theme Park Characters [SXSW 2023]
Author: Ryan Scott
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March 12, 2023

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