Ever since Steamboat Willie, the iconic animated clip from 1928 featuring a mouse that would later become Mickey, Disney has had a proud record of innovating with new technology.
It’s rare that the company delves too far into how the “magic” – as they call it – works. Their logic is a magic trick doesn’t get better if you know how it’s done.
On Saturday, Disney – quite uncharacteristically – gave us a bit of an insight into how they plan to use technology to bring their much-loved brand of storytelling to new forms, by using robotics and artificial intelligence.
Jon Snoddy, the company’s senior Vice President for research and development, explained how soon you’ll be able to interact with story-telling robots at Disney parks.
“I think AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning is going to be very important for what we do,” he told the BBC.
“Things like characters that can move around among our guests. They’re going to need to understand where they’re going, have goals, and they’re going to have to know how to navigate in a world with humans.
“All these emerging technologies are going to be key to the next generation of entertainment.”
During a panel discussion, the company shared footage – which unfortunately we’re not able republish here – of a robotic Pascal, the cute lizard from 2010 movie Tangled.
It’s a terrific recreation of the digital character, but the real challenge for Disney will be to avoid the so-called “uncanny valley” – the theory that if something is very lifelike, but not exactly right, it can be slightly creepy or disturbing.
“Obviously we’re not the business of scaring kids!” Mr Snoddy said.
“That won’t be part of what we deploy. We go and do tests in our parks to gauge the reaction and try and understand what kids find entertaining about these things. Our ability to build these characters at a fidelity that looks like the films is really growing.”
When these technologies are fully deployed in Disney parks, and perhaps as toys, Mr Snoddy said Disney will do everything it can to hide the inner technological workings.
“Every new technology that’s come along for the last 60, 70 years we have adopted and co-opted and made it into a story telling medium,” he said.
“This won’t be different. We’re not going to put up a sign that says ‘Look! Artificial intelligence’, because no-one would come to see that. They really come to be moved emotionally, that will not change.”