Disney’s Scientific Approach to Virtual Reality Produces Magical Experiences

by Matthew Terndrup • March 26th, 2015

There are places on this planet where people explore their wildest fantasies. Luckily, I grew up near one. That creative environment for me stood about 88 miles North East from my childhood home on the edge of Orlando, Florida. It is called Disney World. Over the years, my family and I would venture up there from time to time to check out the various theme parks. We would ride thrilling roller coasters, experience movie scenes like never before, and got up close and personal with animals from the wild. Many of the most exciting rides were found in the main park, but there was a captivating indoor theme park in Downtown Disney that kept us coming back for more. That five-story building was essentially an interactive arcade of the future known as DisneyQuest. Guests would enter the first-floor lobby and would then be transported via a “magic” elevator to the third floor atrium at the start of their visit. On the second floor was where I had my first virtual reality experience ever. I will never forget putting on a head-mounted display (HMD) and taking Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride into the computer-generated realm of Agrabah, collecting gems along the way. My dreams of interacting with the characters from one of my favorite animated films of all time had finally come true; thanks to Disney.

Fast forward to the present, and virtual reality is a hot topic of conversation. Tradeshows and conferences are popping up everywhere with VR at the center focus. After decades of research and experimentation, consumer virtual reality headsets are finally hitting the market, projected to enter people’s homes over the next few years by the millions. Almost out of nowhere, VR captured a lot of media attention. Yet, many don’t realize that proofs of concepts for virtual reality began long before the recent hype cycle. For ages, large corporations like Disney allowed people to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds.

During the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2015, a recent member of Disney’s Imagineering team gave a talk about the expansive history of Disney’s work in VR. Bei Yang (the Creative Technology Designer Lead) led a talk called “Practical Virtual Reality for Disney Themeparks.” Yang discussed over 20 years of Disney’s virtual reality research and deployment that day.


‘The Sword of Damocles’ headset

Right from the beginning, Yang honored some of the original VR pioneers by starting out with a quote from a computer scientist who influenced virtual reality about half a century ago. That person Yang quoted was Ivan Sutherland in 1965. Sutherland is the guy who invented Sketchpad in 1962, which was innovative program that led to alternative forms of interaction with computers. A few years later, Sutherland created the first virtual reality and augmented reality head-mounted display system with the help of another computer scientist named Bob Sproull. They called the VR headset ‘The Sword of Damocles’ in reference to a Greek mythological weapon. Although the device was cumbersome and had wires hanging from the ceiling, it founded the ideas that would eventually turn into what we know as virtual reality and augmented reality today. At GDC, Yang brought the audience all the way back to where some of the ideas for VR originated. From there, Yang progressed forward through VR’s timeline after that.

The next stop on the virtual reality tour was the “failed” revolution of the 1990s. A startup called VPL Research worked a lot in the virtual reality space in the late 1980s; but most remember the time shortly after that. Yang definitely discussed the biggest boom of VR history (prior to what is happening now) that occurred in early 90s. This got a ton of people hyped for the emerging medium. Nintendo’s Virtual Boy hit the market selling over 750,000 units[1]. Sega released a head-tracked VR HMD for arcade use, and around the same time, DisneyQuest was born as well.


The original HMD for Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride

Beginning in July of 1994, researchers at Disney’s Imagineering deployed a virtual reality system into DisneyQuest. That experience was Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride. It used a rather large head-mounted display. People would sit on physical setup that looked much like a jetski. There was even places to hold on to during the ride. According to a scientific document by Randy Pausch, Jon Snoddy, Robert Taylor, Scott Watson, and Eric Haseltine, “every twenty minutes a group of up to 120 guests was given a brief technical lecture about VR followed by a demonstration where four guests were selected to ‘fly a magic carpet.’”

The attraction was intentionally hidden in a remote area of the park. Most guests entered not because they had a strong interest in VR, but because our attraction was “the next thing” to do. Guests could not volunteer to fly; they were selected by the ride operators. The operators maintained a strict policy of avoiding guests who showed an active interest in VR. Therefore, rather than pertaining to a small subset of VR enthusiasts, we believe that our results are essentially a fair cross section of the theme park population. Some guests did decline the invitation to fly. Interviews revealed this was primarily due to stage fright, not an aversion to trying VR.


Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride had large HMDs with wires strung from the ceiling


That virtual reality trial by Disney’s Imagineering lasted from July 1, 1994 all the way through to September 8, 1995. They uncovered many key findings, and the developers wrote down their general observations showing what the reactions were like.

We were able to sustain the illusion that the guests were in another place. Men and women of all ages suspended disbelief and a large number reported the sensation that they were “in” the scene. This is hard to conclude from exit surveys, but guests also provided unsolicited cues, such as panicking or ducking their heads as they approached obstacles.

Guests cared about the experience, not the technology. Most guests had no concept of how VR works, nor did they care. They focused on the sensation, which was exhilarating for most guests. Many guests shouted “Wow!” or “Whee!” in their first thirty seconds.

The experience was overwhelming. Between sensory overload and the task of trying to control the carpet’s flight, many guests were so cognitively taxed that they had trouble answering questions early in their flights.

Guests needed a goal. If not given a specific goal, guests would ask “What should I be doing?”

Guests needed a background story. We found that giving as much context as possible about the scene helped reduce the severity of the transition from the real to the virtual environment. Background story is the set of expectations, goals, major characters, and set of rules that apply to the virtual world. Ironically, in lower fidelity, less believable VR systems, this need for background story may not be as evident. We believe it is the abrupt transition into a believable virtual world that is problematic. Performing a good transition from the real to the virtual world is an open challenge.

DisneyQuest_Aladdin_2Guests liked exploring, and seeing new spaces. Most guests did not spend much time studying detail in a given place; they tended to move on quickly to new vistas.

Guests did not turn their heads very much. This could be because they were piloting a vehicle, or because they were not accustomed to being able to turn their heads when looking at displayed images. For many, we believe the latter. Guests often watched characters “walk out of frame,” as would happen with television or movies. Our strongest indication came from many pilots where we waited 90 seconds into their flight, then explicitly told them to turn their heads. At that point, they clearly had the “aha” of the head-tracking experience. While we suspect that different content would be more conducive to head turning, head tracking is far enough from most guests’ experiences with film and television that we suspect this will be a problem for many systems.

Controlling the carpet was a problem for many guests. This prompted the addition of test flights before the show began. Many guests flew out into the desert or up above the city to find a space where there were fewer obstacles, making flight easier. Although we could have had the magic carpet fly itself, our surveys indicated that the control and freedom are important parts of the experience. Six-axis control is a very difficult problem and an important design challenge is finding appropriate control constraints.

VR must be personally experienced. In addition to the 45,000 guests who piloted carpets, we had over one million audience members who observed the pilots’ progress on display monitors. The audience members enjoyed the show and understood that something fascinating was going on with the pilots, but it was clear that VR is foreign enough that most people can not fully comprehend it without direct personal experience. Audience members often asked if the pilots could see or interact with each other.

The research team went on to describe ideas surrounding presence and immersion in further detail. It also documented people’s reactions to virtual characters, motion sickness, the differences between men and women, VR for the disabled, how to tell stories in virtual reality, controlling the narrative, using sound, and much much more.

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