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Art, Science, Technology Inspires Walt Disney Imagineers at MIT Media Lab Event

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s academic heart pumps more into the world than just groundbreaking discoveries and inventions. It fuels a spirit of boundless exploration that stands at the core of MIT’s approach to higher-level intellectual work.

It’s a spirit that pervades not only through undergraduate lecture halls but also graduate research laboratories like the MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary research lab that blurs the conventional lines between art, science, and technology. Surrounding the spacious central atrium of the MIT Media Lab are different departments and spaces for groups, such as the City Science Group and the Affective Computing Research Group directed by Empatica co-founder Rosalind Picard, to satiate their academic hunger.

On the other end of the atrium, an exposed elevator pod shuttles people up and down the building like an engine piston. Those that do not enter glass-paneled offices have come to hear from a panel of Walt Disney Imagineers and producers speaking before a full house of attendees.

The panelists from the Disney Imagineering team included executive producer Amy Jupiter, creative director Sara Thacher, and senior story editor Dave Fisher. Led by former Imagineer intern Emily Salvador, the event served as a casual fireside chat about Disney’s emphasis on experiential storytelling in regards to its amusement park design and the technologies that bring them to life.  

The chat focused on how Disney has approached the task of generating fresh and engaging stories for audiences to immerse themselves in. The desire for more personalized, experiential entertainment has pushed content creators to ideate on how best to merge the stories that audiences love—often from a young age—with creative new mediums for delivering those stories. For Disney, this storytelling evolution has required that the Imagineering team draw inspiration from various disciplines such as philosophy, engineering, and visual design, ultimately utilizing technology to realize their creations.

“Happiness makes the world go round,” Fisher said. “So we [at Walt Disney Imagineering] are thinking about new ways to take brilliant ideas and turn them into stories. Technology empowers us … to inform the design process and explore how we tell the story.”

This process requires lots of research and development, testing designs with focus groups in the hopes of gaining a fuller understanding of what the audience’s interactions might look and feel like. The end goal is to create visceral and immersive experiences that give the sensation of being part of the storyline. Technology has been adopted as a paintbrush used to build richer storytelling experiences and enables Disney Imagineers to analyze the way in which audiences interact and respond to new stories.

Practically speaking, this involves creating multisensorial attractions that combine cutting-edge technology with quality narratives. The boundaries are pushed in order to ensure that each person has an experience that is unique.

Disney Imagineering has invested heavily in the use of audio-animatronics to bring its theme parks to life. This is usually presented in the form of robots that move and emit sounds to animate the scenery and fully immersive simulations that fill viewers’ entire visual field. The innovation that goes into designing these experiences brings together a diverse set of expertise, combining imagination and engineering to create value for customers each time they interact with Disney products.

“You [the viewer] are not just any old visitor. You can look wherever you want,” Jupiter said. “You are the protagonist … you are creating your own plot and steering the story.”

Featured Image by Alessandro Zenati / Heights Editor

October 14, 2018