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The future of Disney theme parks is in ’emotionally-connecting robots,’ says Josh D’Amaro at SXSW

Disney Parks Experience and Products chairman Josh D’Amaro recently took the stage for the first time at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, TX to show how much Disney relies on technology to create memorable experiences for their guests across their theme parks, cruise line, and more.

“Disney’s 100-year legacy is built on the intersection of creativity, innovation, and storytelling,” D’Amaro said to the gathered audience of Disney fans and curious SXSW attendees. The presentation was originally going to be held during the 2020 SXSW festival.

D’Amaro opened his presentation with an argument that Disney history (starting with Walt Disney himself) has always been about innovation and technology, and therefore was excited to show off their latest technologies at the festival that’s all about that. “It started with pioneering animation shorts with sound, but our story didn’t stop there,” D’Amaro said.

The presentation pivoted to talking about how the story continued with innovation and technology at their theme parks. Over the 60+ years since Disneyland’s grand opening, D’Amaro shared that Walt Disney Imagineering, namely their research & development arm, has always dreamt up new tech to “create happiness” and memories for guests who want to be immersed in their favorite Disney stories.

To that end, D’Amaro brought out some of those Imagineers and technologies they created. Among were the “real” lightsaber that currently can be seen (but not used by the public) on Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser at Walt Disney World, a “real” Tinker Bell character that can converse with guests in real-time, and the “real” Hulk that has been seen greeting guests inside Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure park (using new exo-skeleton tech).

The last tech D’Amaro brought out, however, was much earlier in the development process, but was very much the star of the entire show. While in the form of a robot that looked very much like Judy Hopps from Disney Animation’s “Zootopia,” Imagineers proceed to debut live an autonomous robot that could develop an “emotional connection” with guests.

The unnamed robot naturally came out of a box and then proceeded to get up on its own–made more difficult because it was on rollerblades. The team then demoed the robot doing a front flip, to which Imagineers said it was its first time showing doing the stunt publicly. “It’s less about showing that the robot could do the trick, and more about how anxious it makes us feel in doing it. That’s the emotional connection we make,” D’Amaro shared.

As for the future of Disney Parks, it does feel like ’emotionally-connecting robots’ are going to be a big part of that future.

“Walt [Disney] knew that if you imbue something with personality, you’ll make connections,” said Joe Lanzisero, a former Disney Imagineer who was also an animator before that, and continued saying that it’s those ‘small believable movements and motions’ that allow for us to have that connection with the Disney robot that was seen at SXSW.

Added Lanzisero’s business partner and former Disney Imagineer, Ryan Harmon, “The moment that I remember the most [during Disney’s SXSW presentation] is the movement of the robot falling and then getting back up to balance on their skates–just like a little kid. We all have seen and felt what that’s like, and because of it, we can relate to it on a human, emotional level,” Harmon said.

That connection is something that Disney, according to D’Amaro, are experts at and is something that creates the happiness that the company has wanted to bring to the world for the past 100 years of its existence.

“People want more happiness in their lives, especially right now. I’m grateful that we’re resourced to be able to do just that,” D’Amaro said.

You can watch clips from Disney’s presentation at SXSW in the player above, including the demo they showed of the ’emotionally-connecting robot.’


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