High Tech in The Magic Kingdom
By Ben Delaney © 1998

This article originally appeared in IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, November/December 1998 © 1998

Cyberspace Mountain coaster ride

Cyberspace Mountain: design a coaster, then ride it.

Disney is known for the style they apply to all of their endeavors. Big, flashy, perfect, expensive fun. Their newest family entertainment center, just outside the main Disney World gate in Orlando, is unique in many ways but is still all Disney.

DisneyQuest is a five-story building which may prove to be the future of family entertainment. It is one of the world’s first indoor theme parks, relying on computers and clever design to provide the thrills of a traditional destination. Thanks to the ingenious use of high-powered simulation systems, mostly from Silicon Graphics (SGI), the facility is expandable, extensible, experimental, and scaleable in a way no traditional park ever could be. Disney and SGI officials are proud of their new baby, anticipated to be the first of 20-30 such facilities around the world. (The second DisneyQuest is scheduled to Open in Chicago next summer.)

For years we have been seeing virtual reality-based entertainment systems, and for years we have been disappointed in their quality, both in terms of content and technical expertise. Disney has been experimenting with VR since 1994, when their Aladdin experience debuted at SIGGRAPH. It used a custom-built HMD, three Reality Engines, and a novel user interface, the edge of a magic carpet. Ultimately Disney put nearly 40,000 people through Aladdin, in what was the largest user test of any VR system ever. That experience, plus six months of quiet play-testing in Los Angeles, with close to 4,000 people trying and commenting on the rides, resulted in the current crop of DisneyQuest attractions.

Alladin coaster ride

Alladin's Magic Carpet was Disney's first virtual attraction.

The extensive testing paid off. Opened in June 1998, DisneyQuest has succeeded where dozens have failed. Inside the big blue cube, "kids of all ages" can enjoy rides, games, and attractions ranging from a sticker printer that puts a kid’s face on Goofy’s body to an interactive, design-and-ride roller coaster, to a junk-food court with Internet access terminals. The whole point, DisneyQuest Director of Marketing Denise Villanueva tells us, is that Disney is "not trying to deliver high tech. We’re delivering fun".

Past attempts at VR entertainment had it completely backwards. Instead of delivering fun, they delivered technology. And with the notable exception of Virtual Worlds Entertainment (interestingly, owned in part by Walt Disney’s nephew, Tim) nearly all failed, financially, and as entertainment. Some of those failures were spectacular, such as the Iwerks/Evans & Sutherland Virtual Adventure, rumored to have cost $6 million to develop, shown at SIGGRAPH ‘93 and never deployed. Disney prudently waited until the price/performance ratio matched the P&L requirements. Those two graph lines having finally converged, DisneyQuest makes fiscal sense. Much more importantly, it IS fun.

The Attractions
DisneyQuest includes one attraction that’s a lot like Virtual Adventure. Called Invasion! ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter, it provides a team of four with the opportunity to navigate around a distant planet, and blast anything that moves. The most popular attraction is CyberSpace Mountain, in which players first design a roller coaster on a workstation, then ride it in pairs in a 6 DOF motion cab with large-screen display.

Disney is not averse to borrowing or buying good ideas. In fact they went out of house for the content for several of the VR attractions. Alien Encounter was developed by Virtual Worlds Entertainment, and has a certain familiarity to those who have played their award-winning BattleTech game. It features a cab with four players, seated backs to the middle, and looking at high-quality, collimated displays replicating windows. The team, three gunners and a pilot, must find and destroy aliens, while rescuing good guys.

KATrix/Millennium Rush is responsible for the sword-wielding challenge of Ride the Comix, which has similarities to some of Virtuality’s games. It features a leaning post, to which each of eight players is strapped to avoid falls or collisions. Each player wears one of Disney’s distinctive "duck-bill" HMDs, designed by Disney for the original Aladdin ride, and built by n-Vision, and holds a "sword". In real life the swords are just handles, but when the game starts, players see glowing blades, with which they slash at various comic-book villains. This system overcame a significant hurdle in tracking technology, which illustrates Disney’s attention to detail.

Ride the Comix uses Ascension’s SpacePad tracking systems, which permit users to create their own transmitters by building flat coils of wire that can be embedded in floors, walls, or furniture. For Ride the Comix, the coils are hidden in the seats. But the real problem wasn’t where to put the transmitters, it was how to get 24 of them to work in one room without interfering with each other, since there are only a few frequencies available, not enough for each system to have it’s own piece of the spectrum. To make that work, Disney’s Imagineers figured out a novel synchronization scheme, where all the tracking systems share a clock, and the signals are temporally multiplexed. The host computer knows which transmitter is operating at any and can keep the signals straight. It works so well that Ascension is adding it to the feature set.

Cyberspace Mountain coaster ride

Ride the Comix – if you dare.

Angel Studios contributed to Virtual Jungle Cruise, an raft trip for six through hazardous waters, and Zombie VR Entertainment made CyberSpace Mountain roll. Disney created a new Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride, and Hercules in the Underworld in their own studios.

Power, Power, Power
To make all this fun seem effortless, the DisneyQuest team assembled enough computing power to send a mission to the moon. Bill Redmann, Director of Technology for Disney Regional Entertainment, gave us the computer inventory for the facility. Disney uses 20 SGI Onyx2s to keep the simulations running, 12 SGI O2s as workstations and front-ends to the simulations, 4 Compaq Proliant Servers running the stored value (admission and redemption) system, 60 Compaq workstations running various games and acting as portals for Internet access, plus 40 rack-mounted PCs that primarily provide I/O services to the Onyxes. In addition to this there are sound and lighting systems.

This complexity has proven remarkably reliable. Redmann told us that their goal is 99.5% system up time, and "many of [the attractions] are very close to achieving that. Most of the trouble," he added, "is cables – not hardware or software".

SGI is proud that their basically off-the-shelf systems made the grade. Afshad Mistri, SGI’s Marketing Manager for Interactive Entertainment, told us that SGI won a four-company shoot-out held by Disney in an abandoned Lockheed warehouse. Disney required at least 800 x 600 full-color displays, with anti-aliasing. Each competitor was given the same database, a sub-set of the Aladdin world. SGI, due the cost of their systems, had to run eight instances at once, while the PCs only had to run one user’s viewpoint. Top Disney execs, without technical knowledge of graphics, were the judges. Despite a relatively high unit price, SGI won on quality, reliability, and price per seat.

Perhaps that accounts for the number of people squeezing in to DisneyQuest. Families are consistently waiting an hour or more to pay at least $20 each for minimal game play. When it comes to high-tech fun, DisneyQuest has shown the world how to do it right.

_back to top_