Disney: Focus on the Robot Experience

October 12, 2017      

RoboBusiness 2017 explored multiple ways to navigate the future. In his opening keynote, Martin Buehler, executive R&D imagineer at Walt Disney, provided a glimpse into a future with the robot experience.

To prepare yourself and your organization for robotics, artificial intelligence, and unmanned systems, you could brainstorm at an executive retreat, hire an external consultant, or create a committee to study the challenge. Or, you could buy a research report to circulate among the leadership team.

However, you should step out of the comfort zone and look beyond your industry. Take a look at Disney.

Buehler shared the cutting-edge work Disney is trying to perfect. If you were there, you would have been wowed by the advances in humanoid robotics.

At the same time, you might have thought that next-generation animatronics have nothing to do with your business.

Whether it was its strategic intent or not, Disney is not only using robots to redefine its future; it’s also laying down a new pathway for every business.

Robots as characters

If saw the movie Big Hero 6, you might remember the big, cuddly service robot Baymax. In the near future, when you visit a Disney theme park and decide to take a selfie with your favorite cartoon character, you may be taking a picture with a human-like robot like Baymax – not a person in costume. Earlier this year, Disney applied for a patent to put “soft body” humanoid robots in its parks.

What does this have robot experience to do with you?

Experts in human-machine interaction have noted that even mobile robots and pick-and-place robots in warehouses can overcome reluctance among human co-workers if they have friendly designs. Naturally, robots in hospitals, retail stores, or airports can also benefit from some humanoid design.

By turning bots in customer service into characters that people can relate to, you could make “coexisting with robots” a lot easier.

Workplace as robot experience

Disney, Amazon, and Starbucks are incredibly successful firms for a lot of different reasons. But one common thread is their intense focus on delivering the best customer experience, all the time, and through every customer touch point.

Your business is no doubt also working hard in delivering a great customer experience. But why just deliver a great experience only to customers? Why not turn every workplace into a robot experience?

Disney is turning characters created with motion-capture acting and computer graphics in the movie Avatar into “living robots” that you could interact with. It looks and sounds crazy, yet it was stunning during Buehler’s presentation.

With robots, virtual reality, and augmented reality, you could make your workplace more like a theme park, where people look forward to coming each day for “gamified” tasks.

Robot company

When most people think of Disney, industrial automation does not even come to mind. Entertainment does. Even so, Disney is one of the most advanced non-robotic robotics companies.

Like General Electric, Disney’s core business is not robots. But, robotics and AI are becoming integral parts of what it does.

Disney expects tactile versions of characters that once existed only in cartoons or computer animation to shape individual customer experiences in its parks (and potentially hotels, cruise ships, and stores).

The Disney Accelerator is supporting several startups working toward a digital future, including robotics company Savioke.

Disney is also using facial recognition technology to understand how audiences react to movies. This could change how movies are made and watched in cinemas, at home, or on the go. Buehler mentioned that if self-driving cars take to the roads in the near future, the potential audience for such entertainment will grow massively.

Today, Disney is developing robots to augmenting its existing core competency – beloved characters and entertainment. Tomorrow, robots themselves could become the new core competency.

For example, the company could license you a humanoid robot like Baymax, or it might build one for you. In short, a completely new world of possibilities lies ahead for Disney.

Realizing the next machine age

The next machine age – triggered by advances in robotics and AI – is arriving. Widely different organizations are developing and using the technologies right now.

Disney’s humanoid robots, GE’s AI engine Predix, and Amazon’s Alexa are building new robot experiences, new revenue streams, and new market segments. Similar opportunities are available to you, too, even if you don’t have the scale or resources of these companies.

To innovate the future, you’ll need to combine imagination, robotics, and core business competencies, or you may not be in business at all.