When Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion welcomed a new set of “livelier” hitchhiking ghosts in April of 2011, guests were blown away by the technology behind the new happy haunts. New digital technology allowed the ghosts to do far more than ride along with guests. Instead, the new ghostly trio could interact with their doombuggy-traveling guests.
For those experiencing the new effect, the difference between old ghosts and new was breathtaking. With typical attention to detail, Imagineers and animators had created characters that moved in a dynamic, believable way that encouraged guests to forget that they were effects. Even though the mischievous spirits are only visible for a few moments, their vibrant actions easily made guests view them as “characters.”
Beyond the digital animation, however, lay a spectacular use of technology to personalize riders’ experiences and engage them in the attraction – a new motion capture technology. That new technology opened a rich variety of options for personalizing rides and upgrading or “plussing” attractions.
The idea of using technology to make a ride more dynamic and easily upgraded is already a part of the Disney arsenal. Toy Story Mania at Disney Hollywood Studios, an interactive attraction relying on computer programming and animation, was able to switch out its “games” overnight or add holiday inspired elements. That kind of technological flexibility helps to keep rides interesting for repeat riders, and allows imagineers to easily improve or vary guest experience.
But the potential at the Haunted Mansion is even greater.
Behind the new Hitchhiking Ghosts lies a spectacular form of motion tracking that allows a computer to identify and track elements of a guest – like their eyes, height, mouth, or hand. In the past, such technology, frequently used for the creation of special effects, required elaborate scans and careful marking of the points to be tracked on a subject’s face. The motion sensors behind the ghosts are perhaps less precise than what would be required for a cinematic motion capture, but they provide breathtaking potential.
Right now, the spectral trio can detect the number of guests in a car, varying the animation based on the number of occupants. Ghostly gags also rely on guests’ height and location in the car, targeting their heads for a variety of effects. Guests are delighted, usually agreeing that the mirrors at the end of the ride go by far too quickly to fully enjoy the effects.
According to imagineers, however, the technology is capable of even more. Tests have demonstrated that the motion capture can detect shapes and details well enough to even allow interaction between animated characters and guests in a reflective surface. For example, one reported test allowed an animated Tinkerbell to visually place Mickey ears on a guest’s head…or remove them.
With that kind of technology, only time will tell what new tricks the Hitchhiking ghosts may have hiding in the ectoplasm. Imagineers could add even more effects to the final sequence of the attraction, perhaps targeting the children in the car for special fun, or even picking out guests with certain characteristics.
Furthermore, the success of the new ghosts may open the doors for the use of technology in other attractions. With the proven success of interaction between a live guest reflection and an animated character, a whole new world of personalized experiences formerly only possible in film and fantasy have opened up. Keep your eye out as Disney expands on Fantasyland and Fantasy Faire – who knows what we’ll see!