Disney's Mickey Mensa Club

Major intellects are imagining future magic for the Kingdom

It's nearly 7 p.m. on Friday. But Bran Ferren, Walt Disney genius-in-residence, is wandering the halls of a nondescript building in Glendale, Calif. He isn't eager to unwind for the weekend. He's still savoring the visions that crystallized during the day. "What we are really doing here," he says, "is finding new ways to do a very old thing--and that's to tell a story."

Disney has been honing its storytelling art for decades. The company virtually invented the recipe for entertainment that delights both the young and the young at heart. Now, the challenge is to find ways to apply that formula to tomorrow's high-tech entertainment--and keep the profits rolling in. That's the job of Disney Imagineering, where Ferren is president of research and development.

Started by Walt back in 1952 to help design Disneyland, Imagineering today is a 2,200-person think tank serving Disney's six divisions. It still conceives new theme parks, with plans in the works for Asia and Europe. But for Ferren, sporting his trademark safari jacket, khakis, and New Balance sneakers, this was a day for hatching future cyberland fantasies. The details are closely guarded secrets for now, but Ferren hints at virtual-reality theme-park rides so realistic that even jaded adults will be captivated by make-believe worlds. For kids, there will be Web sites where wishes get magically transformed into virtual pets and toys. And the couch-potato life will become more indolent than ever, with smart TV sets that learn your viewing preferences and automatically record programs you forget to watch.

BIG SANDBOX. For the Imagineers, working on such notions is like a second childhood. This R&D isn't toil, says Ferren--it's playing in the sandbox. A big sandbox. Ferren oversees 120 people who are paid to pursue their sense of childish glee, including two superstar Disney Fellows. The first arrived in 1996: W. Daniel Hillis. Now 42, he founded Thinking Machines Corp., a spin-off from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he is famous in Boston for driving a miniature fire truck to work each morning. He put himself through MIT designing toys for Milton Bradley. These days, Hillis is working on a life-size dinosaur robot that may soon tromp around Disney's new Animal Kingdom park.

Fellow No. 2 signed on in 1996. Alan C. Kay, a Silicon Valley pioneer and former senior fellow at Apple Computer Inc., also indulges in serious whimsy. At 4 a.m., this onetime professional musician often plays a big pipe organ in a soundproof room at his Brentwood (Calif.) home. Now 58, Kay was a founder of Xerox Corp.'s legendary Palo Alto Research Center. He was working on notebook computers before most folks ever dreamed of owning one--starting three decades ago. In the early '70s, he developed the first computer language based on "object-oriented" technology, which greatly simplifies a programmer's job by encapsulating related instructions in reusable software objects.

Today, Kay is shooting for another software breakthrough with Squeak, a computer language designed specifically for lickety-split multimedia applications. Squeak will power Disney's vast Web sites--especially its educational sites, where programs rich in images and sounds will help children learn. "Disney is a great place to try out new ideas because they know so much about kids, and they have the size and resources to put your ideas into practice," says Kay.

Disney pays well for talent. Insiders say the fellows got five-year contracts at roughly $200,000 annually, plus stock options. And when thinkers can't be enticed to join Disney full-time, Ferren snags them as consulting fellows. So far, there are two--both MIT professors: Seymour A. Papert, a fervent proponent of using computers to spur learning, and Marvin L. Minsky, one of the brains behind artificial intelligence.

SMALL CHANGE. Why so much emphasis on intellectual muscle? Even before it became a $23 billion conglomerate, Disney invested freely in new forms of entertainment. But now, it faces stiffer competition not only from traditional rival media giants but also from newcomers such as AT&T and Yahoo! Inc. So Disney is hiring "the guys who can think better than their competition," says William Joy, co-founder and chief scientist at Sun Microsystems Inc.

If that means pampering a chosen few, Disney can afford it, says Paul Saffo, director of technology consultant Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. "Whatever they're paying has to be a rounding error for a company the size of Disney," he notes. Saffo figures Disney's R&D splurge has already increased its lead over such adversaries as Time Warner Inc.

Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin isn't worried, though. He barely suppresses a snicker when asked about the gray-matter buildup. "It's a Disney thing," says the former technologist.

Disney hopes to open Levin's eyes this spring. That's when its new wizards are scheduled to unveil E-toys--educational toys that let kids log on to a Disney Web site and learn how things work by building simulations they can download and play with on their own PCs. Aspiring engineers will be able to design a car--and a challenging mountain road to test their driving skills. The behind-the-screens software that will provides this high level of interactivity was developed by Alan Kay's group.

Danny Hillis' expertise in parallel processing had its first trial last month. Football fans who watched the Jan. 4 Fiesta Bowl on Disney's ABC-TV network were offered related play-by-play facts and video clips on ESPN's Internet site, espn.com. Hillis was called in to help synchronize the media streams. When game time rolled around, the technology worked--but espn.com didn't have the bandwidth to cope with the huge demand. By the second quarter, ABC ordered its announcers to stop promoting the service. Ferren says the technology is also proving valuable for the Telefusion Lab, a mockup of a futuristic living room where ABC researchers plumb the implications of the convergence of TV and computers.

For theme parks, the next phase of virtual reality is taking its cue from Eric C. Haseltine, who joined Disney in 1992 after 13 years at Hughes Aircraft Co. There, he was recognized as a leading expert on flight simulators. Now, he's the guiding light for the Cave, a VR environment where visitors will be engulfed by images and sensations from the Wild West, outer space, or any place that can be modeled on a computer.

Ferren, 46, attended MIT for scarcely a month before finding it too boring to continue. So he founded Associates & Ferren, an East Hampton (N.Y.) company that developed novel special-effects technology for moviemakers. His innovations earned an Academy Award in 1992 for technical achievement. That prompted Disney to buy the company in 1993, he says, "with the proverbial offer you can't refuse." Ferren's pet project is a method to deliver movies digitally to theaters and TV stations, which could save Disney tens of millions annually in duplication and distribution costs. Hollywood studios and TV networks are itching to toss out the steel cans now used to distribute movies.

Finally ready to relax, Ferren leans back behind a desk cluttered with metal boxes and wire cutters. If you survey the history of entertainment, he muses, "there has always been a long time between killer applications," from radio to TV, and then on to video games. Given the quickening pace of innovation, the next "killer app" is now due. What will it be? "We think we know, or at least I hope we know," he says. Then he clams up and heads back down the hall.

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