Ivan Poupyrev's Virtual Reality at Disney

Unlocking the Door to the Magic Kingdom
Photograph by Ross Mantle for Bloomberg Businessweek

Ivan Poupyrev is a touchy-feely kind of guy—in a technical sense. The 42-year-old senior research scientist at Disney Research in Pittsburgh has created an orchid that emits sounds when its stem is stroked and a knob that unlocks a door when it’s touched a certain way. The technology that Poupyrev and his six-person team are developing could one day be deployed just about anywhere Disney has a presence—from movie theaters to amusement parks to cruise ships.

Botanicus Interacticus
Courtesy Disney Research

Poupyrev’s latest invention, called Touché, is a sensor the size of an iPod nano that beams electrical signals to an object such as a doorknob. The gadget, and its software, can measure changes in the signal when the knob is tapped with one finger, then grasped, then tapped again. The knob then responds by unlocking the door. “It lets you add interactivity to anything there is,” Poupyrev explains. Hiroshi Ishii, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says Touché “pushes the envelope.”

The son of a Russian mathematician, Poupyrev enrolled at the Moscow Aviation Institute to study applied math—a subject he initially found so boring that he almost flunked out of school. He found salvation at the university’s computer lab, where between the hours of 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. he and other students had free use of the two PCs. He graduated in 1992 with a master’s degree in applied mathematics and computer science.

When funding for scientific research dried up following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poupyrev decided to try his luck abroad. “In 1994 I bought a really crappy suitcase, said goodbye to my parents, and took off,” he says. For two and a half years Poupyrev shuttled between Hiroshima University and the University of Washington, eventually completing a Ph.D. thesis on three-dimensional user interfaces for virtual- and augmented-reality applications. Then came an eight-year stint at Sony in Japan, where Poupyrev’s work on tactile feedback technology was showcased in products such as the PlayStation Vita, a gaming console with a rear panel that responds to touch.

At Disney, which he joined in 2009, Poupyrev has also been working on technology that turns smooth surfaces into textures. A small device placed in a shirt pocket or in the heel of a shoe emits a weak electrical signal that travels through the body. When the wearer touches an image of a ball that has been projected onto a wall, it feels rubbery. Similarly, a picture of a mountain feels like it has ridges. “We can easily add tactile feedback to any wall and public spaces,” Poupyrev says.

Poupyrev, who has 11 patents to his name, is coy about how his inventions will be showcased. Disney classics such as Beauty and the Beast feature dancing brooms and furniture that talks, he notes. “If we can bring this all to life and make it really happen as it happens in Disney films, wouldn’t that be a wonderful experience for our guests?”

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