Disney's Wizards

WHEN WALT DISNEY GOT the idea for Disneyland in the early 1950s, he formed a new division to design and build the theme park. It is called Imagineering. Around the same time, computer-science prodigy Marvin Minsky was a world away at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., pioneering the field of artificial intelligence (AI). In a serendipitous turn that has seen technology and entertainment converge, Minsky, 69, is now part of a cadre of computer-science luminaries who have joined the Imagineers as Disney Fellows. Minsky's three co-Fellows have similarly impressive credentials: Alan Kay, 57, is a pioneer in computer interfaces; Danny Hillis, 40, is a key figure in massively parallel computing (enabling a new kind of supercomputer), and Seymour Papert, 69, is an expert in computers and education. Disney employs 2,200 Imagineers from dozens of disciplines. But the charter of these four geniuses without portfolio is to noodle in any of Disney's myriad divisions - all of which are exploring digital technology.

NEWSWEEK technology correspondent Katie Hafner recently got the Fellows together (minus Papert) for a freewheeling dialogue that ranged from virtual theme parks to the quantification of emotion to the future of education. The conversation took place at the Beverly Hills, Calif., home of Bran Ferren, the visual-effects maestro (""Altered States,'' ""Little Shop of Horrors''), whose domicile is as much of a spectacle as his work. Ferren, 43, started the Fellows program in '95. Minsky wore his trademark safari jacket, its multiple pockets bulging with various items: two small computers, enough lenses to assemble a telescope and microscope (powerful enough to detect parasites in restaurant sashimi, he explained), a hacksaw blade, a small wrench for tuning pianos, a sewing kit, a first-aid kit, hot-melt glue, a laser pointer and enough rope to tow a car. Finally, he produced a banana from that morning's breakfast. He placed the deliquescing fruit, absent-minded-professor style, on an antique side table in Ferren's living room, amid a careful arrangement of Alaskan carvings, geology samples and a Tiffany lamp.

A few minutes into the interview, Nathan Myhrvold, a close friend of Ferren's, dropped in. As Bill Gates's chief technology officer, Myhrvold, 37, is Ferren's rough equivalent at Microsoft. His presence inspired the occasional good-natured swipe at the Redmond, Wash., giant. It also underscored a little-recognized fact: Disney is becoming a player along with Microsoft in the research-and-development arena at a time when corporate research is more important than ever.

Hafner: How did you come to work at Disney?

Ferren: I was ready for the next step in my life. [Disney CEO] Michael Eisner said, ""At Disney we can give you a bigger sandbox,'' and it occurred to me that there were an awful lot of things in this world that I really cared about, whether it was filmmaking or education or new definitions of community or the Internet, which was just starting to happen five years ago.

Disney is a remarkable company. It has a brand and a relationship with families unlike any other company, and I thought, wouldn't it be interesting if you could take the things that interested me and apply it to a company like that and still have some fun and cause some trouble - in the good sense of the word.

I started in this role called executive vice president of creative technology, and now I can honestly say that Disney has the highest concentration of talented people I've ever seen in one company.

Minsky: Except when Thomas Jefferson sat down to eat by himself.

Ferren: After being here for a while I decided we needed to build the best R&D department in the world, with one primary concentration, and that was storytelling.

Hillis: I've always been interested in toys. I put myself through school working as a toy designer for Milton Bradley. When it came time to write my Ph.D. thesis on parallel computing I needed to get away to get some writing done. So I got on the first plane out of Boston, and it happened to land in Orlando [Fla.]. I thought, ""Oh, this is great, I'll go write my thesis at Disney World,'' and I checked into the Contemporary Resort Hotel and sat - there's a little area in front of the castle - and I wrote. And during that time, I got to watch all sorts of things. I realized that the place is better than it needs to be, and I fell in love with the place. A few years later I met Bran, and when he ended up at Disney in 1992, he'd occasionally call up, and we'd consult on some project. I had a lot of fun, and at some point he said, ""Would you be interested in working here?'' and I said, ""Well, there's really no job at Disney for me,'' and he said, ""Well, I'm inventing one.''

Ferren: It took about a year and a half to pull it together. Understand that for an entertainment company, it's a major leap to do a program like this. So it took a little bit of convincing, but Michael [Eisner] was a strong supporter instantly, from day one.

Minsky: One culture shock was when I was trying to explain something to someone and couldn't tell whether anyone was getting it, including myself. There was a break, and I walked around and saw on the table something that was like the cels of an animated cartoon. This perfect Disney animation. This guy had in fact got it and drawn it. I'm used to people who take notes, but he had drawn an embodiment of it.

[Another visitor arrives.] This is Nathan Myhrvold, who's not in fact a Disney Fellow.

Myhrvold: [Laughs.] No, just a regular kind of guy.

Hillis: A lot of the attraction to me is that it's clear that Disney knows a lot about a lot of things I don't know anything about. For example, I could sense there was something special about the theme park, but what is it? What are the principles in designing a theme park that somehow make it work for people? Why is it that people want to go back to theme parks over and over again? Why is it that they want to bring their children? Because people at Disney know how to do a certain set of things. They know how to communicate a set of ideas and, understanding how that works, what is the magic in our animated films, understanding the techniques people use to tell you a story, to bring you through a set of emotions.

Ferren: I think we're at a critical time for technology and storytelling to come together, because computer technology is actually getting good enough to use for the first time. Storytelling is something else that brought us together. I don't think this will be remembered as the Information Age. I think it will be remembered as the storytelling age, when storytelling came of age. It's the world's oldest profession, contrary to what you might have heard . . .

Hafner: Where were we?

Ferren: It will be an interesting time for storytelling, because the technology of computers and the Internet is finally getting good enough to tell stories with. Alan has a nice phrase: ""The computer revolution hasn't started yet,'' and I think it's absolutely true. The real revolution of how this stuff is going to affect people's lives hasn't started yet.

Hillis: So far we have used computers to do things we used to do before, like text editing. Where we used it to replace a typewriter, a telephone, a letter. We're just beginning to change the kinds of things we do because of computers. So the real revolution will be much more interesting. It's going to be a mass market; it's going to be a lot about entertainment; it's going to be a lot about education; it's going to be a lot about kids, because kids are the only ones flexible enough to understand this whole new medium. And for them, it's not even a force of change; it's a part of their world, like cars.

Ferren: I was unfortunately quoted the other day as pointing out that to kids now, the computer is like the toilet, something they're trained to use, then they don't think much about it. It just becomes part of their lives.

Myhrvold: [Laughing.] That's why there's only crap on the Internet.

Minsky: I think entertainment will become more and more important. I think the most amazing sight in the world is 10,000 people watching other people in a stadium kicking a ball around. Apparently people are desperate enough, even though a person has 50 trillion synapses in his or her head, to figure out what to do with these synapses that they will watch a football game or baseball game or sitcom. So we're trying to understand what's going on here, why do people do the things they do, why do they like entertainment; it's very important to understand why people do what they do.

Hafner: What do you think of Disney World? Have you gone on any rides?

Minsky: Oh, sure. Of course, now we can go on them without waiting in line!

I was impressed by it. I don't like the real world much, even though I have fun in it. The world is full of things that break and are unsatisfactory, and they wear out and get dirty and stuff like that, and in some sense that might happen at Disney. One day fairly recently I noticed that a lot of people were taking a shortcut through the Magic Kingdom, and I asked the gardener, ""How come the grass stands up so well? Is it a special kind of grass?'' He looked at me as though I were a complete idiot and said, ""Don't you know we put new grass in every day?''

Ferren: The lawns go back to rest and grow again, and new ones get put down.

Myhrvold: [Laughing.] Watch out. If someone at this table starts faltering, someone will rush in with a replacement.

Minsky: I was impressed not so much by Disney World, which is a huge, wonderful structure, but by Disneyland, where you see that these people have figured out how to make in a rather small space all of these places we'd like to be - and they work. They've figured out how to make just what you want. There's a principle, don't give any more detail than you would want, just enough detail to make it perfect. And have people come in at night and fix it. In the virtual world of the future, there won't be anything real, and you won't have to clean it up. One thing I like about a computer is I can make a set of Lego blocks and never run out of them.

Hafner: Alan, it's your turn. You've been very patient through this.

Kay: I've been sick. Being sick does wonders for your patience. I've had this terrible thing in my ears. Like Marvin, I'm a musician, and all week everything has sounded slightly sharp . . .

Ferren: You should go see Alan's organ, if you'll excuse the expression.

Minsky: What?

Ferren: Alan's organ. He has one of the great private organs.

Myhrvold: I've seen his organ. And it's big. The biggest one I've ever seen, bar none.

Hafner: Now back to how Alan got to Disney.

Kay: In 1968, when I was a graduate student at the University of Utah, I went to hear Marvin give a talk; it was a Turing Lecture. It was his standard rant, really great.

Hafner: Alan, what about the thinking you've done in education? Could we consider movies an example of a parallel learning system? One example of that would be Spielberg's ""Jurassic Park,'' where kids learn a lot more about dinosaurs than they would in school.

Kay: One thing you're missing there is to ask whether they learn enough in either place. I would say that kids aren't learning enough about dinosaurs from schools or from the movie ""Jurassic Park.'' They're learning to recognize them, but they're not learning anything critical about them, from either place.

Minsky: Alan is starting to make environments where a child can try to make a dinosaur, using computers, where you can actually take your ideas about a dinosaur and predict anything about it.

Hillis: Look at how much kids learn about the world they're in. For instance, they learn how to speak a language if they're in a world that speaks that language. Compare that to learning a language in school. There's no comparison. The reason we put them in schools is because their world doesn't cause them to run into and play with all the kinds of things they should know in life. They don't play with mathematics like they play with cars. They don't run into history like they run into the rules of the game of marbles. With the computer we have a chance to create a world for them that's rich in all these other ways, too, where they learn all the stuff we tried to teach them in school, but in a way much more like kids learn language and the rules of marbles, by engaging and playing.

Hafner: What about a movie like ""Pocahontas.'' Doesn't it do a disservice to education by distorting history?

Hillis: If someone tells me a scientific fact, and I get it wrong and repeat it incorrectly, I've corrupted it. But with a myth, if I repeat it differently, I've just added to the myth. At this point, Pocahontas is myth. There was probably some historical truth, but at this point, the interesting thing is the myth. The myth is worth more than the history.

Hafner: I've heard Bran say before that he thinks technology should be invisible.

Hillis: Good technology ceases to become technology. You don't think of a pencil as technology, because it just does what it's supposed to do. You don't think of a book as technology, because it's been refined enough that it becomes invisible. You probably don't think of the telephone much. You still think about computers a lot, because they're so bad.

Minsky: I have a slogan: when you confront something new you should try to understand it.

Kay: I'll give you a slogan: technology is all that stuff that wasn't around when we were born, because the stuff that was around when you were born was just part of the landscape. Like the pencil.

Ferren: I think of technology as just being one of the byproducts of human imagination.

Hillis: I think technology is all the stuff that doesn't work yet.

Kay: I think it's all the stuff people haven't gotten used to. At a lecture there was an anti-technologist up on the stage, and I said, ""Let me come up on the stage and relieve you of all the technology you have on you,'' and I took off his watch and started taking off his clothes, and at some point this guy realized he was surrounded by technology.

Ferren: There's this fashionable backlash against technology that suggests somehow or other it's anti-humanistic, or anti-esthetic or something else, so people like us spend a lot of our time dealing with that backlash. There's a thought that if you are interested in technology or literate in technology, in some sense you must be esthetically insensitive, incapable of understanding art and design.

Hillis: That you don't care about people.

Hafner: Danny, you said something intriguing in an article recently, about the idea of quantifying emotions.

Hillis: Marvin and I actually disagree a bit on this. I think it might actually be something very simple like color theory, because there was a time when color was kind of magic, in the way that emotions are kind of magic now. Color still isn't completely understood. No one can answer even the simplest question of how many emotions there are.

Ferren: One of the problems is that we don't even have a good semantic structure to discuss emotions. When I'm talking to someone who's blind to the color red and ask, ""Why is this emotionally meaningful?'' and they say, ""What do you mean emotionally meaningful? It's gray.'' And you say, ""It's like blood,'' and they say, ""Yeah, gray like blood.'' And you don't even have a good starting point to have a discussion.

Hafner: Do you all get together a lot?

Ferren: We have meetings every couple of weeks.

Hafner: Can you give me an idea in a broad sense of the projects you're working on right now?

Ferren: Projects that are specifically focused on the needs of the different business units, such as what are we going to do that differentiates Disney's presence on the Internet. That's one area. And as television networks such as ABC go digital, what are the implications of that, and how can one use that as a more creative and more strategic focus?

Ferren: What's the future of theme parks? What does that mean, what is the interplay between virtual worlds that are built out of bytes, and virtual worlds that are built out of plaster and mortar, because Disney has been building virtual worlds for 43 years. They've just used a higher-resolution medium called concrete, paint and plaster, which has a lot more information-storage ability than digital does. So now as we have an inferior medium that's arrived we're trying to figure out how to deal with it. It has some attributes that make it desirable, others that make it less so.

For instance, what comes after television? We traditionally as humans have been terrible at being experts in a given field and predicting the field that's going to replace it, enhance it or complement it, for the same reason that people in radio didn't anticipate television and people in theaters didn't anticipate motion pictures and people in the motion-picture business didn't think videotape was a good thing, they thought it was going to put them out of business, and network executives didn't think that cable television would have significant impact on their business, that it was just a way to get signals to fringe areas. We've always been terrible at it, so what we try to do is focus on what's next, what are the possibilities and what do we have to do to be prepared to sing that song, how do we develop the skills to make a future?