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Visit the Disney StudioLab and Step Inside Tomorrowland

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Inside the oldest building on The Walt Disney Studios lot, something amazingly new is being created. The Animation Building and its walls are filled with company history. Walking through its center hallway is like visiting a Disney museum: It’s covered with original art from such classics as Lady and the Tramp, Bambi, and Aladdin. The building dates from 1940, and the third floor still contains Walt’s original office, preserved just the way he left it.

But the Animation Building is also the lot’s most forward-thinking building, since it houses The Walt Disney Studios StudioLab, established in summer 2018. Imagine Pee-wee’s Playhouse created for and by colorful techies. Imagine Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for movie enthusiasts. That’s StudioLab. It’s inventive, creative, and high-tech. It’s where Disney is shaping the future of moviemaking and movie watching.

Be Our Guest

The ringleader of this circus is Benjamin Havey, VP of The Walt Disney Studios’ technology innovation group and an Emmy Award winner with a 20-year history at top consumer tech and media brands. It’s his job to make sure StudioLab fulfills its goals of providing cutting-edge solutions for the company’s creative pros.

As Havey explains it, Disney has filmmakers working all over the world shooting the company’s next releases. StudioLab is tasked with identifying, developing, and delivering the best technology to help them extend their reach. That could mean AI tools that result in better animation, real-time graphics tools that give them instant feedback on their work, or augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) headsets that help them visualize a scene.

Havey guides StudioLab with the help of a board of advisors that includes higher-ups from each of the company’s production entities. They provide regular input on what’s needed, and Havey and his team create solutions in a hurry.

Disney isn’t doing all this itself. It’s a creative giant, but it prefers to leave the tech creation to its StudioLab partners. Accenture Interactive, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Cisco are all co-founders of StudioLab. They provide some financial support, as well as the tech. Most importantly, Havey says, they provide people who can build new things together.

A good place to start the tour is in StudioLab’s conference room. Here, Disney and Cisco are collaborating on a video communication tool for remote film productions. Called the Cisco Webex Board, it’s a large high-resolution screen that works as a whiteboard or a video calling system. Installation is simple, as a power cable and a network cable are all it needs. It’s the latest iteration of the Cisco Spark Board.

In StudioLab’s conference room, Disney and Cisco are collaborating on a video communication tool for remote film productions. Called the Cisco Webex Board, it’s a large high-resolution screen that works as a whiteboard or a video calling system. Installation is simple, as a power cable and a network cable are all it needs.

Cisco is more at home in corporate offices than film sets, so by working with Disney, it gets an understanding of what film creatives need, and it gains access to a valuable new market. The Webex Board offers a whiteboard that can save notes automatically and share them with everyone in the meeting. It can display production stills so groups in different locations can see a snapshot of a scene and highlight areas that need to be changed or modified. Play a video, and everyone in the meeting will see it at the same time, no matter their location. While the board provides a big beautiful screen for viewing, people can join a meeting from their phone or tablet, as Cisco makes clients for all devices. If people are stuck in their hotel room and can’t make it to the film studio for a meeting, they can still log in. They’ll see a lower-resolution image, but they’ll get the same experience.

By creating an easy conferencing solution with the Webex Board, StudioLab saves loads in travel costs, but it also provides face-to-face conferencing that feels as good as being there.

“Not only do we want to get people time, we also want to relieve some of the creative anxiety, right?” Havey says. “These guys have to hold so much in their heads in terms of where things are, and anything we can do to make that process more efficient is a good thing.”

Cisco heard about StudioLab while the division was still forming and decided this was something it wanted to be in on. The Disney account team at Cisco mentioned that a new group was coming together, which led to executive phone calls and exploring ideas. Cisco already had a team of about 150 people whose job it was to incubate new technologies, but it welcomed the chance to join Disney’s tech lab and see what they could develop together.

Cisco had already been trying to break into media and entertainment and had a broad portfolio of products it thought was suited to the industry. But working with StudioLab provided an understanding of the unique problems filmmakers need to have solved. While Cisco’s videoconferencing systems were great for boardrooms, filmmakers require collaboration tools that can work in remote locations using mobile phones and unreliable networks. Cisco is learning how to apply its technology to those use cases.

Since Cisco is based in San Jose, Calif., too far for an easy drive to Disney’s Burbank, Calif., lot, the two teams use Cisco’s conferencing tools for their meetings on how to improve these tools. Havey’s team came up with a list of a half-dozen use cases for Cisco to solve. When the Cisco team has a question, its members don’t wait for a scheduled meeting; they just call the Webex Board and communicate face to face.

Surprisingly, Disney isn’t using StudioLab to create exclusive technology. It isn’t even looking for a limited-time exclusive. These products do the most good when everyone has access to them, explains Mike O’Gorman, a distinguished engineer in the chief technology and architecture office at Cisco and one of the lead engineers working closely with Disney at StudioLab.

“I think the intent is that Disney doesn’t necessarily want a Disney-only solution,” O’Gorman says. “What they’re looking for is to influence our product roadmaps. And so giving them access to the R&D of some of our collaboration products, for example, and to actually have a say in where those products are going is exciting for Disney because they get to actually shape some of those. They want to be able to buy off-the-shelf products, not have one-off solutions. So I don’t think there’s any exclusivity in the agreement.”

For Cisco, every problem doesn’t lead to a new product. As Havey introduces O’Gorman and his team to different people within Disney, they hear about a range of difficulties and pain points. Sometimes, the solution is simple: just introducing them to existing products they didn’t know about. Not everyone keeps up with the latest technology.

For more involved problems, O’Gorman and his team listen and plan. They do their fact-finding on what the issue is, then brainstorm a proposal for a trajectory that will take the filmmakers from where they are to where Cisco thinks the future is heading. One idea that came up over and over in interviews is that the most important thing StudioLab can give these filmmakers is time.

“If you can take something that’s a very manual process today, if you can show how that can be automated where it’s at the push of a button instead of two days to set something up, and in five or ten minutes the whole thing comes up and can be torn down again, that’s extremely attractive for people that spend all this time doing this stuff manually,” O’Gorman says. “It also frees them up to start looking at other things. A lot of it is about listening and understanding, because from a technology perspective we don’t really have a good understanding of what the moviemaking process is and what the challenges are. And obviously those guys don’t have a full understanding of what the technology is capable of.”

A Whole New World

For the most colorful creations, step into StudioLab’s tools and tech space, a workshop used for testing and building. StudioLab finds its technology in three different ways. Some of it is on the market already. In that case, Disney creates a partnership with the company behind it, ensures it has the right security in place, and typically adds a software application on top to give it that Disney feel. Second, it develops products on its own, and third and most important, it partners with companies like Cisco to create something new. Given the choice, Disney would rather its partners create the tech. Then, Disney doesn’t have to maintain it, and the product is always on the market.

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