Some day, even stopping for a rest on a bench at Disneyland might be an attraction in itself. You could find yourself seated beside a grumpy frog or a snoring elephant, thanks to a mixed reality prototype Disney Research calls the Magic Bench. Designed to make AR experiences more of a group activity, the system allows people to interact with animated characters in 3D space, and even feel their "presence" through haptic feedback in the seat.
Virtual and augmented reality are immersive experiences, but usually only for one person in a headset. The aim of the Magic Bench project was to do away with any equipment that a participant needed to wear or hold: instead, activating the experience is as simple as walking up and taking a seat. The bench senses how many people there are and where they're all sitting, and launches different scenarios accordingly.
Users can see themselves on a video screen in front of them, joined by whatever cartoon character happens to pop in. But rather than just superimposing animations over the top of the video, the scene is captured by both an RGB camera and a depth-sensing Microsoft Kinect at the same time, with an algorithm stitching the two feeds together in real time. The room is reconstructed in three dimensions on the video screen, allowing participants to move behind and in front of the characters.
"This platform creates a multi-sensory immersive experience in which a group can interact directly with an animated character," says Moshe Mahler, principal digital artist at Disney Research. "Our mantra for this project was: hear a character coming, see them enter the space, and feel them sit next to you."
The feeling part of the equation is handled by the bench itself. Haptic systems are hidden underneath, recreating a thump as something sits down or the vibrations of a character snoring. A bench also helps set the scene naturally, framing interactions around an intuitive object – and conveniently, avoiding a few technical hurdles at the same time.
"The bench itself plays a critical role," says Mahler. "Not only does it contain haptic actuators, but it constrains several issues for us in an elegant way. We know the location and the number of participants, and can infer their gaze. It creates a stage with a foreground and a background, with the seated participants in the middle ground. It even serves as a controller; the mixed reality experience doesn't begin until someone sits down and different formations of people seated create different types of experiences."
Disney Research is presenting the Magic Bench at SIGGRAPH 2017 next week, and the team demonstrates the technology in the video below.