Disney’s Magic Bench brings animated characters to life, no AR goggles needed

Disney has begun showcasing one potential application for augmented reality: third-person interactions with digital characters. Using an RGB camera and depth sensor, Disney Research was able to create an experience where a user who sits on the bench can see themselves sitting next to a fully animated and interactive character. With haptic actuators fitted to the bench as well, there’s even the ability to ‘feel’ those digital characters’ actions in the real world.

Augmented reality headsets like Microsoft’s Hololens show an exciting potential future for the technology, and Disney’s Magic Bench shows how this tech can be leveraged now to create unique experiences. Magic Bench offers an insight into how some relatively simple hardware and software can be used to build memorable interactions with animals, useful weather features, and a changing environment.

As well as being quite hardware light, these experiences can also be enjoyed by groups, with a number of people in each scene able to interact with the characters, what’s going on around them and most importantly see it all happening on the screen in front of them.

Set to be shown off to the public for the first time at the upcoming SIGGRAPH 2017 event on July 30 in Los Angeles, the Magic Bench uses a clever combination of its limited hardware components to construct the digital scene. The RGB camera creates a 2D rendition of the scene, which is combined with 3D information from the depth sensor. Although their perspectives are subtly different, creating what Disney calls “depth shadows,” a recreated 2D backdrop can be algorithmically lined up to create the final, complete digital scene.

The standard wooden bench is an important part of the hardware involved, too. It acts as a stage and a middle-ground between foreground and background. That way, Disney knows that a digital character passing behind the bench should pass behind the viewers and if moving in front, it should appear in front of the viewers.

As Phys highlights, it even acts as a controller, automatically activating the experience when someone sits down upon it, potentially creating a joyful surprise for anyone not expecting to see themselves interacting with digital characters on the screen in front of them.

Disney seems particularly excited by the potential of augmented reality to bring physical-world features into the digital, some of which were shown off in another video by the research division. From children’s drawings impacting digital models, to augmented reality museums, it seems safe to say that Disney is investing heavily in augmented and mixed reality research and its developments will be worth keeping an eye on in the years to come.