I Played With Disney's Magic HoloTile Floors and AI-Boosted Droids

Inside the Imagineering Lab: A rare look behind the curtain brought me up close with tech that can change the future of VR and entertainment.

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Bridget Carey
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Disney's HoloTile floor has the potential to change the future of immersive VR -- and other theme park magic.


Standing in a dimly lit Disney Imagineering Research and Development lab, I'm getting a firsthand demonstration of a new invention -- a "magic" floor -- that gives me Jedi powers. I push my hand out, and a box in the distance moves at my will. 

Just moments before this clever telekinesis trick, I watched how this floor also works as an omni-directional treadmill. It has the potential to change the future of virtual reality by allowing a person to walk forever, in any direction, while staying in the same place. Is this how the Star Trek Holodeck is born?

Watch this: I Touched Disney's HoloTile Floor: Behind the Scenes at Imagineering

Disney's team calls this the HoloTile floor. It's a modular system of spinning and tilting floor discs, aided by lidar cameras and sensors that can glide anything or anyone across its surface. I briefly got to touch the surface and use a game controller to manipulate it, trying my best to figure out how the illusion was pulled off -- and what it could be used for. 

It's Tuesday afternoon and I'm deep inside Disney's Imagineering Campus in Glendale, California, on a tour with no video recordings permitted. I'm catching a glimpse at the future of theme parks: new audio animatronics, some untethered and adjusting to environments in real time.

Disney is on a mission to redefine entertainment with new technology. Disney Plus was one of the first apps on Apple's Vision Pro headset, with the tech company leaning on the entertainment behemoth to provide its own immersive environments as doorways into a theme park at home. 

And now Disney's CEO, Bob Iger, has promised to invest $60 billion into its actual physical parks over the next decade. The company has recently talked about expansion plans for the Magic Kingdom in Florida. In an annual shareholders meeting Wednesday, Iger teased a new "Avatar"-themed land possibly going into Disneyland in California. 

And the pressure is on. Over in Florida, neighboring rival Universal Studios is building a fourth complex, a $1 billion park called Epic Universe to be built in 2025. Packed with five immersive lands and an on-site hotel, it's sure to pull some attention away from the mouse. 


Disney CEO Bob Iger and Parks Chairman Josh D'Amaro speak with press Tuesday on an tour of the Imagineering campus in Glendale, California.


Before the tour began, Iger spoke to a small group of reporters to stress how the Imagineering campus and its tech research and development teams, stationed a 35-minute drive away from Disneyland, are at the center of the company's park expansion goals.

"It's artists constantly turning to the technology side, saying, 'give me the technology solutions to tell this great story,'" Iger said. 

A Holodeck floor and a lot more

The HoloTile floor, announced in January with a video on the Disney Parks YouTube channel, became a viral sensation overnight -- and teams are now playing with possible uses. Invented by legendary Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot, the HoloTile floor is a system of modular, tilting floor discs. They can fit in any pattern you want, and be laid out in any size floor space you need.


Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot standing on his latest work, the HoloTile floor.


The floor demonstrated for us had 19 HoloTile sections, the same layout seen in Disney's demo videos. Each tile is made up of several round discs with raised outer lips, like pieces from a checkers set or little wheels.

Surrounding the high-tech tiles are lidar sensors -- depth sensors similar to what's found inside an iPhone Pro -- which detect movement around the perimeter. When they do, the discs kick into action, rotating and spinning while also tilting, gliding whatever's on them back where it's programmed to belong. It's like a bunch of small circular treadmills, working together to move something.

It's also possible to control and move an object at a distance. I used a game controller and moved a Luke Skywalker figurine around a sample tile, just by moving the directional sticks.

Then I tried interacting with a special sensor and camera installed above, which took the illusion up a notch by using hand tracking. It gave me the feeling I had the power of telekinesis. If I moved my hand right, a box on the HoloTile moved right. Push it away, and it moved back.


Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot demonstrates how his chair glides across the HoloTile floor -- controlled by a colleague pretending to use The Force with hand-tracking sensors.   


Smoot admits there's no clear definite application for HoloTiles yet, but like many Imagineering projects, it could end up being applied in all sorts of unexpected ways. Smoot demonstrated that multiple people can be on it and not run into each other. That opens up possibilities for new games or stage performances. Smoot said dance choreographers are currently testing possible routines. The ability to move people or objects like magic chess pieces could also be used for new attractions and rides. 

HoloTiles could be an omnidirectional treadmill for VR. Smoot, who developed the patent, strolled on the HoloTile surface for us while wearing a Meta Quest headset, walking through a virtual version of Disneyland. But this was one application I imagine could be used outside of theme parks to enhance VR anywhere. It's like the Ready Player One omnidirectional treadmill, but in real life.

There's no word on when HoloTiles might show up in Disney's parks. It might be years before anyone ever gets to see it in action. But there are robotic advancements I did see that are right around the corner, and even in the parks right now.

Robots cut their strings

Disney is testing little waddling robots that wander through Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in Disneyland from time to time. These adorable BD-X droids, running Nvidia chipsets that Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang showed off at his recent keynote for the company's GTC AI conference, have some environmental self-awareness for navigation, and can adapt to complicated terrain. 

The droids were trained to be animated and adapt to different floors, be it grass or textured concrete, using a form of artificial intelligence called reinforced learning. The droids quickly problem solve all kinds of walking scenarios in a simulation instead of the real world.

Disney "drives" these robots with a handler who controls them in-park using a Valve Steam Deck decorated to look like a piece of Star Wars equipment, so they aren't autonomous. But, they do have awareness of the world, able to adjust to unexpected obstacles and slippery floors. 


BD-X droids will be making appearances at Disneyland in the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land from April 5 until June 2.


Most of Disney's robots perform in controlled environments. But this programming paves the way to have robots interact with an unpredictable guest. This is a sign of where Disney's animatronics robots are headed: totally mobile and surprisingly fluid.

New characters are almost there

I also got to see the new audio-animatronic robotic figures from Tiana's Bayou Adventure, an upcoming redesigned ride replacing Splash Mountain and based on The Princess and the Frog. The company is still working on these characters, which are coming later this year. A few still had their machinery guts exposed. But it's clear from the expression, detail and movement in a life-size character that what was once just a 2D drawing: We're worlds apart from Walt Disney's original talking Tiki birds.


Imagineers test one of the Mama Odie audio-animatronics coming to Tiana's Bayou Adventure ride this year.


"The thing about audio-animatronics is that for so long, they've been bolted to the ground," said Executive R&D Imagineer Josh Gorin. "But now we're with these new technologies and these emerging tools, were able to take them off the floor and flip them through the air, have them run jump hop, do impossible things you couldn't imagine."

At Disney California Adventure Park, a Spider-Man robot is launched into the air daily in a stunt show. Imagineers have tested how to make robots relatable by rollerblading. And a single robot can be the center of an act, like a demonstration I saw of Duke Weaselton, a lanky weasel robot that pushes a cart around like a living cartoon. He then pulls himself on top of the cart to do an animated routine. 


The Duke Weaselton robot uses electromagnet tech in its shoes keep it facing in the right direction when lifting itself on the countertop.


Most of Disney's robots usually perform in controlled environments, but that's changing. Like the BD-X droids that can march around on the ground or up hills, these new free-roaming robots may redefine what park design looks like. Or, maybe, even break free of parks altogether.

It's hard to process what all these Disney inventions mean, as I exit back into Glendale in everyday Los Angeles, no longer behind the guarded walls where magic is made.

But Disney's Imagineers admit the challenge of surprising people keeps growing when the bar of compelling immersive experiences outside of the parks keeps rising. 

"What we know is that the more people can do amazing things at home, that just pushes us to up our game in the parks to make a trip to the park that much more magical and special," said Gorin.

What Disney, and other competing parks like Universal Studios, still have are vast physical spaces that they control. Theme parks are safe zones to test new technologies in ways that the regular, chaotic world can't always do. Today, it's free roaming robots and personal holodecks. What will it be next?

CNET's Scott Stein contributed to this report.