Emoting robots, eerily realistic eyeballs, life-saving wristbands... Eight great leaps forward from the labs of Disney. By Nisha Lilia Diu

When Disneyland opened in July 1955, Walt declared the California theme park would never be finished: "It will grow as long as there is imagination left in the world."

Disney was obsessed with innovation. In fact, the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy, was inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s record-breaking solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927.

A special section of the park was built to showcase Disney’s utopian vision of the future: Tomorrowland.  It has now inspired a film of the same name, featuring many of the magical gadgets and miraculous journeys Disney dreamed of.

But Disney did more than dream. Most of us know Walt released the first full-colour film (1932’s Flowers and Trees), that he was the first person to mix animation with live action, and that he pioneered feature-length cartoons.

Walt's appliance of science: a still from Tomorrowland Credit: 2015 Walt Disney Pictures

But the company has also developed technology that can create a robotic clone of your face. It has pioneered “drive-thru” medicine and brought new meaning to the notion of “talking to your plants”.

Since 1952, when Disney founded the Imagineering department, with instructions to “make the magic”, it’s been granted over 115 patents in special effects, interactive technology and fibre optics, among other things.

Credit: Getty

In 2008, following the acquisition of Pixar, the Imagineers were joined by Disney Research Labs - a network of labs working in collaboration with academic institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH). As you might expect, they’ve only upped the ante.

Here are some of the more surprising things to have emerged from the Mouse House over the years.

1. Turn your phone into an instrument (2015)

In April, Disney and Carnegie Mellon unveiled “Accoustruments”, a range of wireless rubbery gadgets that can be plugged into your smartphone, instantly transforming it. One turns the phone into an instrument which can be played using tilt sensors, sliders and buttons. Another covers the entire phone, reinventing it as a doll that smiles or flashes hearts when you touch it.

It paves the way for a plethora of interactive smartphone accessories, made from nothing more than cheap, 3-D printable plastic.

2. Scarily realistic eyeballs (2014)

For a while, animators were happy with "generically modelled eyes,” said Disney Research Zurich's Pascal Bérard in December. “They may be sufficient for background characters,” he said - but not heroes and other leads.

The studio’s 3-D rendered eyes now take account of how the eye responds to light, and other intricacies, solving a fiendishly difficult animating challenge - and delivering a boon to medical ophthalmological modelling in the process.

3. A life-saving wristband (2013)

Credit: AllthingsD

It took several years and around $1 billion to develop the MagicBand. When it was finally rolled out in 2013, the wristband allowed Disney World guests to clock in and out of rides, unlock their hotel room doors, and pre-order and pay for meals just by waving their hands.

Now, firms such as Argodesign, the company started by a key player in the development of the MagicBand, are looking at using the same concept – wristbands fitted with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips – in hospitals.

These bands would store patient's medical information, so staff could cut down on form-filling by electronically reading the chips instead. The bands could also let the hospital keep track of things like patients’ heart rate or blood glucose levels in real-time.

But first they need to figure out how to make sure they can’t get hacked.

4. Synthetic humans

The Disney researcher Dr. Bernd Bickel, calls it “a robotic clone of a real person.” Which sounds a bit Terminator.

A couple of years ago, his team invented a way to build synthetic skin to match real individuals. They scan a human subject and feed the information through a program that determines the shape of the replica skin and head. “The custom digitally designed skin can be fabricated using injection moulding,” said Bickel at the demo. “We 3D print a mould and use elastic silicon with properties similar to human skin as base material."

Disney only uses the technology to produce animatronic characters for its theme park attractions, such as the Hall of Presidents. But who knows where it will lead.

5. Touch-sensitive plants (2012)

That same year, Disney gave us Botanicus Interacticus - a sensor which pipes a low current through an otherwise ordinary plant, then senses when and where you touch it. Depending on how it’s programmed, the sensor can issue an alert that somebody is trying to climb the tall hedges guarding your property. Or it could just emit a melody.

6. Sensitive animatronics

Credit: Disney

Audio-Animatronics are probably the Imagineers’ best-known innovation. The first of these animated robots was revealed in 1964 when a figure of Abraham Lincoln stood up at the World’s Fair in New York and delivered part of the Gettysburg Address.

The 16th president of the United States has since been joined by WALL-E, Remy from Ratatouille and, in 2009, Otto, the first Autonomatronic figure, who is capable of seeing, hearing, and having a conversation with people, as well as sensing and reacting to guests’ emotions.

7. A better way to queue

Ok, this is less magical, but the “switchback” queuing system - in which the line is folded back on itself in an enclosed space - is a Disney invention that has been a gift to large retailers, airports and so on.

8. The first (sort of) 3D camera (1933)

The first multiplane camera was invented by the Walt Disney Studios animator/director Ub Iwerks in 1933, using parts from an old Chevrolet car. It moves a number of pieces of artwork past the camera at different speeds, creating a three-dimensional effect. It was used in the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Peter Pan. The Little Mermaid was the final Disney film to use a multiplane camera

Watch Walt Disney himself describe it here: