Walt Disney Imagineering Patents
I recently watched this wonderful interview with Lanny Smoot by the US Patent and Trademark Office. It really captures who Lanny is and what a great inventor he is. I had the pleasure of working with Lanny at WDI Research and Development for 20 years. What I enjoyed the most about Lanny is the crazy ideas he would come up with and then figure out a way to invent that. I have too many favorites to list but the first one to come to mind was a waterfall that had what appeared to be very small pebbles or jewels or well something that lit up as they flowed from one pool of water to another. I looked at it and said, hey are those miniature LEDs (lights) glowing as they move through the water. Well yes that is exactly what you are seeing. Well it was an amazing special effect and an amazing engineering feat.
Anyone can apply for a patent
WDI has a program to encourage Imagineers to invent and patent ideas related to any of our businesses. When you have an idea, you submit a form with all the information on your idea and how that idea works. There is a "patent committee" that reviews these requests and if it meets the proper criteria you are given the go ahead to apply for your patent. They assign a patent attorney to help you write up your patent. Some patents have one person on them but many patents have a handful of inventors. This process is no easy task and will take months of calendar time writing it up and making many revisions. Next there is a patent search for patents similar to yours and then you might have to explain why you patent is different. If after all this work, it still looks like something to be patented, it is ultimately submitted to the patent office.
Parties and Money
So not discussed under my perks section, but for many years the best party at WDI was the patent awards party. Anyone that applied for a patent that year was invited with a guest to this party. The manager of that person also was invited so with my large staff of inventors, I was invited each year. When your patent was submitted to the patent office, you were given a $2,000 award in you paycheck. Maybe better than that was an awards trophy pictured below. The award was black in color for your first four patents and on your 5th the trophy was silver. At a higher number (I forgot where) the trophy was gold. Also note the patent award on the left is for a patent we applied for but was not granted. I still got the money, party, and award trophy for it. For any Disney Employee reading this, that patent was for the "Relay" file transfer system we all used for many years.
A fun fact is the award trophy used an invention by Gary Schnuckle who worked for me in R&D. He applied for a patent and you can see at this website exactly how the award was made. He, like Lanny had many fun inventions.
My first of few patents
I am most proud of my first patent for the "electronic tachometer". In those days very few people in Ride & Show Engineering applied for patents. Only those "stuck up" R&D people who we could not stand were applying for patents. Those R&D people knew nothing of the real world! I assumed this would be my first and only patent. Well I would have a few more after transferring to R&D, that wonderful place with great people.
Long Story of that Patent
Don Young and I were working on a way to look at the frequency of the current flowing through the three leads to a three phase AC motor to determine its speed without using a mechanical tachometer. WDI was using a lot of AC motors for our rides for lifts and conveyor belts and thought this might be a useful invention. We got the idea working and were applying for a patent (actually 2 patents) when we received a call in early 1992 saying that it was determined that we would not meet the ride capacity at the new Splash Mountain ride in Florida without installing tachometers to the conveyor and lift motors. Monitoring closely the speed of the motor allowed the boats to be closer together. Well the ride was already built and the ride system was being installed. Still Okay for WDI, just install a tachometer on each motor shaft, easy. Well since it was not part of the design, there was literally no where and no way to do this without replacing every motor with a motor with a shaft out the back. So we were asked if our "Electronic Tachometer" was ready to go to the field and be installed. So within weeks of this request we did build a production version and went to Florida to install them. On my last check-in, some 26 years later, they were still in use and working great.
So in R&D you sometimes are working on projects created by others but sometimes you are allowed to just think of new ideas. A few of us were thinking of non-park related ideas like our home video market. In 2007 everything was going digital and virtual. We were wondering if there was a fun product that could combine both. One part of this idea was that Disney would sell a plush toy, say Stitch, for example. At home you would have bought a set-top unit you connected to your TV. When your young child would place Stitch near the TV, the TV would automatically turn on and the Lilo and Stitch movie would start playing. If the child took Stitch away, the movie would stop and the TV turned off. Next time they brought Stitch back, the movie would resume where it left off.
From the abstract: "Embodiments include systems and methods of accessing multimedia content. One embodiment includes a system for accessing multimedia data. The system includes a tangible object comprising at least one proximity device embedded within the tangible object. The tangible object is configured to provide identification information of the tangible object..."
We built a working unit and demonstrated it at our yearly Open House. Like many ideas we patented, either they really were not THAT good of an idea, or sometimes no one saw the value and we did not spend enough time then pushing the idea. This really proves the point that most famous people you associate with a product or idea probably didn't invent it but believed enough in the idea not to take no for an answer. In our case after a month or two, we just moved on to the next idea.
Many "Secrets" are Waiting at the Patent Office
For those reading this that are starved for secret ideas that are going on at WDI, one place that is overlooked by many is the patent office. If you search and read many of these patents you can many time see what is about to be installed in the parks. Also you can see many many ideas that never went anywhere.
I wanted to tweet about the Light Saber when it was revealed to the public. I worked on this project with my "guys" and finished it as I was retiring. I was surprised that Disney released a close-up video that gave part of the magic away. In full show environment it is stunning. So I will never talk about how it works in public but here is the patent for anyone to read and get a good idea. If you decide to try to make one for yourself, first make one for me, but second realize that the actual unit is packed with technology and would cost you over $10K.
Imagineers are inventing new ways to entertain our guests all the time. Most of these ideas are never sent to the patent office. The patents are public for all to read, modify slightly and take a great idea for their own use. Many companies, including Imagineering, hold many of their ideas as trade secrets. So some of my best work I still can't talk about, but can share the fun results with everyone.
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