Disney’s ‘Magic Bench’ Fixes AR’s Biggest Blind Spot


You sit on the bench, as one does. Across from you hangs what appears to be a mirror. Before you can fix your cowlick, a pygmy elephant saunters over, plops down next to you, and hands you a glowing, golden orb.

You’re not dreaming, hallucinating, or having a bad (good?) trip. You happened to take a seat on Magic Bench, a Disney Research project that overcomes one of the biggest limitations of mixed reality. Forget the clunky headset. All this brain-bending experience requires is that you take a seat.

Magic Bench isn’t the first “walk up and play” mixed-reality experience. But it surpasses previous efforts creatively and technologically. (Never before, to my knowledge, has an AR experience included a cranky talking toad.) And as with most magic acts, the real fun starts when you peer behind the curtain.

That comes with downsides, though. “Experiencing augmented content through a screen or projection in front of the user can take them one step back from the world,” says David Nelson, who specializes in virtual storytelling at ICT. “These experiences put the user into an augmented world, as opposed to augmenting the world that the user is already in.”

It seems inevitable that you'll eventually take in AR experiences through Warby Parker iGlasses or Facebook-brand corneal implants. But experiences like the Magic Bench offer a welcome stopgap. After all, mixing reality shouldn’t mean isolating yourself from it.