2014
02.18

It can be argued that the weekly patent awards announcement from the USPTO (United Stated Patent and Trademark Office) opens a window on the near term evolution of technology developments as well as the direction of the deployment paths that companies are taking to enhance customer engagement. Some patents better illuminate the path that companies are already on, while others signal the potential for complete course changes down different paths. Some show a desire to walk multiple paths while others provide a glimpse of a response to a competitor’s shadow emerging on its own path forward.

The most interesting patent award of February 11 was 8,646,695 (“Combined HF and UHF RFID Device”) assigned to Disney Enterprises, Inc. Not only is it an example of an illumination of a path Disney has been walking to improve the guest experience at its Parks and Resorts, it is an excellent example of just how difficult the technology development path really is.

This award is a culmination of a series of patents beginning in 2010, each of which describe different aspects of a form factor – a wristband that Disney has branded the MagicBand – that is worn by a guest to a Disney theme park such as Disney World in Orlando. The new patent covers the true magic of the wristband, which is the packaging of HF (high frequency) and UHF (ultra-high frequency) chips and their antennae into a very small space. This wristband was initially deployed in January 2013, and is intended to be the key to an enhanced guest experience at the park.

While at Sony, I had the privilege of participating in the early stages of the wristband project, which was the responsibility of Disney’s New Technology Group, based in Orlando. The earliest roots of the project go back to 2007. Disney’s concept was simple: Find a way to combine contactless transactional technology with location-tracking technology in a single form factor that could be worn by a guest and conveniently enable a wide range of experiences such as opening the door to the resort room and providing quick access to the theme park and pre-booked events. It is the replacement to the old PhotoPass card. It was also intended to understand and influence guest behavior in the park. At the time, Disney knew that a guess had entered the park, and had bought something in it. Apart from that, the Orlando theme park was described as a 50 square mile black hole; what the guest was actually doing in the park was a mystery. The introduction of the MagicBand has not been without continuing controversy.

In 2009, the initial engineering specifications for the wristband were issued. At the time, NFC (Near Field Communication) contactless technology was being considered in conjunction with RFID tracking technology.

Here were the challenges Disney faced in 2009. First, there was no ecosystem in its parks – or anywhere for that matter – that would provide pervasive transactional and tracking coverage. POS (point-of-sale) devices did not have NFC capability. RFID access points were not cheap. NFC and RFID chips were also not cheap, and the final cost of the wristband had to make economic sense when considering the millions of units that would be produced and deployed for a lifespan of a few days of use at most.

Disney would have to build out the ecosystem in its theme parks.

The second challenge, specific to the wristband, was the engineering required to place chips and antennae with different frequencies into a space about 1-in. in diameter, not interfere with each other, and have both function effectively when placed against the human body, which creates a barrier that reduces signal strength. If the access point can’t read the signal from the wristband, a transaction or a location check will be missed. In 2009, this of collocation of differing frequencies in a small space was unproven for commercial use. It is interesting to note that one of the persons named in the patent was the CTO of a RFID design and engineering firm that Disney used to solve the problem. Three of the persons named in the patent are with NXP, an NFC chip producer.

As the project evolved, and as we see from the patent’s particulars, HF and UHF, have been successfully combined within the form. Peaceful frequency coexistence was attained, and the issue of positioning relative to interference from the human body mitigated.

You might be asking why it took so long for the MagicBand to be deployed, only coming into use in 2013. If we remember back to 2009, we were slipping into what has been called the Great Recession. The economic justification for deployment of the ecosystem and wristband depended upon a specific level of park attendance. In 2009, the economy was crashing and Disney experienced a significant falloff in attendance. Layoffs commenced, and a number of the senior executives that were champions of the project left the company.

What the MagicBand does today is for the Disney guest provides a baseline of services. It would not be surprising to see additional uses that affect the guest’s experience introduced in the future. Having heard some of the ideas being discussed in 2009, Disney is looking to fulfill its commitment to truly changing the guest experience, elevating it above anything a competitor can offer, while at the same time, optimizing park operating efficiencies and adding new revenue streams.

One has to admire Disney for its persistence through engineering and economic challenges to deliver significant technology-based, game-changing enhancements to customer engagement.

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