HoloTile Floor, the latest invention from Disney's Lanny Smoot

Many of Lanny Smoot's best-known inventions seem, at least to non-engineers, more like magic tricks. Floating disembodied heads, a lightsaber that actually expands, retracts and glows and, in his latest sleight of hand, a reinvention of the floor. Yes, one floor.

At 68, Smoot is the most talented modern inventor at Walt Disney Co., headquartered in Burbank. Smoot works within Imagineering, the company's secret division dedicated to theme park experiences, creating scientific feats that often seem like illusions to guests. With 106 patents throughout his career and counting – Smoot quickly leans forward and tells me he's far from done – his career has been one that proves that the applied sciences are as much a creative as a technical field.

For the record:

2:01 PM February 1, 2024Photographer Christian Thompson was incorrectly credited as Christian Thom.

Lanny Smoot, inventor of Disney's HoloTile technology, has 106 patents to his name.

(Christian Thompson / Disneyland Resort)

His innovative new floor, a creation years in the making, was recently shown to the public, tucked away in Imagineering's research and development space in Glendale. While it doesn't yet have a specific application in Disney theme parks or other experiences, it's a matter of versatility and it's easy to imagine the possibilities.

Think of a treadmill, the only one that works of you instead of against you – twisting, turning and moving towards your body – without traditional restraints. Disney calls it the HoloTile Floor, and it essentially communicates with you, allowing you to move in any direction and never trip off the surface. A clear use is virtual reality, because now, in a headset, you are no longer in danger of bumping into a rail or a bench. But it's more than a gaming device.

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Several people can walk (or dance) on Smoot's HoloTile, making inventive choreographies possible in, for example, a theater performance. Anyone, Smoot emphasizes, can 'moonwalk' on the HoloTile. Or objects can roll in the direction of the guest's choice, with motions demonstrated reminiscent of some of the Force's magnetic abilities from the “Star Wars” franchise. Place a seat on the HoloTile and it instantly becomes a driving vehicle, as an operator can rotate it or pull it forward. For example, I imagined that the furniture of 'Encanto's' Casa Madrigal would suddenly come to life once the guests were strapped in.

Like many of Smoot's well-known inventions, it is not only a technical achievement, but also a pleasure. Smoot was recently inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, part of a 2024 class that includes: Asad Madniwhose safety and stability breakthroughs are common in automobiles and have been leveraged by NASA, and Andrea Goudsmid, a pioneer in high-speed wireless communications. Smoot's Hall of Fame selection is a testament to the power of entertainment, and that designing for large-scale community spaces like theme parks can inspire the kind of wonder that can improve lives.

“I know a lot of electrical engineers now and I ask them how they got started. They say, 'Oh, I kept taking things apart,'” says Smoot, sitting in a modest office on Disney's research and development campus. (Just outside his door is a robot training pod in development, where Imagineers have done just that I tested bipedal droids who can jump in place, bob their heads, and poke people as if they were robot pets.)

“I was a little different,” Smoot continues. “I discovered how they worked before I took them apart, and what components were in them that I could take out and make my own things. I think this is part of what creates creativity. Not that I want to see someone else's thing. I want to see my own thing.”

And when it came to the HoloTile, Smoot wanted to see something from one of his favorite television franchises come to life. He talks eagerly about “Star Trek,” noting how important it was to him as a child growing up in poverty in Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood. It was Nichelle Nichols' communications officer Uhura, Smoot says, who partially inspired his career path. “I was a fan of 'Star Trek' partly because of the technology, but because I saw a black character, Uhura, doing technological things,” Smoot says.

Lanny Smoot working in a laboratory surrounded by machines.

Lanny Smoot joined Walt Disney Co. in the late 1990s. and currently has 106 patents.

(Christian Thompson / Disneyland Resort)

His love for “Star Trek” has never waned. Smoot says that the HoloTile didn't start out so much as a solution to a specific problem that Disney needed to solve, but that he wondered if it would be possible to create a “Holodeck,” where in the sci-fi universe the real world is brought to life. through holograms.

“I knew about this thing called the 'Holodeck,' where people can walk around in a 25-by-20-foot room forever,” Smoot says. 'They go to distant mountains and streams. How is that possible? It must be the case that the floor of the 'Holodeck' has the ability to move people in any direction, to allow them to walk in any direction, to prevent them from bumping into, for example, the walls of the room or each other. It got me thinking. How do you get a moving surface that you can walk on forever in any direction? The joke I make is that if you're sitting on it and someone leaves the room and doesn't drop you off, you'll starve. That was the spark.”

As it developed, so did its possible uses.

“He really wanted to solve the 'Holodeck' problem,” says Bobby Bristow, who has long worked closely with Smoot at Disney. 'He didn't know exactly how to get there. It started with multiple iterations – very different technology at first. It wasn't until we got the version we have now that we thought, “We can use it to do this too.” We can do all these other things. It not only unlocks people, but also objects. We are happy that internal people tell us what other applications they can have for it.”

It may be some time before guests can use or see Smoot's HoloTile at a theme park, but much of Smoot's work is spread across Disney properties. For example, Disneyland's Haunted Mansion houses a séance room, one in which a crystal ball houses Madame Leota's head as she summons the spirits shown in the attraction. Madame Leota hovers patiently above a table as she summons the apparitions. This was a Smoot trick, added to the Mansion in 2004, and he won't reveal the secrets of how it works, but notes that the solution was part engineering feat and part illusion.

A mysterious séance room in which a woman's head glows in a transparent sphere.

Lanny Smoot is credited with finding a way to make Madame Leota's head float in the Haunted Mansion.

(Joshua Sudock / Disneyland Resort)

Smoot also recreated the portraits in the mansion's entrance hallway. Here the image flickers between the mortal world and more forbidden realms – ghostly knights, ships, feline creatures. “The previous changing portraits required a room full of equipment,” says Smoot. “It was a complex effect. My effect was so much smaller and it gave the Mansion an instant change during the lightning. As soon as lightning strikes, the portraits change.”

Other Smoot inventions at Disney parks around the world: At Epcot in Florida, Smoot invented a former exhibit called “Where's the Fire?” which challenged guests to uncover hazards by using a flashlight that functioned as an X-ray machine, an installation that evolved from a tool Smoot created that allowed people to see through walls. He also worked on that park's interactive scavenger hunt, the now-retired “Kim Possible: World Showcase Adventure,” and more recently created a realistic “Star Wars” lightsaber that simulated the appearance of a lighted, retractable blade, many of which are available online patent hunters have compared, in simplified terms, to a kind of inverted measuring tape.

The lightsaber was featured in the short-lived but beloved Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. For his part, Smoot is reluctant to talk about details, preferring to keep his secrets, well, secrets. “It was fun to do,” he says simply of the lightsaber.

Lanny Smoot tinkers with a device at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Lanny Smoot says his love for “Star Trek” inspired his career.

(Disneyland resort)

He feels more comfortable discussing his career as if it were a lifelong hobby. Smoot's journey initially took him to Bell Labs, where he worked on early video teleconferencing technology, before beginning discussions with Disney in 1998. The company first asked Smoot for advice on camera mechanization that enabled on-demand display changes for the Animal Kingdom park in Florida. “The company tried the panning camera – all good – but it turned out they liked the inventor even more, and I was literally hired by Walt Disney Co. involved,” says Smoot.

He attributes his love of invention to his father, and speaks of early scientific experiments as if they were toys. When he was five years old, Smoot says, his father brought home a battery, an electric bell and a light bulb. “I'm sitting there at the table, he puts them together and he rings the bell,” says Smoot. “This was like magic. Then he leaves the light on. I say this is poetic, but it's true. It lit up the rest of my career. I was locked into science, especially electricity.”

Disney, he says, was such a good fit because he is constantly amazed by the way his technology is hidden by the company's staff of craftsmen and architects.

“I always say my stuff works,” says Smoot. “I guarantee that. It may not look the prettiest, but it works. It will happen.”

What to do with a 'Holodeck' floor? Smoot and his team teased creations such as an interactive dance floor, but there is room for more: a restaurant for example in “Coco's” Land of the Dead in which we rotate between the tables, a “Turning Red” show in which Mei in red panda form can move buildings, an exhibit in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in which we can become one with the Force. Reimagine the floor, and there's no ceiling to the possibilities.

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