Disney lab resurfaces

New research lab to work with MIT

Disney Research opened a new lab near MIT in East Cambridge this month, 11 years after closing the doors to its old Cambridge lab. Disney Research works in a number of areas — including robotics, computer graphics, and video processing — that benefit many facets of The Walt Disney Company. The new lab plans to work in the social sciences and forge ties with researchers at MIT.

Joe Marks, vice president of Disney Research, said that the lab plans to focus broadly on the social and behavioral sciences, from behavioral economics to user experience. Data mining and developing technology focused on machine learning to help analyze data would be large components of this research.

However, Marks also emphasized that labs tend to grow “organically,” building upon the skills of the researchers they employ. He said that “one of the areas that might grow organically because of previous opportunities is materials science.” The new lab may also delve into transportation research. Though the lab has very general research goals, specific projects are driven largely by the individual researchers.

Marks is enthusiastic about working with members of the MIT community. According to Marks, MIT Associate Professor Wojciech Matusik PhD ’03 is already serving as a consultant for the lab, and Professor Alexander H. Slocum ’82 is involved with a project concerning the next-generation stroller — an integral part of the experiences of families with young children that visit Disney Parks. Marks said that the lab will be offering both student internships and opportunities for MIT faculty to collaborate at the lab.

Marks also said that the Cambridge lab will serve as a “nexus for collaboration with other parts of Disney Research.” Other Disney Research labs focusing on computer vision and computer graphics could reach the MIT community via the Cambridge lab.

Marks said that Disney’s 2006 acquisition of Pixar influenced the decision to reopen a lab in Cambridge. “We started building our research capabilities this time around shortly after the merger of Pixar and Disney. Pixar has always had a strong research organization, and we wanted to expand that approach to research across the whole company.” John Breckow, director of communication for Walt Disney Imagineering, said in an email that Disney Research chose to return to Cambridge “because of the great university culture and entrepreneurial spirit in the area.” He said that the choice to close the original Cambridge lab “was a business decision.”

While the old Cambridge lab tended to be more private, Marks said that the new lab will follow the new Pixar-influenced model of other Disney Research labs. Disney Research is emphasizing an outward focus by collaborating with academia and openly publishing results. One opportunity the company is taking advantage of is the SIGGRAPH 2011 conference, an annual computer graphics summit. Marks said Disney Research will be “the dominant research organization at the conference.”

Since the lab is just opening, its staff very small — Breckow said that the lab is aiming to initially employ 12–15 people. Marks said the hope is to hire one or two principal investigators per year and make other hiring decisions based on the needs of the PIs, “on par with small academic departments.” The expected composition of the staff allows for extensive interaction with MIT; Breckow said the lab will be “a mixture of full-time researchers, post-docs, student interns, and faculty consultants.”

Breckow added that this staff mixture would be similar to the existing Disney Research labs in Pittsburgh and Zurich. Additional Disney Research facilities are located in Salt Lake City and in multiple California locations.