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Disney opening new Cambridge research lab next month

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 17, 2011 10:52 AM

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The Mouse is coming back to Cambridge.

The Walt Disney Company's research division, led by the former Bostonian Joe Marks, is planning to open a small lab in the American Twine Building next month. That's exactly 11 years after Disney shuttered its last lab in East Cambridge, which had mainly developed new technologies for the Disney theme parks as part of the company's famed Imagineering team.

"While labs tend to grow organically according to who ends up joining, my initial plan is to have the lab focus on social sciences, broadly defined, and also on commercialization of some existing research," says Marks, who ran the Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab (MERL) in Cambridge before being hired by Disney. Another MERL alum, MIT professor Wojciech Matusik, will serve as a consultant to the lab.

The lab is currently hiring researchers in social and behavioral sciences, data analytics and data mining, media, and transportation. There are also openings for software engineers with Web and mobile experience.

The old Disney lab, overseen by Bran Ferren and Danny Hillis, was extremely low-profile. A former employee tells me — anonymously — that it worked on "high performance electric robotics," or a new generation of Audio-Animatronic technology, including robotic characters that could roam free-range around the theme parks and interact with guests. The original Disney lab in Cambridge also worked on a $50 plush toy sold in the company’s theme parks called “Pal Mickey.” Electronics hidden inside the toy would respond to infrared transmitters placed around the parks, and the toy would speak information about parade times or costumed characters that might be mingling with tourists nearby. Disney was also a sponsor of a research initiative at MIT's Media Lab called "Toys of Tomorrow," which sought to develop smarter and more interactive toys.

Marks says that the new lab will be more open about its work. "We're committed to engaging fully with the global research community through collaboration with academe, publication of our results, participation in professional service activities, etc.," he says. "In that regard we're following more in the tradition of Pixar Research." The animation studio, now owned by Disney, has always shared its research with the computer graphics community.

So if you've ever wanted to get paid to research optimal techniques for loading cranky passengers into a monorail at the end of a 90-degree day, this may be the opportunity you've been waiting for...

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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