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Wearing the Future: How Disney’s Magic Band Sets the Bar for Wearables

I’ve worn the future, and it felt like magic. I’m not talking about the latest Apple or Android smartwatch, but instead about the Magic Bands at Walt Disney World. Within the closed ecosystem of their parks, Disney has created a vision of the future that’s positively seamless.

What is the Magic Band?

“When you visit Disney World, the most remarkable thing about the MagicBands is that they don’t feel remarkable at all.”

Disney’s $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband

Like the mythical Thneed from The Lorax, the Magic Band is many things rolled into one: it’s your resort room key, your park ticket, your meal plan, your FastPass, your photo pass, and your credit card. In short, it’s your identity while on Disney property. You can leave your room with just a Magic Band and do everything the parks have to offer while leaving your wallet safely behind. (You’ll probably want your phone and maybe some sunglasses, though.)

From anywhere in Disney World, your Magic Band is how you establish that you are you. You can enter the parks with your Magic Band and a finger print. You can pay for meals and souvenirs with your Magic Band and a pin code of your choice. Building on that, they’ve baked location sensors into the band that some of the newer attractions take advantage of.

Inside Be Our Guest (one of the latest restaurants introduced around the same time as the Magic Bands) are three entirely different rooms (the dark and stormy West Wing, the Grand Ballroom, and the Portrait Gallery) that encompass thousands of square feet and can easily seat several hundred dining customers. After we placed our orders up front, we were told to sit wherever we’d like and that our food would be brought directly to our table. Not only did our food arrive at our table within minutes, they found us despite the fact that we’d wandered through all three rooms first to explore and find a table. We didn’t place a number on our table or carry any other device. The only possible way they could have found us is through either tracking embedded in our bands or by having a dedicated wait staff follow us through the restaurant. (With several hundred other diners, I simply don’t believe the second option is feasible.)

My wife got a taste of the second use of the location sensor. Typically, when you ride roller coasters (at Disney and elsewhere), you get to see a photo of yourself on the ride. At Disney, you can save it to your PhotoPass (using your Magic Band). But on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride (the latest ride to open since Magic Bands debuted), she discovered that her photos had been captured and added to our PhotoPass automatically. Even better, it was accompanied by a clever video that combines first person footage of the ride itself with a couple different slow-motion scenes of her on hills and turns. It was a delightful surprise to discover in our PhotoPass collection later in the week.

What isn’t it?

The Magic Band has no screen, no way to charge, and no inputs or outputs. For all intents, it is a colored rubber bracelet with some technology inside and a Mickey logo on the outside. The lack of any interactivity became a running joke on our trip. “What time is it?” I glance at my wrist. “Mickey time!” (That one absolutely kills in the 3-4 year old population, by the way.) It is not, in other words, a smartwatch.

The ultimate goal of any personal smart device should be less about the notifications or even what you can do with it. Instead, it should focus on what the device can do for its wearer automatically. Without any interface or input, the Magic Band effectively becomes your identity while at Walt Disney World. With a wave of your wrist, you can bypass crowds, obtain food, and open doors. Just like magic.

Not without hiccups

My glowing praise isn’t to say the Magic Band system is flawless. There were times when paying or getting into our hotel room where I’d have to move the band around several times to get it to register properly. In some circumstances, it would have been easier if the sensor was on the underside of my wrist; then I wouldn’t be twisting my arm oddly to get it register. Of course, the sensors could also be placed upside down so I could just hold my arm underneath them. (In fact, some shop clerks did just that to ease the process.)

I lost my band at the very end of the trip, literally as I was getting off the Magical Express (Disney’s free bus ride to and from the airport). Readjusting a bag as I walked down the aisle of the bus, the strap of my band caught on my backpack and it pulled off, falling underneath some seats. In this case, I didn’t need the band anymore and it wasn’t worth the effort of holding up everyone else getting off the bus to save it. But it highlights the downside of anything wearable: eventually it can fall off, and if it’s going to, it will happen at the most inopportune time. When that happens, I have little doubt that Disney will do their best to help get you going again.

Hope for the future

“To make the Magic Band work, Disney had to wire an entire new infrastructure into its parks. Stores and restaurants needed to be outfitted with the new payment systems. Every hotel room needed new lock systems to work with the Magic Band’s RFID transmitter.”

Beyond the UX Tipping Point

As I look at smart devices like the Apple Watch, I can’t help but compare them to the Magic Band. The Apple Watch can do so much more, but it doesn’t solve nearly as many actual problems as the humble Magic Band. Yet. Disney can solve those problems within their parks by completely overhauling their systems (at a cost of $1 billion). In the real world, companies like Apple will have to partner with others to fill the gaps and make the experience smoother.

Apple Pay on the new Apple Watch is a small glimpse at the same future offered by the Magic Band. It uses constant skin contact to validate that you are you (after an initial verification) which means that paying for things could someday be as simple as waving your hand. (In theory, that’s possible starting today if you shop exclusively at stores that support Apple Pay.)

Your watch is your passport.

Taking that a step further, think of the many things you could do with a watch (or other device) that serves as your proof of identity:

You get up in the morning and put your watch on. You enter a PIN (or someday simply speak to your watch) to verify that you are you. Your watch now counts as your digital identity until you remove it again.

You sit down with your tablet and breakfast to start the day. Your watch’s proximity to the tablet automatically unlocks the device. You open your bank app to check your balance. You are automatically logged in by the same authentication (just like TouchID but without the fingerprint).

After getting ready for the day, you leave the house. As you walk up to your front door, it unlocks automatically, sensing your watch. (It locks again automatically behind you.) The same thing happens as you approach your car. Getting in, you simply press the start button because the watch serves as your keyless ignition.

You pay for coffee on the way to work simply by waving your hand. You pay for gas just as easily. At the parking garage, your watch opens the gate. At work, your watch automatically unlocks your computer as you approach. Logging into sensitive sites (email, intranet, whatever), the proximity of your watch automatically logs you in.

At lunch, you walk to a nearby cafe and claim a seat. Within moments, a waiter brings out the sandwich and side you preordered. He knows who you are, where you were sitting, and what you ordered by proximity sensors on your watch. As usual, you pay with a wave of your wrist.

There are no passwords, no keys, and no cards. Your watch is your passport, and it verifies that you are you.

Possible but probable?

Maybe you read the above and get excited. Maybe you’re cynical. I know I am. Getting to that point will take time and energy from a lot of different companies. It will take partnerships, buy-in, money, and time. It won’t be as seamless as Disney World’s Magic Bands for a long time, if ever. But I’m cautiously optimistic that if anyone can pull off a vision that large (outside of Disney World), it’s Apple. They have the money and the clout. Do they have the same vision? Time will tell.

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