Braille Monitor                                    February 2018

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Disney Research Creates Tactile Fireworks Display

by Grace Warn

Fireworks light up the night sky over Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney WorldFrom the Editor: I am blessed to have an assistant who looks over my work and catches my errors before they make it to our proofreaders—yes, they still find some mistakes. Grace not only checks formatting, works hard on miniatures, and is almost exclusively responsible for initially formatting recipes. She occasionally writes an article, and it is with pleasure that we publish what she has written about her favorite enterprise: Disney. Here is what she says:

It’s been mentioned before that I’m a big Disney person, and part of that includes following several unofficial Disney blogs and Facebook pages. Lately a lot of the stories they’ve had have revolved around the new Pandora attractions in Animal Kingdom or the upcoming Star Wars attractions in Disney Hollywood Studios. But in the middle of October I saw one that made me stop scrolling and immediately click to read it: a Disney Research lab in Zurich had developed the technology to create a tactile fireworks display.

My first thought was, “Of course Disney came up with something like this.” For those who aren’t the fan I am, Disney is one of the world leaders in pyrotechnics. One of the better-known examples of this came out of Disneyland Paris. France had strict noise level limits, and Disney had to create an air-launch system in order to hold their signature nightly fireworks shows. This time, though, there was no legal pressure on Disney. They simply acknowledged that fireworks shows are primarily a visual experience, and they decided to find a way for the blind and visually impaired to better share in the experience. Disney Research put out an announcement about the new interface on October 22, 2017, and the online version also has a link to the full paper. Check it out at

How it works is fairly simple: different nozzles and directable water jets on pan-tilt heads spray water onto the backside of a flexible latex screen. The variations in the water’s impact create different shapes on the front, simulating the various visual effects created by the fireworks. The mechanism is modular and designed for easy transport and set up. It rolls on caster wheels and is powered off a standard power cord for ease of use. It sits in a plastic tray to prevent water leakage. The system uses a near-silent, medical-grade controllable pump, while the water hitting the screen makes a quiet drumming sound. The back-projected visual fireworks are visible outdoors at night or in standard light conditions indoors, so sighted family members can enjoy the fireworks display as well. And while it was designed with the blind and visually-impaired in mind, I could see how families with someone who has autism or other sensory processing disorders would also find this a better way to experience a fireworks display.

The paper from Disney Research makes the point that most assistive technology is designed for a functional purpose. That is, these technologies are designed for performing tasks or being practical. The tactile fireworks display is for aesthetic purpose, envisioned to bring all crowd members together to enjoy the experience of feeling fireworks.

Disney did testing with focus groups of blind people to discuss the experience and also did testing with sighted subjects to measure the correspondence between the visual firework effect and the tactile analog. That testing “indicates good correspondence between the tactile fireworks and the visual fireworks they represent. For sighted users the results suggest that sampling the tactile firework show while viewing the physical show in the sky is meaningfully multi-modal. For blind or visually impaired users, the tactile firework show is an analogous and shared experience with sighted users, in accordance with our goal of inclusivity.”

To the best of my knowledge and belief, no one asked Disney to do this. Disney imagineers simply looked at their signature fireworks shows, acknowledged that they were an almost-entirely visual experience, and said, “How do we change that?” And, while it’s not something available in all the parks yet, I’m sure in the relatively near future a child who only knew fireworks as loud bangs and booms that weren’t really entertaining will have the opportunity to be dazzled by the spectacular extravaganzas that nightly light up the skies above Disney parks.

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