June 20, 2024

Inventor Imagineer First Since Walt Disney to Enter Hall of Fame


Lanny Smoot, Research Fellow at Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development, is being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame! He is the first-ever Imagineer to receive this prestigious recognition and only the second

Lanny Smoot, Research Fellow at Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development, is being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame! He is the first-ever Imagineer to receive this prestigious recognition and only the second individual from The Walt Disney Company to be inducted…the first being Walt Disney himself, honored posthumously for the multiplane camera.

In this just-for-fun post, we wanted to take a look at Lanny Smoot’s legendary career and some of his inventions, including a sneak peek at his latest invention that could be put to use at Walt Disney World or Disneyland in the not-too-distant future. During his prolific career, 74+ of Lanny’s patents were from his research and inventions at Disney.

Some of his favorite creations are included in past projects like Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure and “Where’s the Fire?” at Innoventions, both formerly at EPCOT; he’s also responsible for the state-of-the-art lightsaber and the lightsaber training experience, both of which will be a part of the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, also formerly at Walt Disney World (and hopefully, “futurely” somewhere else).

Lanny Smoot’s contributions to current Parks & Resorts offerings including many of the special effects in the Haunted Mansion (such as Madame Leota’s ability to float in the Séance Room), the lightsabers used in Star Wars Launch Bay, the virtual and interactive koi ponds at the Crystal Lotus Restaurant at Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel, the Fortress Explorations interactive adventure at Tokyo DisneySea, and “Power City” at Project Tomorrow in the post-show area for Spaceship Earth. In addition, many of Lanny’s inventions haven’t yet found a home in the parks and resorts, including patents for new ride systems and 3D displays where you don’t need to wear 3D glasses.

Lanny is also the recipient of many awards and honors, including three Thea Awards from the Themed Entertainment Association (Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage at Disneyland park, Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure at EPCOT, and the Ghost Post limited-time experience inspired by the Haunted Mansion). He was also named a 2020 TEA Master, also by the Themed Entertainment Association.

Lanny completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at Columbia University. Lanny’s pre-Disney career was at Bell Laboratories and then Bell Communications Research. While at Bell, Lanny earned patents for his work in the early development of video-on-demand technology, video conferencing, a television system for displaying multiple views of a remote location, and fiber optic receivers that can be used in harsh temperature environments.

Lanny’s passion for creating and inventing began early in his life, and it all started with his father. “Growing up, our family did not have a lot of money,” he shared. “My dad was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades and taught himself how to make many mechanical gadgets, including several of my early toys. One of my earliest childhood memories was him bringing home an electric bell, a light bulb, some batteries and wire. He set up the bell to ring and the bulb to light, and that light lit my career!”

Those early experiences put Lanny on the path to build a career with WDI in technology and research – a place where he could both invent and entertain. As a Disney Research Fellow, Lanny’s role represents the highest level of technical research achievement at WDI. “My mindset is to create things that are fun, entertaining, often surprising and, hopefully, a bit ahead of their time,” he said. “At Disney, I can work on cutting edge technologies that are designed to make people happy. What’s not to like?!”

“At Disney Experiences, we’re committed to world-class storytelling, creativity and innovation in everything we do, and Lanny Smoot embodies every one of those ideals,” said Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro. “As Disney’s most prolific inventor, Lanny continues to amaze all of us with his artistic ingenuity, technical expertise and endless imagination.” Lanny’s forward-thinking inventions have not only shaped Disney’s entertainment landscape but have also empowered the broader theatrical community to create new magic, illusions, and entertainment.

When deciding which of his patents to list for his National Inventors Hall of Fame induction, Lanny chose to highlight “Where’s the Fire?” at Innoventions, a former exhibit in Innoventions at EPCOT. This interactive exhibit aimed to educate guests on fire safety and the importance of fire prevention through engaging challenges. Guests were able to “shine” a special flashlight device on the walls of a house and through the magic of Lanny’s technology, they were able to spot fire dangers and learn to prevent these from happening in the future.

(As a side note, it’s amazing how many exhibits in Innoventions had really impressive effects and wow-moments, or were ‘powered’ by clever tricks. A lot of the exhibits were underwhelming as a whole or too infomercial-like, but there were kernels of great ideas and effects in them. Everyone loved and remembers Sum of All Thrills, but it’s far from the only one. Where’s the Fire, StormStruck, Great Piggy Bank Adventure–and those are just the ones that immediately come to mind–all had their moments.)

“As a life-long inventor, I am excited, delighted, and humbled to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame,” Lanny shared. “To be included alongside my childhood hero, Thomas Edison, and my lifelong role model, Jim West — the inventor of the electret microphone, is both exciting and humbling. And as someone who’s had the privilege of working at The Walt Disney Company, it’s especially meaningful to know that Walt Disney himself is also an inductee.”

The National Inventors Hall of Fame announced their Class of 2024 inductees at a ceremony held at the Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) campus in Glendale, California on Wednesday, January 17.

Among those in attendance were kids who participate in Camp Invention (run by National Inventors Hall of Fame) and participants of one of the local FIRST Robotics teams mentored by Disney Imagineers. Wednesday was also National Kid Inventors’ Day, and a special opportunity to continue to inspire the next generation of inventors.

Lanny is currently working on the HoloTile floor, the world’s first and only multi-person, omni-directional, modular, expandable, treadmill floor, where any number of people can have a shared virtual reality experience, walk an unlimited distance in any direction, but never collide or walk off its surface.

Besides the immediate VR and gaming applications and potential theme park uses, the HoloTile floor can be an insert in a theatrical stage, allowing performers to move and dance in new ways, or stage props and structures could move around or appear to set themselves up.

Here’s an inside look at the HoloTile, plus a tour of Lanny’s lab by the Hall of Famer himself:

People like Lanny Smoot make me proud to be a Disney fan. To have the creativity and curiosity to earn over 100 patents is just unfathomable to me. This dude was probably making things as a kid that I, as an adult, still could not wrap my head around. It’s great to see this type of brilliance walking the halls of Imagineering.

It’s also fitting that Lanny is only the second person at the company to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame after Walt Disney himself–because he’s a true steward of Walt’s creative and bounds-pushing legacy.

Knowing there are Imagineers around like Lanny is really cool and, honestly, reassuring to me. It seems like so much of the news out of WDI in the last few years has been prolific Imagineers leaving–the old guard either retiring or “retiring” (air quotes)–and fans concerned about who would carry the creative torch.

The answer is people like Lanny. It’s also the hundreds of other unsung Imagineers who aren’t in the spotlight like a Joe Rohde or Tony Baxter, but make an outsized impact on the parks even as the vast majority of guests and even diehard fans will never know their names.

I think that’s important to remember, and to shine a light on unsung (or less-sung, given that Lanny does have a lot of accolades!) heroes at WDI. You will not hear of every single Imagineer who is a creative visionary and has an incredible portfolio or track record of making a positive impact. You just won’t.

There are plenty of passionate people who are great at what they do, but just keep their heads down and focus on the work, making the magic, and not seeking out the spotlight. The people you usually hear about are the ones who are prolific and also comfortable in front of the camera, good at internal politics, etc.

So that’s part of this post–paying tribute to an inventor Imagineer who is probably not a household name–despite deserving to be–and sharing a reminder that there are dozens if not hundreds of people like him at WDI. The second part is a bit of speculation about that HoloTile floor. That WDI is on the bleeding edge of these developments is, in and of itself, pretty cool.

This blog has made a lot of jokes about Imagineering’s focus on floors over the last few years during the EPCOT overhaul. But this floor of the future is actually really cool. The fact is that someday, we will likely see this HoloTile floor (not to mention other past and future inventions by Lanny) at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

The obvious use, and one that Disney itself identified in the release, is VR and gaming applications. That makes perfect sense, and I can only imagine how useful something like this would be for the VOID. The HoloTile floor could’ve (presumably) allowed that experience to be more compact or higher-capacity, which might’ve in turn improved their viability or reduced costs. (The VOID closed all locations in March 2020–but it was truly awesome and ahead of its time.)

I could also imagine the HoloTile floor being used for effects in attractions. Somewhat like a trackless ride system, but for props and things in show scenes rather than guests. There are also probably ways it could be integrated into walkthrough attractions, allowing for exploration of a ‘scene’ within a screen-based environment. I don’t know–I’m not an inventor! I just see things like this HoloTile floor and I instantly think of Journey into Imagination 4.0 or Mystic Manor for some reason. It seems like it could be used for people, props, or effects.

Ultimately, the fruits of this will be on full display during the upcoming development cycle at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. As I keep saying, I’m optimistic about the next generation of additions–stuff like this HoloTile floor is a big reason why! It’s easy to be cynical about how or when this will (or won’t) come to fruition in the parks due to budgetary or (guest) behavioral limitations. That’s a fair point, especially as we have seen a lot of research and design projects over the years that haven’t really gone anywhere.

However, it’s impossible to say how past play tests have yielded tech and other results and been integrated into other guest-facing projects that may seem, at least on the surface, totally unrelated to the teased R&D. It’s also possible that Walt Disney Imagineering’s innovations are able to find real-world applications beyond the Parks & Resorts, and the fruits of that are able to help fund other projects, research, etc.

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What do you think of Lanny Smoot being the second Disney-inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame after Walt Disney himself? Amazed that one person hold 106 patents? Impressed or underwhelmed by the HoloTile floor? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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