Shortly before leaving California to move to New York, I took a last trip down to Disneyland with a good friend.

At the park, there is a never ending proliferation of toys that glow; from bubble guns to light sabers to flashlights with fiber optics on the end. (does anyone remember those?) The toys are mostly underwhelming and overpriced, not exactly interesting.

That's why when I first read about the new LED mouse ears I wasn't expecting much.

Only these ears, dubbed "Mickey's Magic Ears," are far more advanced than any light up toy I've ever seen:

They don't just randomly blink, they synchronize with the show and even with each other.

Assumptions / Context

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Disneyland has many entertaining shows/attractions, but  the audience is generally a passive participant. Commonly, guests buy mouse ear hats and wear them around during their stay. They are one of those souvenirs that don't really have a practical purpose at home, yet are extremely popular in the park. The LED ears are sold for $25 and I didn't expect them be a big seller at that price. I guessed most people would be unaware of the interactivity at places other than the nighttime shows and at showings where only a limited number of audience members were wearing them. Essentially, you need to be around other people to enjoy the communal experience and interaction of the devices.


I purchased a pair of the ears and explored the park, both observing the response of my pair and those of others.

There are different modes of functionality:

  • Nighttime shows World of Color & Fantasmic!: ears synchronize with the show
  • Outdoor party MadTParty: ears sync with the DJ / lights
  • In certain areas of the park: ears will synchronize with show lighting elements (but there is no indication to the normal guest where these locations are)
  • In proximity of other ears (w/ no sync show nearby): ears will sync with each other and preform lighting changes in sync (in theory)
  • When inside dark rides (like Pirates of the Caribbean): ears are 'blacked out' and will not light up to preserve the attraction experience
  • When no other ears are around: default 'dumb' color changing script

During the day, the LEDs are not bright enough to be seen. I observed that the ears were popular at places like the MadTParty, where the merchandizing location was in the vicinity of a show sync transmitter. Additionally, people who noticed the ears while waiting for the nighttime show would often chat with people who already owned them. There was a general excitement about the fact that they provided an opportunity to 'participate' in the show.

[caption id="attachment_190" align="alignleft" width="300"] flickr jaysquivel[/caption]

When a large number of people are gathered together, the interaction between the show and the different hats is a visually exciting experience. Some of the behaviors that are synced with the show lighting & music elicited audience laughs and ooh/ahhs. However, outside of the nighttime show/party synchronization areas, the interaction of the ears was less clear. I don't believe many people noticed that the ears changed patterns when in proximity of other ears, and without a number of ears together in some of the common areas the response wasn't as interesting. (like at Flow's V8 Cafe)

Some people's ears also would fall out of sync with the show, and default back into a generic color changing script, often while all the other ears around them were dark. Often guests wouldn't notice, since they aren't actually able to see their own ears. The time of use for the experience is variable from the length of a show to the indefinite period you are in an activation area or around other ear owners. It's easy to buy and wear your own set of ears. To turn the ears on, you just touch a sensor on the left ear.

Mickey's Magic Ears provide an opportunity for grand communal experience where the audience is transported from passive observation to full emersion in an interactive/participatory experience. But the challenge in this interaction is the requirement for other guests to also own the ears and visit the same locations as you.

Thinking about the readings from Norman and Crawford, it's exciting to see an interactive technology integrated into an exisiting experience. Getting pulled into a highly engineered experience as a participant, not just a passive observer, is an exciting extension of entertainment design. Certainly it isn't as explicit of an interaction as Crawford wrote about. But it's certainly more than a picture under glass.

Side note about how the ears work: infrared! Throughout the park there are infrared transmitters that send information about color and animation and each ear set has a serial number that allows different animations in the same region. The ears have the ability to detect each other through the same type of infrared pulses. [a friend and I are exploring the way the system works in closer detail, more to come!]

Disney's Magic Ears

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