Disney Research's 'Magic Bench' lets you enjoy AR as a group

Augmented reality is kind of a solo experience. You put on the headset, and unless your friends are also wearing headsets they aren't going to be able to see what you can see. Well, not the augmented bits anyway.

But engineers at Disney Research have come up with what they say is an alternative that allows groups to enjoy AR together. It's a bench. But not just any bench – a "Magic Bench".

The magic is basically a camera, a computer and a screen. The camera includes a depth sensor, and captures an image of the bench and those on it, which is sent to the computer. The computer augments that image with computer-generated characters or objects, then the screen displays all that to the people sitting on the bench.

There are also some vibrators in the bench that can simulate effects like rain or the feeling of someone sitting down next to you. The researchers say that the overall effect, when you're watching the screen, is pretty good.

Critical role

"This platform creates a multi-sensory immersive experience in which a group can interact directly with an animated character," said Moshe Mahler, principal digital artist at Disney Research. 

"Our mantra for this project was: hear a character coming, see them enter the space, and feel them sit next to you."

He added: "The bench itself plays a critical role. Not only does it contain haptic actuators, but it constrains several issues for us in an elegant way. We know the location and the number of participants, and can infer their gaze." 

"It creates a stage with a foreground and a background, with the seated participants in the middle ground. It even serves as a controller; the mixed reality experience doesn't begin until someone sits down and different formations of people seated create different types of experiences."

You can read a paper that Disney published explaining how it all works on the group's website.