Disney’s Magical Flashlight Brings Kids’ Books To Life

A focus on “lightweight interactivity” makes this prototype feel fun, not overly fussy.

Maybe being the dad of a toddler makes me overly skeptical of “enhanced” or “augmented” children’s books and toys, but I’m usually unimpressed with efforts to future-ify an experience that seems to work just as fine now as it did when Goodnight Moon was first written 66 years ago. Then I saw HideOut, a new prototype from Disney Research that uses a handheld projector to bring animated characters to life on the surface of a book or board game. Okay, now I’m impressed:


A smartphone-sized handheld projector, surprisingly enough, looks like just the right kind of “extra” to add a bit of genuine magic to the experience of reading stories to your kid. What I love about HideOut is the un-fussiness of this interaction: There’s no app to launch, no requirement of peering at the “augmentations” through the keyhole of a screen. The child can move the projector around and watch what happens to the animated characters without “popping out” of the shared experience of reading together–experiencing the “interactive content in a lightweight and exploratory way,” according to HideOut’s documentation.

Those two words–“lightweight” and “exploratory”–are the key, and for once they don’t sound like lip service. Karl Willis, the lead researcher on HideOut, tells Co.Design that “the projector acts like a digital flashlight through which you explore the physical world. This is much more immediate and ‘physical’ than the screen-based augmented reality we commonly see.” The book–a tangible artifact whose “user experience” has been perfected over the past, oh, six centuries–is still a book. But the dynamic digital layer is metamorphosed via the projector into a pseudo-tangible artifact as well, that responds in evident and meaningful ways to the physical environment it happens to be in. When a projected character in HideOut encounters a physical wall on a board game, or a drawn wall on a page, it responds to that object as if they were both “really there.” To use designer Paul Dourish’s term, the interaction is “embodied.”

The technical details of how HideOut creates this embodiment are clever–IR-printed machine-vision codes, invisible to the naked eye, act as triggers or controllers for the projector, which also uses a camera to track and match the projected images on-the-fly to physical orientations of the book or board game. What this means is that even if the child wiggles the projector around (which they will–how else are you supposed to play with a magic flashlight?), the illusion of three-dimensional “really-there-ness” in the digital characters won’t be broken. “If we cause people to suspend disbelief and ‘believe’ that a projected character is riding across the top of a table, then we can again enhance our storytelling ability,” Willis says. “The tracking solution we came up with supported this capability in a very lightweight way.”

HideOut isn’t a product yet, but it should be. Smartphones may soon have onboard micro-projectors as standard equipment, just like cameras are now–which could be an easy way to deploy HideOut’s essential functionality. But a part of me hopes that Disney doesn’t go this route, and instead embeds it in a standalone product. My smartphone is mundane; my daughter sees me fussing with it all too often, and there’s nothing special about it to her. But a “magic flashlight” just for story time–and just for her? I can already see her eyes lighting up. And what could be more Disney than that?

[Read more about HideOut]


About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.