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Disney to open tech lab in area

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / May 18, 2011

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The Mouse is coming back to Cambridge.

The Walt Disney Co.’s Imagineering research division, which develops new technologies for the company’s theme parks, is planning to open a small lab in East Cambridge next month, 11 years after Disney shuttered its last such facility in the city.

“While labs tend to grow organically according to who ends up joining, my initial plan is to have the lab focus on social sciences, broadly defined, and also on commercialization of some existing research,’’ said Joe Marks, who will run the lab. Marks is a Disney research vice president who previously ran the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Cambridge. Another Mitsubishi lab alum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Wojciech Matusik, will serve as a consultant.

The original Disney lab in Cambridge had only about a half-dozen employees at any time, and kept a low profile. It worked on a new generation of audio-animatronic technology, including robotic characters that could roam freely around the theme parks and interact with guests — the first was named Lucky the Dinosaur. The lab also worked on a $50 plush toy called Pal Mickey, which was sold in the company’s theme parks, according to former employee Eliot Mack. Electronics hidden inside the toy would respond to infrared transmitters placed around the parks, and the toy would relay information about parade times or costumed characters that might be mingling with tourists nearby.

Disney also sponsored a research initiative at MIT’s Media Lab called Toys of Tomorrow, which sought to develop smarter, more interactive toys.

Marks says the new Disney lab will be more open about its work than its predecessor. “We’re committed to engaging fully with the global research community through collaboration with academe, publication of our results, participation in professional service activities, etc.,’’ he wrote in an e-mail.

The new Cambridge lab is hiring researchers in social and behavioral sciences, data analytics, media, and transportation, and software developers. Outside of its California home base, Disney operates research labs in Utah, Switzerland, and Pittsburgh. Among the topics Disney researchers study are human-computer interaction and behavioral economics — the study of how people make spending decisions.

“The reasons for blue-chip multinationals opening research offices in Kendall Square are pretty clear,’’ said Travis McCready, executive director of the Kendall Square Association. “It’s the combination of talent, venture capital, MIT, and the proximity to other companies like Microsoft and Google.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.