The Heart of an Imagineer

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I want to be a Disney Imagineer. And that’s been something I’ve wanted to be since I was 5 or 6, give or take. I believe as well that I possess what I call the heart of a Disney Imagineer.

And with that, a theory popped in my head the other day, and for the most part I think it’s pretty close, though there are some possible holes in it.

Recently I’ve had the blessing of being around a lot of Disney Imagineering folks lately – which in and of itself is pretty much living the dream. Everyone who knows me, longtime friends, colleagues, family, knows this is my dream job. That’s not to say when working for other companies I don’t give my all, and do the best I can do. In fact I do my best to go above and beyond, but I do it as if I were an Imagineer.

At my last job, I worked with a lot of very talented people, with quite a few having been Imagineers at one time or another. They were nice, extremely talented people, and I loved my job.

I have a lot of Imagineers in my LinkedIn, both current and past, and I noticed what I think might be an interesting trend. I’m basing this off of my most recent experiences with Imagineering — recently at the bi-annual D23 convention, and getting to sit down with, talk with, and work around a lot of really great, warm-hearted people.

Below are some photos from that weekend I spent with Disney Imagineers – and most closely with ones that have been there a long time and are VIP’s I never even had a clue as to their level of influence or place on the company ladder. To me they’re friendly, warm, inviting people who made me feel like I belonged. People that I consider friends (and I’m pretty cautious as to who I count as a friend).

This is R2 having a blast at D23, while I’m off to the side mingling with guests. My setup has the main controls in a messenger bag, and sounds over bluetooth from my iPhone. That way if someone glances my way, I can pretend I’m texting or making a call (“Hey honey, you gotta tell the kids about this awesome R2 they have here!”). Works all the time.

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Below: With El Fortuno – one of Imagineering R&D’s coolest animatronics to date. This uses facial recognition, collision detection, and is interactive with the guests.

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Helping an Imagineer make sure his architectural plans are perfect.

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With the Dude

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With Imagineering legend Marty Sklar

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And last but certainly not least, Jon Georges and his team, who are some of the nicest, warmest (and coolest too) people I have ever had the pleasure of working with – along with Her Universe’s Ashly Eckstein.

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Remember this is only a theory, and it’s not meant in any way, shape or form to be accurate, or upset anyone who might be reading this. So please bear with me.

I decided to take a look at a lot of my LinkedIn contacts — who are still there and have been for a long time (and through various layoffs), and those who were there a short time, maybe only during a project. There is a chance some or most were contract (and thus one hole in my theory).

What I noticed is they are all very smart, very talented people. The best of the best. “A” players. They have to be in order to maintain the level of quality that’s inherently Disney.

There’s something that I saw in a lot of Imagineers I worked side-by-side with at D23 – and the best thing I can label that as is the heart of an Imagineer. Walt Disney had it, and so do the people I spent 3 very long days with.

And that made me think, and look at other people who aren’t but were Imagineers. I don’t think they had the heart of an Imagineer. That’s not to say in any way that they aren’t talented or exceptionally nice folks. I’m sure they are to some degree or other.  And of course this is only coming from my view, and thus why it’s a theory.

But there’s a hole to my theory. Some of the guys I worked with at my last job had been Imagineers, and are very nice warm-hearted people, yet they didn’t make it to a long career as an Imagineer.  And I can’t explain that.

I’m going to take a stab though, that what makes a great Imagineer is a combination of talent (great talent), smarts, flexibility, adaptability, humor, imagination, being able to think big and then visualize or tell that to others so nothing is lost, and a very warm heart.  And lastly, I believe, they were born to be an Imagineer. That’s what I think differentiates those who get to work there on a few projects vs. those who are kept on as the main group.

I’ve seen this in a lot of Imagineers I talk with, got to work with, and keep in touch with. There are those I can see who will be there until retirement, and others who, as good as they are, are really there only for the short haul (and that could be 10 years). I think there’s a different level of passion in those who have dreamt of becoming an Imagineer since childhood, and kept that dream as well as child-like imagination alive their whole lives, especially when they land in Imagineering; to those who are there to learn, work on some really cool projects they can put on their resumé, and then move on to maybe having their own company.

And that’s okay. I have a ton of respect for those people who want to be in control of their careers outside a large organization like Disney. I’ve had a few of my own businesses — a digital content company and a video game company (both very successful) but it’s hard work and at the end of the day i’d rather be creating new things and not having to worry about chasing after money. Some of those folks are on my LinkedIn, and I count myself blessed to know them.

So, my theory, or thought – is that the people who are “lifers” in Imagineering, are those I described, and not only have the heart of an Imagineer, but were just born to be one. As I said, I know and have worked with and for people who at one time had been an Imagineer — and they’re extremely amazing people. But they weren’t meant to be one, I think, from the day they were born.

I’m hoping that WDI sees someday I have that heart, and I believe with that heart I was born to be an Imagineer. And maybe I can write about the amazing people and the things they do from inside the walls at 1401 Flower.

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A Follow Up to the Open Letter to Potential Employers…

In my last post, my basic intention was to get the point across that I don’t want to work for an employer who is either disingenuous, can’t see the forest for the trees, or in other words, is so wrapped up financially in a failing product they don’t want to look at the truth, especially when asking someone – in this case any UX analyst, how to fix it. 

That is our job. To fix things when broken, and design a user-centric product if given the chance, if it’s not too late, or hopefully at the get go – before any dev work is even started.

Too many times I’ve seen a product that’s out in the wild and either kind of broken, as in it’s not living up to it’s full-potential of what it can be — or horribly broken, where it was a bad idea in the first place. 

9 times out of 10 when I come on to work on some other product and design it from scratch, my employer will ask me to take a look and give an analysis of a product they already have that’s live, and have even said they know it’s broken, and then ask how to fix it. I do my best to give them a professional analysis, using the template from usability.gov. 

And I think that’s where communication breaks down. I don’t throw in personal feelings to the analysis – I use research based on customer feedback, I look at what works and what doesn’t, I look at why links or mechanisms are where they are, and I look at unity within the product – does it look like it was well thought out when designed and developed.

And I report on that. From that I offer suggestions on how to fix things, how to get it on track and make the product (site, app, whatever) better- how to fix it to get more customers, get customer retention, and get customers to be their advocates and spread the word about their  product.

I design new flows and interactions, wireframes and visual design mockups (yes, I can do visual design). I provide a competitive analysis of what other products have or not, and why they may have better customer retention even though their product may not be as “cool”.

The breakdown is that they ask for a solution, but what I’m beginning to learn is most product owners don’t want a fix, especially one that’s going to point out the real problems- they mostly want some new feature that will distract the user/customer away from all the broken stuff. “What can we add that will make people go “Wow!”?” is usually the response. 

I love to fix things, find solutions to problems, create ground breaking experiences, and when I get the opportunity, design something amazing before it makes it in front of the coders. And then I’ll work side-by-side with them to make sure the product is what’s been designed and get it to launch. 

So if you read my last post and thought I was kinda being a jerk, I humbly apologize. That was never my intention – it was saying if you want to hire me and ask me how to fix an experience, then please (please), allow me to do what I was hired for. And I promise I will give you the most amazing user experience for your customers/users that can be imagined.

Thanks.  

 

 

Lots o’ updates part two

Hello fellow astromech builders and those of you who either want to build, or like to watch, or just have nothing better to do…

I’ll admit that I didn’t think I’d get to a point anytime soon where I could say “He’s done!!!”, but sadly, that time has come. Now I have no reason to blog more about the build aside from this update – okay, I’ll try to keep updates when I have time with things I’m going to do to improve upon the work I did on R2 v 1.0…

Yes, that means I hope to do a 1.5 or even 2.0 version. Unless my time is taken up by building a full size flying Delorean…

So here’s a blow by blow of work I had to get done before August 25th and Sunday the 26th, as our church (the Rock San Diego) wanted to use him for the final installment of the “In the movies” series. This gave me less than a few weeks to really ramp up on building and get him done.

R2 was pretty much ready as far as the structure, but I still needed now to install the electronics, test the motors and controllers, especially the foot motor controller, as I planned to use my 15 year old Vantec from my first entertainment robot (which I originally built and ran at Sea World as well as swanky parties in La Jolla 30 years ago…) and older 6 channel FM Futaba radio.

The first thing I needed was something to mount my electronics on. So I dug through my stuff, and then decided to use a donated part from my old robot (aside from the controller and radio). I had originally a drink tray made for “Victor” from plexiglas that had an insert to hold glasses as he worked his way around party guests, serving drinks and making general funny comments (supplied by me by wireless mic).

The top cover of the tray looked to be about the right size.

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And it was, just needing to remove the tab on the side..

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Then it was on to laying out and attaching the electronics.
This consisted of the feet motor controller (the big box with the transistors on top..talk about really old school), the dome motor controller, a power distribution board to take 12 volts to 5 volts for the radio receiver, the receiver, a fuse block, some terminal strips, and switches for the single 12 volt battery as well as the two 12 volt batteries hooked up in parallel for the motors.

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After that, I needed to install, or rather create, a way to hold my bluetooth wireless speaker. So I thought of an erector set, and went out and got some angled aluminum with the holes, and made this bracket. It worked perfectly..

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So now that all the electronics were hooked up, it was time to attach the motors and wheels to their respective wires and test him out before attaching the feet to the legs. At first it seemed to work well. The motors moved in the correct direction, though the left side seemed to not want to work intermittently… Not good. So I kept testing, and it seemed to work itself out. I’d do most of my testing at night, or early in the morning.

Then one Saturday I was testing, not so early in the morning. And trouble happened. The motors would move on their own when the transmitter was on, and not just in one direction, but jiggle, shake, and go pretty much all wonky. My first thought was that it was the old motor controller, but it was doing it with the dome controller as well… So it had to be the radio. I had read online that older FM r/c radios were susceptible to common wireless phones we use in our homes, since they run pretty much on the same FM frequency. Being that it was now about when people were up doing things, the transmitter was picking up those signals. Not good, especially if I was going to use R2 in public. Time to get a new radio.

This is not an expense I wanted or had planned on. Fortunately I found a great deal on a Spektrum 6 channel radio and receiver combo, which is digital so there would be no worries of any radio interference. I took out the old receiver and put in the new one, and then moved onto getting R2’s feet installed.

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The next step was to lock down the legs so they wouldn’t splay out behind R2. I was going to go with Mike Senna’s method of using another piece of angle iron tied into the center foot rails and then clamped to the gas pipe axle, but decided to drill some holes and use two lag screws on each side. This would pull the legs in to the body as well as prevent them from moving at all.

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Now it was time to test him out on carpet. At first I had decided to go 24 volts by hooking up the two 12 volt batteries in series. Two issues came from this. One, the rear feet really kicked up when going into reverse (they’d need to be locked down to the ankles, which I’ll cover later), and two, even at 24 volts R2 seemed sluggish, where again the right foot wouldn’t behave…then he just stopped. The dome motor worked fine, but nothing when I tried the feet motors. So I checked the fuses. Both 10 amp fuses were blown. So I put in new ones. Still nothing. The controller was dead.
Now I needed a new one, as my deadline was only 5 days away.

Time for eBay! Amazingly, there was a guy selling the controller I needed, and well within what I could spend, and to top that off he lived near my work…(for believers, THAT is how good God is…and only He could have made that happen. For non- believers, well, that’s how God is, and this kind of stuff happens all the time when you have Him in your life…). Two days before the weekend, as I had to have R2 at the church for rehearsal, I met the guy and got a brand new Vantec rdfr23 controller. That night I pulled out the electronics panel and hooked up the new controller. Note that the controller even says “R2” on it…wow.

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And yes, had to have a photo of my daughter as Princess Leia with R2… (she’s a professional Princess Leia).

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I decided to change R2 to run on 12 volts vs. 24, and then tested him out with his new motor controller. This all on Friday night, LATE, as I work all day, then we had to go to a birthday dinner for my father-in-law. Which went late. Needless to say, R2 ran almost perfectly..aside form his rear foot shells kicking up when going in reverse… Something I needed to fix, but really no time. I was tired as it was after midnight and it was time to get some rest. Oh, and he wanted to drive a little more to the left…no biggie as I would just pull the stick more to the right to compensate.

The next afternoon, my son and I rolled R2 out to the droid transport vehicle (our Honda Element), tied him down, and went off to the church for a brief run- through.

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We got there and we’re greeted by the one of the production guys, rolled him into the church and then lifted him up on the stage, although I was hoping we’d be able to run him on from backstage the next day. We tried out some moves and blocked out where he was supposed to go, checked on how he ran on stage, and then headed home. And yes, the feet kicked up in reverse. So on the way home we got some shelf brackets. I had tried using cotton board cut into wedges, but they just kept falling out…

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Next thing I knew it was Sunday morning and R2’s big debut- which was to be in front of a total of 15,000 people at the church throughout the day plus another couple thousand or so watching online live – talk about pressure.

Here’s the setup- one of the Pastors comes out onstage to make some announcements dressed as a Jedi while they play the Star Wars theme as he comes on, and the he drags out a box decorated to look like R2.

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When he mentions that’s all they could afford, since R2 replicas are so expensive to buy online, that’s my cue to roll R2 from out behind the curtain.

Here’s R2 getting mic’d. Also we got to go in from backstage past the green room, then by all the cables and stuff they keep on shelves, and then to our spot stage right.

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And R2 next to the box R2 waiting for his time to go on.

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As the worship band would do their last song in their set, I’d turn on R2’s dome, put it on, then power him up, test a little movement, and then put on the back door ready to rock and roll.

First service- 8:00 am. Pastor Mingo goes out on stage, then pulls out the cardboard R2, people laugh, and then time to roll out R2. People cheer wildly, and I get R2 up to him, have R2 loom at the box, make a sad sound, then at the pastor, make a disappointed sound, then push the box out of the way, every so often interrupting the pastor as he’s making announcements.

Then the lights go out to show a video and that’s my cure to roll R2 back to the curtain and backstage. So I have him moving at a good clip, but fail to see a panel on the floor that’s kind of too high for R2 to take. So he stops dead, and in slow- motion does his first official face-plant. The good thing is it was kind of dark, and people online were seeing the video. And well, okay…not so great. R2’s dome falls off and rolls a few feet, some run out, pick up R2 and his dome, one of the stage hands collects his dome batteries, and we get him backstage for me to inspect for any damage. Overall he looked fine, no dents, nothing pushed in, a small break to the wood large days port which I shoved back into place, and the dome was fine. I put the batteries back in and it lit up okay. So then we needed to move R2 to the lobby for photo opportunities after service, and would have to do this routine all day for 5 services. The good thing is R2 ran fine all day. As a matter of fact, the fall seemed to correct the steering problem I had when we first got to the church..

Here’s R2 with my daughter for the photo op. At noon we had a line of about 50 families wanting their photo with R2.

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At 9:30 it was time to roll R2 out to the transport, load him up and head home.

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Working on the feet

Wow, two posts in one week! I’ll admit that not only am I on a bit of a roll, but have some time to post as well due to my current work situation, as in, I’m a free agent, or, I’m seeking new opportunities, or plain and simple, I’m out of work. The good news is I’m taking on a pretty cool contract job for an app company. That means being able to pay bills, the mortgage, buy groceries, and of course some goodies for R2.

The last few days I’ve been putting a lot of time into getting the feet ready, including installing the motors and razor scooter wheels. I had a buddy who has a metal shop make me some scooter motor holders, though I’m considering getting some,of the swanky AA super styrene motor holders instead from a locals builder… We’ll see how things work out with the metal low-budget ones, as with those there is no concession for a caster to prevent wheelies, so I had to mount the wheels towards back of the feet.

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This has one advantage- better stability since R2 is more like a tripod. The disadvantage is it becomes less maneuverable. Having the wheels at the front of the feet provides easier turning, but then you get wheelies when R2 takes off… Thus the need for a caster in the back.
I’ll wait to see how this is all going to pan out.

While I was at it, I also added the aluminum foot strips, which were free since they were just leftover pieces of scrap from other work they were doing at the shop. The cool thing is these were pretty much the right size. And they’re nice and shiny too..

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Lastly, I had been working on adding the details to the side panels.

First, gluing them on with JB weld…

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Then primer and wet sanded so they were smooth and ready for paint.

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Tomorrow, paint Dover white, clear coat, add magnets to the backs, and I’m thinking of putting on the wheels and attaching the feet to the legs…had to order scooter motor chain online since it seems no one in San Diego carries it so I’m considering not putting them on until I have the chain installed.

My deadline to have him done and running is before the last Sunday of the month. R2 is going to be used primarily for work at Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald house, as well as at the Rock Church for the children’s ministry. I’ve written a bible study on how R2 is a great example of what a servant is, and how we can use that as a model to be servants of God, which has already been used by the church, and I plan on having small printed booklets to be able to give to families we visit.

Lots o’ updates

Well, it’s been a while since I last posted anything. I don’t know why. Well, could be just being lazy I guess. But I have been making some excellent progress on R2, as I need to get him up and running before the end of the month, as our church is doing a series called “in the movies”, and they want to have R2 there for some fun stuff.

So I’ve been working on the legs, lighting up the dome, motor mounts for the scooter motors and wheels, detail bits here and there and so on. Following is a bunch of photos of progress over the past 3 or so months…

Resin parts that came in from a guy who goes by the name of Steele..

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Painting the legs..

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Testing a leg out with some of the detail..

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Priming the parts..

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Masking and painting the ankle cylinders…

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The parts and assembly for the center foot caster…

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Making copper hoses from standard water hose…

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Wiring up the dome and testing power..
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Beep boop- finish me!

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Attached the legs…

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Working on the scooter motor holders and testing the legs with the foot shells…

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Drilled and painted the battery box harnesses..

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Glueing on the foot shell details..

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Now to get the motors in, electronics, wire him up.

The Back Door – Access panel

A few builders choose to not have a back access panel on their R2 – they just pop the dome off and reach down inside to get to whatever they need to work on. Being that I’m 6′ 7″, doing that is not an option…

So, I opted for a nicely made fiberglass and metal door, provided by a guy in the R2 builder’s group who goes by “Crash”.

This is the door with the laser cut aluminum painted Satin Dover White, which matches the color of the fiberglass- and happens to be what was closest to the screen-used droids. Why not just plain bright white? Details don’t show up (like all the neat panels) on film when  brightly lit. So, an off-white was used on R2 in all the films. And for the most part it looks pretty white anyway. Once he’s dirtied up a bit it’ll add to the effect of a well-used droid.

Door, metal outer skin for detail, and one of the power couplers mounted.

Detail skin mounted, glued and clamped for drying.

Once the skin was in place and the glue well-cured, it was time to add on the home-made coin returns.

One done and one waiting to dry

So now that I have the door done, I had to figure out how to keep it attached to the body. My first attempt was using good old cabinet closures….

Standard cabinet closure.

The idea was to put four in, one basically at each corner. So I tested it by attaching one closure at a time using the screws to the wood frame, and the clip to the door using JB weld.

The closure aligned but not screwed into place. Yet.

As I did each one and tested it (after lots of trial and error with the JB Weld not holding well enough, until I let it REALLY cure), it seemed like it would work well. The problem though is because the internal frame is at an angle, as much as one or two closures would work, four would not- geometry was against this plan…

So, back to the drawing board to figure out what else would work. The whole cabinet door idea was still stuck in my head. This time though I went for magnetic closures. And like a charm they worked very well.

Nice metal plate glued into place.

One magnet mounted.

The door ready for testing.

SUCCESS!!! It stays closed very nicely.

One thing I did need to do was add some angle brackets inside the door near the bottom to keep it from slipping down as the droid would be moving along.

More updates as I make progress. Among those will be more on the legs, the feet, and eventually the fully interactive dome!

Leg Work

 

Yep- about time for another post on the progress of my very own R2D2. I’ve been spending more time lately on the legs – outer and center.

The first issue I had when I got the legs off eBay from someone was there was a lot of finish work to be done. Bondo, skinning, and other things. So I skinned them with styrene, gluing them and stapling the styrene on. Not a good idea, as the staples show (duh), and the glue got a little lumpy. So thanks to sanding and the magic of Bondo, they’re coming along nicely. Below is one outer leg, ready for final primer, sanding, then color.

So as I’m taking a small break from those, I decided to move onto the center leg and make some custom beefy ankles out of styrene. The beauty of styrene is it’s easy to work with, glues together nicely with plain old model glue, and I have lots left over from the skins on the robot. Plus, half the fun of doing this is BUILDING it, not just assembling a bunch of parts I bought online.

Drawn and ready to cut.

Cut and ready for gluing. Added the small notch or window which will have a backing.

So once the ankles were done, it was time to glue them onto the center leg.

Glued and drying

As far as the outer legs, one of the issues was that the groove towards the bottom of the legs didn’t match up to the booster covers. I know that most people wouldn’t even notice this, but as a builder, and wanting to be pretty close to screen accurate, I did.

The booster cover groove doesn't match.

The solution was to Bondo the existing groove on the legs and then cut in a new groove that lines up more closely to the booster covers.

Marking where the new groove should be.

New groove guide lines

The new groove cut. Just need to bondo the old groove.

Up next- The back door.