Ambient Transformations: MyMagic+ at Disney

The hospitality and tourism industry has pioneered the use of ambient digital technologies to improve operations and enhance experiences. A previous post looked at the cruise lines, this reviews Disney’s MyMagic+, an award-winning suite of ambient technologies deployed to improve its parks. When Disney started MyMagic+ in 2007, it required billions of dollars in investment to transform the guest experience. Since then these technologies have spread. Now that our world has much of the same infrastructure many of the Disney strategies can be replicated by other businesses to transform and enhance their own unique magic. 

Losing the magic

Every real-world business faces pressure from old rivals and new digital entrants. In retailing, there’s Walmart and Amazon. In hospitality, traditional chains now face boutiques and Airbnb. Restaurants must compete against each other as well as food trucks, gig-economy kitchens, and delivery services.  

Even Disney’s impressive moat does not insulate it from competitive pressure and cultural shifts. Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a hit. Cruises are destinations. Vacations are adventures. Social media consumes our attention. Video streaming and gaming create competing alternative worlds. VR is just around the corner (maybe this time!).  But these are new pressures.


In 2007 Disney faced a sobering reckoning with something worse, an indicator showing that “half of first-time attendees signaled they likely would not come back because of long lines, high ticket costs, and other park pain points.”  Disney discovered that some guests split their families and criss-crossed the park more than 20 times to reduce wait times. Steve Jobs, a Disney board member, told Disney executives that “doing what you’ve been doing and believing that will remain the model for the next 20 years is not right.” (Fast Company)

Competition is one thing, losing your magic is quite another.

Past in the future

The challenge for Disney, as for many other real-world businesses, is how to cast new spells without forgetting the traditional magic. Nostalgia is designed into Disney’s parks. The entrance to the Magic Kingdom is Main Street USA. The rides are legendary. It’s A Small World is unchanged since 1964. Pirates of the Carribbean founded a film franchise. Older generations return with their children and grandchildren, expecting to experience the same youthful wonderment. So then, how to transform the Disney experience without ruining it?


MyMagic+: Ambient alchemy

The solution that emerged is a suite of technologies that has helped transform Disney’s parks and their profitability while reinvigorating its magical experience. 

From the Wikipedia entry:

MyMagic+ is a suite of technologies first implemented at the Walt Disney World Resort that enable a number of services and enhancements to guests of the resort. Influenced by wearable computing and the concept of the Internet of Things, the system is primarily designed to consolidate various functions, such as payments, hotel room access, ticketing, FastPass, into a digital architecture consisting primarily of radio systems, RFID-enabled wristbands known as MagicBands, and features accessible via online services and mobile apps


Image from Disney

Most of these technologies are ambient– that is, they operate in the background throughout the park to provide highly personalized benefits and services without intruding into the experience. It is imperative that technology not insert itself into the guest’s perception of the world Disney creates. While the transformation depends on advanced digital technology the experience itself is, most emphatically, not digital. It reinvents and reinforces the old Disney magic yet remains in the real-world. 

Conjuring time

One the spells MyMagic+ casts relieves a pain point found everywhere: wait times. 

The solution harnesses MagicBands, mobile apps, and web applications to recognize, anticipate, coordinate, and guide guests to attractions with spare capacity or open areas of the park. FastPass schedules and coordinates access to high demand rides. Mobile notifications provide updates. Personalized park routes prioritize a guest’s personal interests and timing while coordinating with park capabilities. Real-time dynamic analysis of MyMagic+ location data reveals hot spots and indicates solutions. Crowds building near the castle? Dispatch a character parade to siphon them to open areas of the park.

The benefits come straight from an operations textbook. MyMagic+ has cut turnstile times by 30% while increasing park capacity. Even the wait at the newly opened Millenium Falcon ride is only 25 minutes. And when guests aren’t in line for a ride, that’s more time to buy gifts, keepsakes, and food. MyMagic+ eases a major pain point, improves the experience, maintains the Disney illusion, and increases the revenue potential of the entire park. 


Image from Disney


Then there’s the data. 

It turns out that the data to reduce wait times for its attractions in the real-world also reveals consumer sentiment in the digital world. Changing demand for attractions reveals shifting attitudes towards movie franchises. It’s better than a focus group. What do people under time, financial, and physical constraints really prefer?

The MyMagic+ data and flow patterns also help manage off-stage costs and resources. Higher precision demand forecasting improves employee distribution and shift allocation, no small task considering Disney World must schedule 80,000 cast members into 240,000 shifts. Knowing exactly who is needed, when, and where optimizes staffing costs and permits better scheduling for supporting services like laundry and dry cleaning.

Your adventures

MyMagic+ ambients also personalize experiences. They guide you to your must-see attractions, and insure you meet your favorite characters. Real-life Disney princesses wish children Happy Birthday by name. Your wallet stays in the hotel room and you pay for food and souvenirs with the MagicBand. Hotel keys? Just wear the MagicBand and walk straight into your room. Eat at the Be Our Guest restaurant and your favorite food finds you. PhotoPass recognizes your MagicBand, snaps your picture on on rides, and sends the images and videos to your account.


splosh736551Images from Disney

Spinning gold

According to a Disney executive, MyMagic+ has allowed “north of 5,000 more people into the park for the same experience” in the Magic Kingdom alone. Just the marginal ticket revenue on that increase is $182 million per year– then there’s the incremental per guest spend on hotel, food, beverage, and merchandise. 

The net result of Disney’s efforts: operating profit for its parks increased 18% last year to reach $4.5 billion, a 100% increase in the last five years. Building on this success, Disney is investing a further $24 billion–  more than Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm combined– to enhance and build physical properties and ships.


Image from Disney

Our Tomorrowland

The technology of Disney’s world is now in our world. What Disney spent $1 billion crafting is now commonplace. Smartphones perform the role of MagicBands at Disney’s other parks. So these same capabilities can be exploited everywhere in almost any demographic. Sensors are inexpensive. Machine learning is now a commodity. Sophisticated visual recognition systems are in phones and home cameras.  

There is life, and profits, in the real world physical space. While Disney parks are unique, they are unique by design. Real-world businesses are already unique by the nature of their location and role in the surrounding community. It is now possible to leverage technology to imitate the spells of MyMagic+, to remove the pain and retain the uniqueness of your real-world experience.


To cast a spell

Disney’s success shows businesses should start with a few key questions.

Where do your customers spend time?

Many real world friction points can be solved by saving your customer time. Time itself is unique, a constantly fading asset that is irreplaceable. Do not let your customers wait for the experience your business provides. 

What makes your customer unique?

Each customer is unique and always playing multi-layered roles. At Disney, guests are parents, children, spouses, friends, and newlyweds who in the blink of an eye become princesses, pirates, jungle explorers, astronauts, and river boat captains. Provide consistent yet personal experiences suited for your customer’s role in the moment.

What makes you unique?

You, and your business, are unique. Your products and services. Your location. Your community.  Your employees, your cast members.  Your culture. Like Disney, identify what must be reinforced and retained even as you find tomorrow’s magic.

You think about what makes your magic and your real world unique. We figure out how to tap that magic with the ambient technology now surrounding us all to help you cast new spells. 

Long reads

FastCompany – Inside Disney’s radical plan to modernize its cherished theme parks.

Wired – Focusing more on the MagicBand


Ambient cruises

Future distributed

Resorts and cruise lines are embracing ambients to enhance their guests’ experiences and improve their own operations. Disney’s MagicBand and Carnival’s Ocean Medallion maybe the best publicized, but all the cruise lines leverage ambient technologies to eliminate distractions and friction that distract from the experience they want to convey.

The cruise lines design these systems so that you won’t have to pay much attention at all to the logistical details of travel. That all you remember is your wonderful experience– infused with a curiosity about what other adventures your cruise line might offer in the future, whether it’s on another cruise or perhaps at a partnering resort. This future is distributing.

Your ambient cruise

When you book your cruise for the first time, you’ll download the cruise’s app to your mobile and smart watch.  This may be all you’ll need, or perhaps you’ll receive a small jewel-like medallion in the mail that you wear as a bracelet, pendant, or simply carry it in your pocket. This enables the ship and her crew to recognize you.

On arrival, your check-in and baggage handling is effortless. Royal Caribbean aims to get you from your “car to the bar in ten minutes”. With Carnival’s Medallion you can order that drink with a mobile app and it will find you, whether you make it to the bar or stop at the pool. Grab a souvenir on the way and present your wrist to pay. Stop for some entertainment and the musicians will adjust their playlists based on your and fellow audience members’ preferences. Safety drills are fast and if there’s an emergency, the crew will find you if you have problems. Sleep undisturbed, your room will be cleaned when you leave, no knocking or signs required. Crew members recognize you and address you by name even though it’s your first time on this ship.

Enjoy excursions that suit your sense of adventure. Find an uncrowded romantic lounge or a raucous nightclub, a mobile app or the ship’s displays will help you find your way. You won’t get lost unless you want to. Your memories will not be tainted by a lost bag, a long line, or a missed opportunity. You decide you’ll return, and when you do your favorite drink will be waiting.

Creating your experience

While you are relaxing, behind the scenes the ambient technologies are improving the efficiency of the ship, crew, and the cruise itself. Employees are directed to the crowded lounges. Housekeepers move efficiently between unoccupied rooms. Safety checks require fewer crew members. Less food is wasted. Fewer staff are able to deliver superior experiences. Employee satisfaction rises as they handle fewer complaints and focus on personalizing and enlivening your journey.

Your next trip

Your next trip is even smoother. Your vacation starts a little earlier. A car appears to transport you to the airport. Another is waiting when you land to whisk you to the ship. You don’t even touch your luggage. On board, the crew knows you, though it’s a different ship,. Your cabin is close to your favorite activities. It is always the perfect temperature.  It responds to your questions and adjusts to your requests. The trainer in the ship’s gym knows your workout requirements.

Excursions will be just right, perfectly matched for your interests, pushing your boundaries just enough or not at all. Your wireless headphones will guide you both on the ship and on the shore. Keep your head up and eyes open, you’ll have all the details you want but won’t be lost in a guidebook or on your phone.

When you return home, pictures from the cruise appear in your photos library. Images captured from your adventure that you couldn’t possibly take. Selfies for social media without using your camera. Books for your coffee table, organized into different themes and drawing form past cruises.

Your future experiences

A little further in the future, the lifestyle and conveniences of your favorite cruise line might extend into your daily life. Some will draw directly from the experience of your cruise. Dishes you discovered on board become favorite recipes. Wines you loved are delivered. Your next resort, restaurant, and hotel visits may recognize your cruise medallion or wearable app and provide you with the same personalized service. Your social circle will expand to include people who shared your adventure and experience, even if at a different time. Your adventures may become a foundation for your evolving community, one still from your local environment, now informed by and connecting to the world by your experiences.


The emerging cruise experience in a New York time article.

Disney’s MagicBand, a few years old but still relevant in-depth look from Wired.

A Miami Herald reporter enjoys a Carnival Medallion cruise.

USA Today also hops on board with a Medallion.

Cruise industry news looks at the Medallion as a precursor to the smart city.

The Perfect Servant

What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others?

It’s the gift of anticipation.

And I’m a good servant; I’m better than good, I’m the best; I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired, and the bed is turned down.

I know it before they know it themselves.

Mrs. Wilson, Gosford Park, 2001

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed

William Gibson

Ambients: An Introduction

This is an era of perfect service, distributed.

Gosford Park is Julian Fellowes’ wry predecessor to Downton Abbey, an upstairs-downstairs murder mystery set on a 1930s English country estate. Mrs. Wilson is the head housekeeper who is barely noticeable yet critical to the lives and needs of Gosford Park’s owners, guests, and fellow servants.

In Gosford Park, only the wealthy can afford a servant as perfect as Mrs. Wilson. In our era, we’ll all have access to versions of Mrs Wilson: ambient digital apps distributed through our environment. These ambients will also have the gift of anticipation. They too will know our need before we know of it ourselves.

What is an ambient?

A digital process– an app– in our local environment that requires no user attention to fulfill a need.

Ambients are already here. A basic thermostat is a primitive ambient. New technologies expand the range and capability of these ambients so that they start to anticipate customer need. Nest and Ecobee thermostats are ambients with anticipation. Apple’s watch recognizes when we’ve fallen and anticipates we’ll need help. Its ECG anticipates heart conditions. Face++ in China makes payments and replaces train tickets. These ambients aren’t Mrs. Wilson, not yet. And they aren’t evenly distributed, not quite yet.

Ambient apps operate on a network of sensors, microprocessors, and actuators. Most of these nodes will be personal and proximate. Ambients may be completely automated, such as a smart thermostat, while others may include people in the process, such as a hotel employee with an AR earpiece, or a doctor reading Apple’s ECG. Many ambients will retain the human touch, particularly at the point of service.

Like Mrs. Wilson, ambients will have an apprenticeship. At first, we’ll instruct them with simple gestures, gazes, and commands which the app-in-training will understand and remember. Eventually the ambients will perform without our attention. We will forget they exist.

In implementation, ambients mix common technologies– IoT sensors, wifi, bluetooth, NFC, mobile, AR, and ML–  to fulfill needs without consuming our attention. In contrast, immersive processes like VR remix the same technologies to consume as much of our attention as possible. Ambients lie at the other end of the spectrum from apps of attention– it’s the same technologies harnessed to different ends, driven by different business models, and defined by different metrics.  


Ambients can be divided into two archetypes: evolutionary and revolutionary.

Evolutionary ambients substitute for services we’ve thought of already but have been too expensive to mass produce. Think of super-capable Mrs. Wilsons. Smart thermostats. Clever door locks with facial recognition. These ambients distribute William Gibson’s future throughout the present.

Revolutionary ambients inject world-class expertise into our lives to anticipate needs beyond our reckoning. Apple’s ECG ambient is a harbinger. Such ambients detect signals beyond the range of our senses, apply world-class expertise to recognize subtle patterns, and coordinate remote actors to help us. Not even a highly-trained Mrs. Wilson had such capabilities. These are new services offering new value.

Ambient Consumers

For consumers, ambients free our attention from mundane, repeatable, and predictable tasks. Revolutionary ambients will help us make better decisions and even save our lives.

From a broader cultural, social, and political perspective, ambients offer an antidote to attention fatigue. Where apps of attention bind and addict our conscious thought, ambients liberate it. They provide us with the the time and freedom to focus on more important things.

Business ambients

Businesses must build ambients to gain strategic advantage in a world of finite customer attention. Apps that require less attention to deliver services and value will win and retain more customers.

Exit a zero-sum strategy

Limited time creates a zero-sum competition for consumer attention. Attention to one task comes at the expense of another, and time in one app is less in another. This competition is intense and dominated by a few social, entertainment, and communications platforms. It is a roadblock for many digital services and innovations– we have wonderful app with wonderful value propositions, but how do we get customers to use it? In delivering digital services, many businesses must win a share of attention from Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix, and only then can they compete with their traditional sector rivals.

Ambients are not zero-sum. They are not time-limited. They do not compete with non-sector behemoths for attention. They do not displace each other, unless both provision the same need at the same time and place. Smart thermostats co-exist with Apple’s ECG, and can also co-exist even in the same house. As ambients learn to anticipate, they require less and less attention to provide better and better service. Ambients offer new options to engage digital technologies while exiting a competition that, for most, offers diminishing returns.

Build new experiences

The anticipation that powers ambients also builds other systemic business advantages.

The first is the chance to redefine consumer perception. Ambients remove the friction of uncertainty so that what remains is experience, the sense of a need fulfilled. I’m hungry– the food is ready. I’m tired– the bed is turned down. Ambient technologies have the capability to transform a service into an experience, to remove so much friction that the need itself is redefined.

The second is operational. To anticipate is to predict, and predictability enables optimization. Ambients must predict the most important need of all, that of the end customer. Predict that need and the entire business– the people, the supply chain, the infrastructure, the organization structure — can be re-optimized to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

The third is that ambients change how customers decide. In effect, ambients aggregate many small decisions and actions into a single decision of much higher value undertaken with less frequency. Once hired, Mrs Wilson handles a myriad of details, perfectly, so her employer doesn’t have to. But hiring Mrs Wilson? That’s a very significant decision, one that wraps many lesser ones and may last decades. It presents businesses with new opportunities to create defensible market positions.

The fourth is that revolutionary ambients create new revenues in new markets. Consider Apple’s ECG and other yet-to-be invented health-oriented wearables. Or self-driving cars. Ambients allow businesses to broaden the scope of how a need is defined and how it is fulfilled.  It is an opportunity to introduce and capture new revenue streams. The possibilities are near limitless– or at least, they are not limited by attention.

The Future: Apps of experience

This post posits that we’re entering an era where digital technologies will be applied to save time, tedium, effort, and lives without consuming more and more of our attention. It proposes that apps can enhance our experiences without gamifying everything, without intensifying social anxiety, and without creating psychological addictions. That apps can deliver immense value with minimal engagement. That there’s an antidote to apps of attention. That digital technologies can liberate our senses and broaden our experiences.


Walt Mossberg’s the disappearing computer

A good overview of ambient intelligence and its future impact

A TechCrunch overview of ambient intelligence from 2016

An interesting blog post about why ML will be in tiny devices and sensors

Google’s Edge TPU doing exactly that, adding ML to embedded devices

About the post

This blog post is the first in a series examining the rising tide of ambients and the emerging opportunities and revenues as well as the risks and costs, primarily in the business sphere.

These posts draw from my personal ongoing experience building an ambient app, from my professional work at Rocket Insights designing and developing apps with these technologies, and from observing activities and changes in the market.

Apple Watch’s ambient app

Apple announced two significant ambient apps for the Apple Watch this past week, the Fall Detector and Heart Rate monitor. In keeping with the amorphous nature of ambient apps, the word “ambient” never appeared but ambient they are and worth analyzing through that lens. For this post, I’ll focus on on the Fall Detector, though the commentary could apply equally to the Heart Rate Monitor.

This is a next big thing?

In a presentation the Fall Detector was underwhelming– it’s difficult to get excited about people who have fallen and can’t get up. Yet there’s massive value there, which will be clear when an ad one day appears recollecting how the fall detector saved a life. Hidden value is characteristic of many ambient apps because when an ambient app is any good you won’t even be aware of it at all.

As an ambient app

The Fall Detector can be analyzed as a wearable app, a healthcare app. It’s also worth examining the Fall Detector several common elements shared by ambient apps.

  1. Executes an ambient decision cycle
  2. Requires no user awareness or interaction
  3. Transforms a Product → Service → Experience

Executes an ambient decision cycle

The Fall Detector uses advanced sensors to detect a hard fall, determines if you are ok, and if not, sends an emergency call and notifications to people who can help. So it’s definitely an ambient app: it recognizes a need for help, anticipates how to provide that help, and takes action to contact people who can help– all without user awareness or intervention.

Collaboration: an opportunity

In the current app, there’s collaboration with established contacts but none with other devices. It’s possible that in the event of a fall people nearby might notified to serve as good samaritans. They might be other people with the app, the watch, or even other devices in the Apple ecosystem such as the iPhone.

This offers an interesting dynamic. If you wear the watch and engage the app, you automatically become part of a mutual support system. Taking it a step further, the app could also coordinate a response between nearby actors– it could determine who’s best qualified, who’s capable, who’s available, and what further instructions you need to provide real help. This could be a great way for advanced ambient tech to coordinate and foster humanity’s better instincts and take smart wearable tech beyond the narcissistic selfie or FB post. For Apple, it would be another terrific reason to join its ecosystem.

Requires no user awareness

As with other ambient apps, the user interface is not involved in the Fall Detector’s operation– it’s only there for setup and settings. The user is completely unaware of the app’s function until it brings help.

Product → Service → Experience

The Fall Detector app also transforms how a need (help after a fall) is fulfilled (in many instances, help is not provided at all). It shifts the form of need fulfillment from a product or service (e.g. a Life Alert device) to an experience that requires no conscious effort. In the case of a serious fall, a service is engaged on your behalf, yet all you’d know about is the experience of receiving help.

What to watch

With the Fall Detector Apple adds value and revenue streams to the watch in the near-term while continuing its careful steps towards building health care related revenues. From an ambient app perspective, it’s evidence that ambient apps could find early traction in health care applications, where the delivered value is very high and user awareness and intervention may not exist in any current form. It’s also indicative that for decentralized ambient apps, wearables will be a significant platform.  And the Fall Detector hints at a corollary: ambient apps may deliver the consumer value required for wearables to fulfill an early promise and emerge as the next mass consumer device.

Ambient apps

We are now in the era of ambient intelligence, a new phase of the information revolution that will transform how we interact with technology, our surroundings, and society.

Ambient intelligence diffuses information technologies into our local environment to the point where the technology seems to disappear into the background.

Ambient apps built on these technologies act to fulfill our needs with little or no attention. The best known ambient apps are skills for voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant. Others include smart home systems like Nest and Ecobee, and, somewhat infamously, security and payment applications built on facial recognition platforms in China.

These ambient apps already engage with hundreds of millions of people, and elements of ambient intelligence in apps like Assistant and Siri reach more than a billion on smartphones. Yet so far the amorphous nature of ambient apps has made this era difficult to recognize as a Next Big Thing.

Just what are ambient apps?

While ambient apps seem amorphous they are evolving from the same core process and so share key characteristics across industries and technologies. Identifying these commonalities helps provide a framework for analyzing the opportunities, benefits, risks, and costs of ambient apps in business, politics, and society.

A thermostat is a primitive ambient app. It senses the ambient temperature, compares it to the preset preference, and takes action to bring a room to the target temperature without user intervention. In this core ambient process, the environment adapts to meet a need.

As ambient apps evolve, they weave increasingly powerful and inexpensive digital sensors together with ML decision-making to transform simple local controls such as a thermostat into super-smart systems that change how we interact our surrounding environment.

Ambient apps operate in the background and require little or no attention. Simple natural gestures, gazes, expressions, and commands just work. Even in primitive ambient apps visual interfaces are rare and discreet. There is no learning curve. Just turn the thermostat. Ask Alexa for the weather or Google Home to set a timer. Approach and a smart lock unbolts. Pay by looking into a camera at a Chinese KFC.

More advanced ambient apps anticipate need. A simple thermostat becomes a Nest thermostat that learns to anticipate future settings based on a range of contextual parameters such as time of day and the weather.

Advanced ambient apps start to adapt to an individual. One example of a smartphone app with ambient capability is Waze, which  anticipates my commute and notifies me when my usual route is stalled. Auras is an ambient smartphone app that makes smart thermostats smarter by learning your individual preferences.  Auras then automatically requests adjustments from any nearby smart thermostats registered on the Auras network– just as Waze anticipated my individual commute, the environment will adapt to your individual need.

Evolving ambient apps will collaborate to coordinate actions and optimize use of shared resources. Auras exchanges preferences with other nearby Auras to find a comfortable temperature for everyone in the room. As people enter and leave, the room adjusts in response to the changed collective preferences.

Ambient apps float. They travel. Places recognize you. Waze will route its notifications through Alexa. The Alexa in your hotel room will know you. Auras operates from your watch in any room. KFCs across China will recognize you and offer choices based on your preferences and budget.


Ambient apps remove friction from a service to increase the lifetime value of a consumer. In economic terms, an ambient app removes transaction costs by reducing uncertainty at key decision points, or better still, removes the decision points entirely.

When a need is anticipated and fulfilled, there’s no churn or diversion. It is like a branded moat, but with a different type of awareness. Ambient apps deliver vertical integration of consumer decision-making through a new blend of operations, branding, and technology.


The best ambient apps will transform a product or service into an experience, and experiences into something ethereal. When needs are met without effort or thought, all that remains is the senses, which are free to focus on the experience. The ideal experience then defines the consumer’s conception of the need.

The world’s best hotels have been doing this for years, relying on the intelligence, diligence, and training of their employees.  Years ago, at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Singapore, I slipped out a side door for a jog and on my return an hour later a doorman met me at the base of the drive with a towel and bottle of water. He had noticed, remembered, and anticipated a guest’s need without a word.

What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant; I’m better than good, I’m the best; I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry, and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired, and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.

Mrs. Wilson, Gosford Park, 2001

Ambient apps reduce the cost of delivering this personalized, anticipatory experience. Disney’s MagicBand and Carnival’s Medallions are early movers, using ambient intelligence to deliver personalized, friction-free experiences to thousands of people a day.

Done well, ambient apps often seem revolutionary, magical even. Yet the magical experience, and the ambient apps, are really outcomes of improving a process of meeting a well-defined consumer need. The magic emerges from the clever application and integration of some amazing new technologies into this process.  


In an ambient app, an array of local sensors sends data to a decision node that recognizes a need and executes actions to fulfill that need. The simple thermostat embodies the core process flow.

A more sophisticated flow will also anticipate needs and collaborate to optimize outcomes. To learn, the process may iterate and solicit input from a person or sensor.

What is new in this process in this era is the scale, scope, and capabilities of the local sensors and the decision node.

The most critical is the rising density of smart, networked sensors communicating local environmental data in real-time at low latency. Some sensors will be simpletons, such as networked thermometers or motion sensors. Others will be ML-enabled, such as cameras and speakers with image and voice recognition, and will provide data at a higher-level of abstraction. The latter trend is revolutionary.

With this data the decision node builds a contextual understanding to anticipate needs and execute actions to fulfill meet the need. Like the sensors, the decision node can be a simple function or ML-enabled. Simple decision rules acting on high-quality, precise, low-latency sensor data will generate highly “intelligent” outcomes.

This decision node may reside in an environmental device, the cloud, smartphones, or wearables. Disney’s MagicBand and Carnival’s coin-like Medallion serve as smart sensors feeding decision nodes in the cloud. In the Auras app, smartphones and watches provide both the highly-capable sensor arrays and the decision nodes.

Decision nodes trigger actions. Some actions may be automated, such as a thermostat controlling an HVAC system, or an Alexa ordering through Amazon. Other actions will require people to reduce friction or shape an experience.

In practical terms, building ambient apps in the near future will integrate various environmental sensors with a cloud- or smartphone-based decision node. Other solutions may leverage the sensors built into smartphones and wearables. Some ambient apps will be 100% digital and automated, like a smart thermostat, completing the entire process of recognizing and fulfilling a need. Other ambient apps will be hybrids that make it easier for employees to provide the personalized “human touch” that defines a consumer’s experience.

This blog post is the first in an ongoing series examining this era of ambient intelligence and the emerging opportunities, challenges, benefits, costs, and risks primarily in the business sphere.

Links and articles

Walt Mossberg’s last column, the disappearing computer

A good overview of ambient intelligence and its future impact

European Commission’s ISTAG and Philips defines ambient intelligence, loosely

A TechCrunch overview of ambient intelligence from 2016

An interesting blog post about why ML will be in tiny devices and sensors

Google’s Edge TPU doing exactly that, adding ML to embedded devices

Wired’s in-depth look at Disney’s MagicBand  

FastCompany’s article about the development of MagicBand, includes interesting information about the corporate tensions that emerged

A quick look from Harvard Business School at MagicBand’s impact on Disney World’s operations

An interesting article from FastCompany about how Carnival’s Medallions aim to go further than MagicBand