Standing in a dimly lit Disney Imagineering R&D lab, I'm getting a first-hand demonstration of a new invention – a “magic” floor – that gives me Jedi powers. I extend my hand and a box in the distance moves at my will.

Moments before this clever telekinesis trick, I noticed how this floor doubles as an omnidirectional treadmill. It has the potential to change the future of virtual reality, allowing a person to walk forever, in any direction, while staying in the same place. Is this how the Star Trek Holodeck was born?

See this: I Touched Disney's HoloTile Floor: Behind the Scenes at Imagineering

The Disney team calls this HoloTile flooring. It's a modular system of rotating and tilting floor discs, aided by lidar cameras and sensors that can slide anything or anyone across its surface. I briefly touched the surface and used a game controller to manipulate it, trying my best to figure out how the illusion was performed – and what it could be used for.

It's Tuesday afternoon and I'm inside Disney's Imagineering Campus in Glendale, California, on a tour with no video recording allowed. I'm envisioning the future of theme parks: new audio animatronics, some free-form and adjusted to the environments in real time.

Disney is on a mission to redefine entertainment with new technologies. Disney Plus was one of the first apps on Apple's Vision Pro headset, with the tech company leaning on the entertainment giant to provide its own immersive environments like gateways to a theme park at home.

And now Disney CEO Bob Iger promised to invest US$60 billion in its actual physical parks over the next decade. The company recently talked about expansion plans for the Magic Kingdom in Florida. At an annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, Iger Teased New “Avatar”-Themed Land possibly going to Disneyland in California.

And the pressure is mounting. In Florida, neighboring rival Universal Studios is building a fourth complex, a $1 billion park called Epic Universe to be built in 2025. Packed with five immersive lands and an on-site hotel, it's sure to divert the mouse's attention.

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Disney CEO Bob Iger and Parks President Josh D'Amaro speak to the press Tuesday on a tour of the Imagineering campus in Glendale, California.

Disney

Before the visit began, Iger spoke with a small group of reporters to emphasize how the Imagineering campus and its technology research and development teams, stationed a 35-minute drive from Disneyland, are at the center of the company's park expansion goals.

“These are artists who are constantly turning to the technology side, saying, 'give me the technological solutions to tell this great story,'” Iger said.

A Holodeck floor and much more

The HoloTile floor, announced in January with a video on the Disney Parks YouTube channel, it became an overnight viral sensation — and teams are now toying with possible uses. Invented by legendary Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot, HoloTile flooring is a system of modular, tiltable flooring discs. They can fit into any pattern you want and be arranged in any size space you need.

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Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot standing on his latest work, the HoloTile floor.

Disney

The floor demonstrated for us had 19 HoloTile sections, the same layout seen in Disney's demo videos. Each piece is made up of several round discs with protruding outer edges, like checkers or wheels.

Surrounding the high-tech blocks are lidar sensors – depth sensors similar to those found inside an iPhone Pro – that detect movement around the perimeter. When this happens, the discs spring into action, spinning and rotating as they tilt, sliding whatever is on them back to where it is programmed to belong. It's like a bunch of little circular treadmills working together to move something.

It is also possible to control and move an object from a distance. I used a game controller and moved a Luke Skywalker figurine around a sample block, just by moving the directional sticks.

Then I tried interacting with a special sensor and camera installed above, which enhanced the illusion using manual tracking. This gave me the feeling that I had the power of telekinesis. If I moved my hand to the right, a box on the HoloTile moved to the right. Push him away and he backed away.

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Disney Imagineer Lanny Smoot demonstrates how his chair slides across the HoloTile floor – controlled by a colleague pretending to use the Force with hand tracking sensors.

Disney

Smoot admits that there isn't yet a clear, defined application for HoloTiles, but like many Imagineering projects, it could end up being applied in a variety of unexpected ways. Smoot demonstrated that several people can be in it and not meet. This opens up possibilities for new games or stage performances. Smoot said dance choreographers are currently testing possible routines. The ability to move people or objects, such as magical chess pieces, can also be used for new attractions and rides.

HoloTiles could be an omnidirectional treadmill for VR. Smoot, who developed the patent, walked across the surface of the HoloTile for us while wearing a Meta Quest headset, walking through a virtual version of Disneyland. But I imagine this is an app that could be used outside of theme parks to enhance VR anywhere. It's like the Ready Player One Omnidirectional Treadmillbut in real life.

There is no information on when HoloTiles might appear in Disney parks. It could be years before anyone gets to see it in action. But I've seen robotic advancements that are coming and even in the parks now.

Robots cut your strings

Disney is testing little waddling robots that roam Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland from time to time. These adorable BD-X droids, running Nvidia chipsets that Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang showed off in his recent keynote for the company's GTC AI conference, have some environmental self-awareness for navigation and can adapt to complicated terrain.

The androids were trained to animate and adapt to different surfaces, whether grass or textured concrete, using a form of artificial intelligence called reinforcement learning. Androids quickly solve all kinds of walking scenarios in a simulation rather than the real world.

Disney “directs” these robots with a handler who controls them in the park using a Valve Steam Deck decorated to look like Star Wars equipment, so they are not autonomous. But they are worldly aware, able to adjust to unexpected obstacles and slippery floors.

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BD-X droids will make appearances at Disneyland in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge from April 5th to June 2nd.

Disney

Most Disney robots operate in controlled environments. But this programming paves the way for the robots to interact with an unpredictable guest. This is a sign of where Disney's animatronic robots are headed: fully mobile and surprisingly fluid.

New characters are almost there

I also got to see the new audio-animatronic robotic figures from Tiana's Adventure on the Bayou, a redesigned ride that will replace Splash Mountain and will be based on The Princess and the Frog. The company is still working on these characters, which will be released later this year. Some still had the insides of the machines exposed. But it's clear from the expression, detail and movement of a life-size character that what was once just a 2D drawing: we are worlds apart from Walt Disney's original talking Tiki birds.

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Imagineers test out one of the Mama Odie audio-animatronics coming to Tiana's Bayou Adventure ride this year.

Disney

“The thing about audio-animatronics is that for a long time, they were bolted to the ground,” said Josh Gorin, Imagineer R&D executive. “But now that we have these new technologies and these emerging tools, we can get them off the ground and into the air, make them run, make them jump, make them do impossible things that you couldn't imagine.”

At Disney California Adventure Park, a Spider-Man robot is launched into the air daily in a stunt show. Imagineers tested how to do it skate-relatable robots. And a single robot can be the center of an act, like a demonstration I saw from Duke Weaselton, a lanky, weasel-like robot who pushes a cart like a living cartoon. He then climbs into the cart to do a lively routine.

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The Duke Weaselton robot uses electromagnet technology in its shoes to keep it facing the right direction when standing up on the bench.

Disney

Most Disney robots usually operate in controlled environments, but that is changing. Just like the BD-X droids, which can march on the ground or climb hills, these new free-roaming robots could redefine the look of park design. Or, perhaps, even free yourself from the parks altogether.

It's hard to process what all these Disney inventions mean when I'm back in Glendale, in everyday Los Angeles, no longer behind the guarded walls where the magic is made.

But Disney Imagineers admit that the challenge of surprising people continues to grow as the level of compelling immersive experiences outside of the parks continues to rise.

“What we know is that the more people who can do amazing things at home will drive us to up our game in the parks to make the trip to the park that much more magical and special,” Gorin said.

What Disney and other competing parks like Universal Studios still own are vast physical spaces that they control. Theme parks are safe zones for testing new technologies in ways that the normal, chaotic world can't always do. Today, it's free-roaming robots and personal holodecks. What will be next?

CNET's Scott Stein contributed to this report.



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