High Tech Magic: "Turtle Talk with Crush"

Disney California Adventure theme park in Anaheim, California and Walt Disney World's Disney Hollywood Studio in Florida present an impressive, high-tech, magic illusion. I've often thought about how technology affects magic and, vice versa, how magic influences technology, but "Turtle Talk with Crush" is simply amazing. This interactive activity is a fantastic magic effect that combines puppetry, acting and technology.

"Turtle Talk with Crush" is billed as an interactive chat with "Crush," the surfing-inspired sea turtle from Disney and Pixar's "Finding Nemo" film. The attraction allows audiences to chat with Crush and engage in a seemingly live, unrehearsed conversation with the character who talks, jokes and even recognizes guests. It's much like talking with a real person, but the "person" is a computer-animated sea turtle that's seemingly swimming in a tank.

Virtual Aquarium
The theater features a huge screen that looks like a live ocean scene. In Orlando, Florida, the attraction is part of EPCOT's Living Seas pavilion and makes it appear that spectators are looking through a glass panel into the pavilion's main aquarium. There are fish constantly swimming in the background and for all practical purposes, it's a giant aquarium. (In Anaheim, the attraction is housed in the Animation building on Buena Vista Street.

Enter Crush, who swims in place, makes eye contact and talks, and even performs some tricks. The character identifies audience members, learns their names and responds to their questions. The illusion is completely convincing and after awhile, I forgot that I was watching a fictional character. Here, Crush talks and moves just as he did in "Finding Nemo," and the reaction from audience members is jaw-dropping amazement.

Virtual Ventriloquism
I'm guessing that "Turtle Talk with Crush" is a sophisticated program that combines 3-D computer generated graphics with puppetry and acting, and may rely on motion capture technologies. It's much like a ventriloquist controlling a dummy, but in this case, the "dummy" is a real-time computer-animated character. It's a magic trick that makes use of the latest, cutting-edge computer animation techniques as well as the tricks and techniques of our performing arts.

With enough computing hardware, it's not hard to imagine that this technology will allow for convincing 3-D audio-animatronic figures that can interact with audiences. Who says that magic is diminishing in importance and stature in our technology age? "Turtle Talk with Crush" clearly shows that you have to remain open to new ideas and embrace and use them.

-Wayne N. Kawamoto