Disney’s Jon Snoddy is Designing the Future at SAE International’s WCX
Posted: March 23, 2022
Jon Snoddy has told many stories through design throughout his career, and he’s getting ready to share a juicy one at SAE International’s WCX.
As the current head of Walt Disney Imagineering’s R&D, Ride Engineering, Technology, and Show Systems studios, Snoddy leads the team responsible for the tech behind Disney’s theme parks, resorts, ships, and immersive experiences. Throughout his career Snoddy has worn many hats, working as a machinist, a car mechanic, a recording engineer at NPR, founder of GameWorks LLC, MyTelescope.com, TimePlay Entertainment, and Big Stage Entertainment, and an impetus for THX at Lucasfilm. He developed the ride system for Disneyland’s Indiana Jones ™ Adventure and the Disney VR Studio.
We sat down with Snoddy ahead of his appearance at WCX to get a peak behind the curtain with this Imagineering innovator and provide a glimpse of how a little Disney magic can make its way into the wonderful world of mobility.
SAE: You’re a unique keynote speaker for an event hosted by SAE International, an organization most closely connected to automotive and aerospace engineering. Can you describe how the work you do with Disney Imagineering and the advances being made in the mobility industry connect?
Jon Snoddy (JS): At Disney, we are storytellers. We invite our customers and guests to experience our stories through all media, including the full sized story worlds of our theme parks, resorts, and cruise ships. Storytelling at a Disney level requires a deep level of, hopefully invisible, technology that would be quite familiar to the people in the worlds of aerospace and automotive engineering. We have similar safety and reliability requirements and work with many of the same suppliers and technologies.
These days our attractions are becoming smarter and more connected. Guests enjoy high levels of personalization and integration with their digital lives. This requires us to build that into our projects at the earliest conceptual level, and carry it through design, delivery, and operation.
SAE: You’ve got a colorful background, of course with your work with Disney, but also with your experience in the world of gaming, audio engineering, and some work with cars. How have all of these experiences shaped your work and the way you think about the next big thing?
JS: I love showing people something they haven’t seen before, and Disney has been a place that embraces that. Though our technology is not on stage in front of our guests in its raw form, we have developed world class previsualization systems, digital twins for design, operation, and maintenance. We use principals and concepts that are in use throughout the world of technology. We routinely design using simulations with production hardware in the loop to ensure that the hardware fits the experience and to reduce our time to market. We do automated testing and continuous integration of software. We build many prototypes that we test with our audiences to ensure that our ideas are relevant.
SAE: What attracted you to speak at WCX to mobility professionals in the automotive space?
JS: I have always been a car guy. I taught myself to weld at the age of 9 so I could build better bicycle frames. I did my first frame off restoration of a car in high school and did autocross racing throughout high school and college. I love great engineering and cars have become these incredibly complex, highly integrated, rolling masterpieces of engineering. To do all this we employ great engineers from all disciplines. I have always been aware of SAE and look forward to meeting some of the people that make it happen.
SAE: The title of your WCX talk is “Designing Stories.” Can you give us a teaser of what our audiences can expect, and what kind of stories they can tell in automotive design?
JS: These days people own a lot of stuff. In many cases, more than they need, so purchases are more about choice than need, and the available choices can be overwhelming. There was a time when buyers talked a lot about reliability, but they now assume near complete reliability. Buyers can choose cars with breathtakingly powerful engines. The ACs work, stereos sound better than home systems did a couple of decades ago. Seats are comfortable and the materials match perfectly. Cars have become so good at so many things that most of the criteria we used to use to select one no longer apply. These days people tend to choose products that fit who they believe they are, or who they want to be; products that fit into their personal stories, and the companies that understand those stories and build cars that match them will succeed. I would argue that this notion of designing stories and designing around stores can be applied to everything one designs, from the simplest component to complete systems. and that without it, it is hard to know if something is good. The real idea here is that in designing stories, you are seeing the product as the end user sees it and ensuring that you are making a complete statement. You aren’t bolting together a collection of interesting components, but rather, designing an experience that will fit into, and further define the life story of a customer.
SAE: Many industry folks would say that the future of mobility is automated. Considering your work with and knowledge of artificial intelligence, how do you see this technology progressing with on-road vehicles, and what do the folks designing these consumer cars need to know?
JS: AI is entering the design world at all levels, and we are just seeing hints of what it can do. Many of the more mundane tasks will be automated, hopefully freeing design engineers to explore things that never had time to do. A design budget that might now allow only one or two iterations will be able to afford hundreds producing results that meet design goals more quickly. We use AI to explore game character dialog, evaluate QA feedback, to predict failures allowing preemptive repairs, and to create speech-based interactions.
Ready to hear more? Register now to catch Jon Snoddy at WCX in Detroit, Michigan, April 5-7.