For many a young techie in the early 1980s, one of the many highlights of visiting EPCOT Center was getting to use the WorldKey Information System. Developed by the Bell Labs in concert with Disney, the WorldKey was an interactive guidebook to the park, which guests could access from kiosks in both Future World and World Showcase. Video content highlighting the various pavilions was streamed over fiber optic cable from centrally located videodisc players, and guests could also connect via a live closed-circuit video system to Guest Relations hosts in order to make dining reservations or ask other questions. The simple, touch-screen interface seemed sleek and futuristic, and was the first time that most EPCOT guests had probably experienced the now-commonplace technology.
Sadly, like many great EPCOT innovations the WorldKey is long-gone. Since its content was not generated dynamically, but instead had to be created by hand and recorded to videodisc, it was not easily updated or reprogrammed. It’s content grew more and more stale, with the patchy latter-day additions painfully obvious, until it was removed. Planned upgrades, like the promised inclusion of French and German language options, were never realized.
Bell Labs, which had become AT&T soon after the park’s opening, didn’t give up on the idea so easily. Witness this ad, from February of 1986, for AT&T’s Ariel system – the commercially available version of the WorldKey technology. It offered a “centralized source of information in a variety of public locations,” and promised applications as diverse as “a tenant directory in office buildings, an entertainment guide in hotels, a product and service guide at retail locations, and a point-of-information terminal in financial service institutions.”
What I love about this is that it truly is a rare example of executing the intended purpose of EPCOT – testing and prototyping new systems and technologies that would then be introduced to the free market. The Ariel system, released four years after WorldKey debuted, advanced the design and increased its flexibility. The 3B2/300 computer mentioned as the heart of the Ariel came onto the consumer market in 1985; it was a 32-bit UNIX-based system and was priced at around $10,000 for the model with 512K of RAM and a 10 megabyte hard drive, and $15,500 for the deluxe version with 1 megabyte of RAM and 32 megs of hard drive space. Networking hardware and software, of course, would cost a few thousand dollars extra. The 3B2 series would stay in production into the 1990s, and many remain in use today.
What’s funny, of course, is that the technology inside any given handheld device today would wipe the floor with the Ariel, and content that would have had to be painstakingly created in the old system could easily be recreated in Flash. This begs the question – where’s today’s version of the WorldKey? Why can’t any given hipster with an iPhone enter the park and, via free wi-fi, access an interactive park map with featurettes on each attraction and dynamically updated information about show times, dining reservations, attraction wait times and Fastpass windows? And Handwich stands?
It’s these elements of gee-whiz innovation that made EPCOT so exciting in 1982; technology has come so far that a high school student could probably whip up in a long weekend what most likely cost millions in 1982. Time to push the envelope again…