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Ex-Disney pro redesigns room on stuffy Navy ship

The nameplate on the door calls it the Advanced Collaborative Prototype.

But to the officers and sailors on this Navy command ship, where the military tries out some of its newest innovations, the windowless space tucked away below decks is known as the Disney Room.

Designed by Bran Ferren, the Oscar-nominated former president of research and development and creative technology for Walt Disney Imagineering, the conference room is decidedly un-Navy.

The Disney Room is an experimental hybrid of the modern age where the art of war is being blended with the art of entertainment and business.

The table is round and made of wood. No "power position" for the ranking officer. The lighting _ provided by small halogen lamps _ is intimate and quiet, in contrast to the usual fluorescent tubes that whine and buzz and give off a greenish glow. The air conditioning is quiet and the air is fresh.

The walls are insulated to reduce outside noise. The table has wireless ports for laptop computers and screens and a state-of-the-art sound system are used for viewing videos. The chairs are comfy.

"This might not be that unusual for (a corporate) office in San Diego," said Cmdr. Chuck McWhorter, spokesman for the 3rd Fleet, "but for a Navy ship, it's a paradigm shift."

Ferren, who serves on several advisory boards advising the military and intelligence agencies on matters of information technology and workplace design, said that for all their differences, Hollywood and the military share some similarities.

"The core component of leadership is storytelling, how to articulate a vision and communicate it to people around you to help accomplish the mission," Ferren said. "Either way, you need a place where you can be contemplative, to look at the larger concepts, whether the mission is putting together a theme park or putting together war-fighting."

The goal of the Disney Room is to help the Coronado _ or a similarly equipped ship _ act as a floating command center in time of war.

"We're not implying we'll run the entire war from the Disney Room," Capt. Craig Patten, chief of staff for the San Diego-based 3rd Fleet, said. "But the Disney Room is a lot more friendly for decision making than the shrillness of the (ship's) information center."

Capt. Stuart Kendrick, one of the officers overseeing various innovations on the Coronado, said, only half-jokingly, that the Disney Room is an experiment to see if Navy brass can make decisions under conditions other than those that prevail on most ships: stuffy air, bad lighting and oppressively gray color schemes.

Inside the Disney Room, an atmosphere of almost Zen-like serenity prevails, conducive, the Navy hopes, to ruminating on large conceptual thoughts, thinking outside the box _ the kind of room that entertainment moguls might use to conjure up their next blockbuster.

Ferren said the military tends to prefer a no-frills approach to things like conference rooms, so that can pose a problem.

"In art, form follows function, but in the military, form follows funding," Ferren said. "You have to convince military people that aesthetics are important and that you will not hurt efficiency and may get a dividend on performance."

At Disney, Ferren was responsible for theme park design construction, Disney's entry onto the Internet, and the Disney program of bringing scientists and engineers to the company as consultants. He was nominated for an Oscar for special visual effects and given an award by the Motion Picture Academy for technical innovations.

Ferren, head of his technology company, Applied Minds, provided his services to the Navy gratis. Materials for the Disney Room cost about $164,000, a pittance by military standards.

Before the Coronado experiment is complete, there might be another Hollywood connection.

The Navy has had preliminary discussions with filmmaker George Lucas' special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, on helping the Navy find a way to integrate its various video screens and "smart" boards in a more vivid manner.

An admiral was dispatched to the firm's headquarters in Marin County, and Lucas executives toured the Coronado.

The San Diego-based Coronado was built during the Vietnam War era as an amphibious assault ship but has been reconfigured as a command and control vessel with space for commanding officers from all four branches of the military. That, too, is paradigm shifting.

In case military officers or civilians at a far-flung location need to be brought into the decision-making loop, the Disney Room has a tiny camera for videoconferencing.

Whether the Disney Room concept will be installed on other ships depends on a review by officers overseeing a variety of technological innovations on the Coronado, which has been designated by Navy Secretary Richard Danzig as a "sea-based battle lab."

In Hollywood or aboard ship, there is a trick to overcoming obstacles or institutional slowness.

"In the Navy, it helps a lot when you can tell people your project is backed by a three-star admiral," Ferren said. "At Disney, it helps to say that your project is a favorite of Michael (Eisner). They wear different uniforms, but Michael and the admiral are alike."