Disney’s ‘Real’ Lightsaber Is Inspired by… Tape Measures?

Disney’s ‘Real’ Lightsaber Is Inspired by… Tape Measures?
Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP, Getty Images

At a recent virtual press conference, Disney Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro apparently whipped out a retractable lightsaber. According to people who were actually there, this drama queen ended a presentation about reopening Disney Parks and upcoming attractions by lifting this lightsaber, turning it on, and saying, “It’s real.” Cue to black.

No public pictures or video of this “real” lightsaber exist, but eyewitness accounts say this thing isn’t a plastic tube that lights up. According to Spectrum News 13, it actually lights up and rises forth from the hilt “similar to how lightsabers activate in the Star Wars films.” Meanwhile, Scott Towbridge, Portfolio Creative Executive for Walt Disney Imagineering, later confirmed on Twitter that yes, it was in fact not a CGI effect but declined to share pictures. But how did they do it?

It appears that most of the technical wizardry can be traced back to a 2018 patent titled “Sword device with retractable, internally illuminated blade.” The abstract describes two “long plastic semi-cylinders” that are motorised to mimic the iconic retracting action of lightsabers. The lighting is done via a “flexible strip of light sources.”

That might be hard to visualise, but a much easier explanation comes from VR developer Ben Ridout on Twitter (via the Verge).

So basically, it’s two motorised tape measures that wrap around each other, with a LED strip in the middle. To get that fully enclosed saber feel, Disney has widened the tape measure-esque “blades” to create a cylinder. Ridout also says in the thread that the hilt holds three spools — two for the tape measure blades and one for the LED strip — along with a small motor, battery, and other electronic components. And while Ridout’s animation is rather slow to better illustrate the mechanism, the patent says the lightsaber should be able to extend to 24 inches in less than a second, at a diameter between 0.5-2 inches.

Commence screaming. Every Star Wars fan has dreamed about the day when lightsabers toys/props might more closely resemble their movie counterparts. There is no shortage of those plastic retractable ones you find at kid’s birthday parties or fancy movie prop replicas. Right now, you can build a custom lightsaber at the Galaxy’s Edge theme park, but DIY nerds have been able to buy kits, parts, and components from vendors like UltraSabers, Saber Parts, and SaberForge for ages. There are even several communities of hobbyists who actually spend good money and time building several custom and replica lightsabers. (Yours truly may have lived for a time with one such enthusiast who regularly stored lightsaber components in the fridge and built their own custom lightsaber out of Home Depot parts “just to see if they could.” They could.)

We’ve no idea when these might be available to buy but the whole dramatic reveal does heavily imply you might be able to get them in the future at a Galaxy’s Edge Park. We also don’t know how well these retractable babies will hold up for very serious lightsaber duels that many of us will absolutely “not” be doing in our backyards while no one is looking. (If they don’t make noises on impact, is it really a ‘real’ lightsaber?)

That said, we all know this isn’t a “real” lightsaber. This thing won’t actually be able to chop off the hands of enemies (or perhaps a wayward future son). It will be a toy that fills the coffers of a corporation that feeds off childhood nostalgia, a powerful entrant to the merchandising machine. Personally, I don’t really care, Disney can shut up and take my money.