The show will always go on with the best AV

Visitor attractions have become some of the most advanced users of AV, enabling not just amazing sensory experiences but also variety so returning visitors have something new, Paul Bray reports.

No one goes to a theme park or museum these days to see bare metal or dusty cabinets. That’s why visitor attractions have become some of the most advanced users of AV.

“Usage is extremely varied, from background audio to enhance the atmosphere and visitor experience, to impactful projection displays, to practical applications such as wayfinding and queue management,” says Tony Crossley, pre-sales technical director at Pure AV.

Often a visitor’s first touch-point is an AV system. “Many attractions use AV to manage crowds, with displays to guide visitors to the correct entrance for example,” says Crossley.

But it’s the main attractions where AV really comes into its own. “The theme park industry has been at the forefront of technological developments for many years with a focus on creating the best possible customer experience,” says Cain Cookson, head of UK sales at VDC Trading.

One recent example is the upgrade to Derren Brown’s Ghost Train at Thorpe Park Resort, combining live action, VR (virtual reality) and show scenes with extensive use of projection, lighting and sound to create a multi-sensory experience. Variations in the story and different endings mean people will have different experiences. “In future it’s likely that many established rides will invest in a VR element to offer something new to returning visitors,” says Cookson.

One of the joys of AV is that you can change the ride experience simply by varying the content. Theme parks want repeat visits, and AV means the same rides and attractions can feel different every time.

At Fantasy Island theme park in Skegness, Holovis created a narrative-based attraction that is projection-mapped on to a 40ft-high indoor ‘mountain’. “It’s a multipurpose canvas that can be easily updated with new seasonal shows throughout the year to keep audiences engaged, which is far more cost-effective than a new attraction but just as impactful,” says Holovis’s creative director, Peter Cliff.

According to Scott Harkless, chief innovation officer at Alcorn McBride, the most successful implementations use AV to enhance a physical attraction. “AV equipment like speakers, flat-panels, projection screens and light fixtures is blended seamlessly with physical items like rockwork, props and ride vehicles to create more immersive experiences. The goal is to make guests feel they’re in another reality that physically exists.”

Varied content

An example is The American Prohibition Museum in Savannah, Georgia which combines real artefacts, live action and multimedia content such as street noises, Twenties music and archive film footage, enabling a lot of experience to be packed into a relatively small space.

As if rollercoasters weren’t scary enough, they are now being combined with immersive media to create narrative experiences. Take the Mystic Timbers ride at Kings Island amusement park in Mason, Ohio. “The experience begins from the moment people enter the queue line and builds to the mystery of ‘what’s in the shed’, referring to an enclosed section that the ride builds to,” says Cliff. “The narrative is as integral a part of the experience as the coaster itself, and because the experience changes by playing out different scenarios guests are unlikely to see the same show twice, making multiple rides essential to discover ‘what’s in the shed’.”

The ability of AV to create something out of thin air is put to good use at King Arthur’s Labyrinth, an underground attraction in mid-Wales, where an Optoma laser projector conjures up a nasty surprise. “A dragon lurks unseen in the river until the boat, on the return voyage, triggers a thundering roar and flames blast up the tunnel towards it,” says Andy Noble, managing director of installer, Piranha AV.

It’s now possible to create complete attractions solely from AV. HotGo theme park in Fushun, China, opened its first purely media-based attraction in 2017 – a 195-seat, 4D Cinerama immersive theatre with five digital laser projectors and a 180-degree wraparound screen measuring 20 metres by five. “The story follows an adventurer in the famous Qin Shi Huang tomb,” says Cliff. “This space has been virtually modelled and we follow the lead character’s escape into an underwater scene and eventually out.”

Museums are also embracing AV. “AV brings static exhibits to life,” says Andy Fliss, vice-president of sales and marketing at tvONE. “It can be used to illustrate the context in which an artefact was used, present the experiences of its users and even provide the visitor with the experience of using it.”

Projection mapping

Projection mapping can really bring exhibits to life, says Jeff Hastings, ceo of BrightSign. He cites the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, where a 3D projection-mapped video table illustrates the expropriation of Jewish property in Berlin during the Third Reich. The video content incorporates archival images and topographic time-lapse elements projected on to a 3D-printed 1:1500 scale model.

“Museums like the British Museum, Smithsonian, and Detroit Institute of Art are embarking on a range of VR and AR (augmented reality) displays that illuminate and embellish their exhibits,” adds Dana Poleg, vice-president of marketing at Kaltura. “In Detroit, for instance, with the help of Google’s Project Tango, you can view the petrified remains of a preserved ancient Egyptian if you point your phone at a mummy – kind of like X-ray vision.”

Visitors to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC can use an app to watch a vampire bat skeleton pull itself off the mount and run away, and the skeleton of an extinct Steller’s sea cow grow flesh before their eyes, thanks to an AR-based exhibit called Skin & Bones. And at the National Museum of Singapore, a Pokémon Go-like app enables visitors to hunt for plants and animals within giant murals and then download more information about them.

It’s all part of a growing trend towards interactivity. “Interactivity is now critical,” says Lucy Meredith, UK marketing specialist for visual systems at Panasonic. “Interactive touch screen panels, games and apps are essential if museums and visitor attractions hope to engage younger audiences.”

BYOD to attractions

The Petersen Automotive museum in Los Angeles is appealing to a more diverse audience by enabling visitors to download information to their smartphones by reading IDs in light sent from LED transmitters, using Panasonic’s LinkRay technology. “An added bonus is that information displayed on the phone can be automatically provided in the owner’s native language,” says Meredith.

AV offers great opportunities to personalise the visitor experience in this way. “People using their own devices is a massive opportunity in theme parks,” says Cliff. “Operators want to achieve personalisation so that each guest has a different experience.”

Phone apps combined with proximity beacons, geofencing and Wi-Fi triangulation will enable the ride narrative to be extended out into the park, with visitors finding items and solving puzzles before returning to the ride for a new experience that’s directly related to what they’ve been doing.

High expectations

A combination of high user expectations and harsh operating conditions means that visitor attractions can pose considerable challenges to installers and vendors. “Creating a convincing alternative reality requires uncompressed, high frame rate content, especially for large projections where the guests are quite close to the screen,” says Harkless. “Nothing spoils a visual experience faster than choppy video and pixellation.

For audio, speakers must be close to the guest for a high-quality personal sound experience. This is quite challenging on dark rides and coasters where environmental conditions are brutal and space, weight and power consumption are at a premium. Nothing will destroy your rack mount DSP and amplifiers faster than the nasty vibrations of a ride vehicle. The bottom line is that AV equipment has to be tough and reliable enough to withstand 24/7/365 operation under potentially harsh conditions.

But some of the biggest challenges are more existential. “The technology must be relevant to the attraction,” argues Matt Barton, managing director of 7thSense Design. “Some have been ruined by shoehorning in unsuitable AV gear that adds nothing to the story.”

AV can even be too interesting, Barton adds. “A major theme park invested a lot in a new queue-line experience. But it ended up causing a huge bottleneck in the queue, as so many visitors wanted to stay and interact there instead of on the ride.”

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