Variations on a theme

InAVate steps, Alice in Wonderland-like down the rabbit hole of Themed Environments to assess the impact that AV technology is having on this most creative of markets.

Take a mental walk through your local area, or for the really adventurous, try it through your nearest large city. Walk past the corner shop, which has an illuminated neon sign, moving message lotto advert, scrolling message advert for cigarette papers. Pass the multi-screen cinema complex with its central pod of twenty plasma, through the shopping mall with its electronic billboards, glitzy advertising hoardings and video screens and surround sound in every shop. The new casino-bar with a live performance stage, state-of-the-art sound and lighting system, high-tech disco, and video distribution to a network of screens. Head into the museum, which no longer boasts just a collection of stuffed animals. It now has a fully-fledged visitor centre, complete with interactive touch screens providing detailed and extensive background information on every item, moving platforms, 3D travelogue and drive-it-yourself submersible robotic exhibit. Ignore the new global chemical manufacturer’s marketing HQ, complete with its own brand centre offering detailed company history and educational facilities on the manufacture and benefits of all sorts of polymers and plastics using interactive exhibits and projection shows. Jump on the local train. Its in-carriage TV system is running recently-downloaded news features and adverts for days out to local sights and attractions. Maybe for the giant theme park where you are now heading.

This is big business. The Themed Entertainments Association, the industry’s trade body, has over 6,500 members including creative specialists, planners, scenic fabricators, AV experts and other specialists in over 450 companies from 36 different countries. Raina Ross, TEA’s Director of Marketing indicates the size of the industry: “TEA has executive bodies representing the industry in America and Europe of organizations that are seeking to engage, enchant, educate and entertain their guests and visitors with the creators of compelling places and experiences worldwide. Our members have conceived, designed, developed, fabricated and produced highly successful experience-based museum exhibits, interactive science centre, corporate visitor centres, live events and live performance venues, themed entertainment and retail centres, casinos and resorts, themed restaurants, aquariums, zoos, heritage centres and theme parks. We have seen steady growth over the past few years and with major new attractions being built around the world, in Singapore and Dubai for example, this trend is going to continue.” Companies working in this industry sector often operate on a global scale and cover all types of themed environments, using the same equipment and technology across them. Kraftwerk, an Austrian based organisation for example, has equipped major theme parks and museums throughout Europe as well as restaurants, shopping malls, casinos and bars and even laid on a projection system using the snow covered Swiss Alps as a screen for Paris Hilton’s 21st birthday party.

Theme and adventure parks are the most widely recognised of the themed environments designed by TEA members and area in which enormous growth is occurring currently. Kevin Murphy of Electrosonic is responsible for Europe and the Middle East: “The European theme park market is dominated by a number of players now, with consolidation of the business over the last 3 years. The major operators are Merlin (Tussauds) and Compagnie des Alpes along with Disney in Paris together with some large but unprofitable parks in Spain. In terms of high technology budgets the European market is quite small at around €15M to €20M per annum. Europe does not currently employ large amounts of High Technology in attractions but it is starting to rise. However in the Middle and Far East, the budget potential is much higher, with several massive parks currently at the planning stage.”

Within the theme park industry, the trend is to apply technology in the most exciting and appealing ways possible, using product and feature integration to develop the theme, rather than new technology developments. Phil Hartley of PHA provides consultant design services to many parks: “Recent developments include the integration of services and collaboration between film companies, park owners, AV suppliers and motion effects in an attempt to balance the need for content and technology.” Projected images are essential in theme parks, usually as the basis for further effects. Phil Hartley: “2D and 3D projection systems that deliver images on flat and three dimensional surfaces have been around for a long time, so too has 4D, which incorporates special effects such as water sprays, wind and leg ticklers. 5D systems are emerging now, that add movement in motion simulators and with motion sensors so that you can have your own personal performance in which your own on body movement influences the experience. Others allow the combination of scenery, simulators and roller coaster rides to provide an enormous range of sensory stimuli.” Many of these systems are provided as standard packages, used where a park requires new attractions but at a low cost and consequent low margin. Development of unique attractions is usually at a high cost and often one park will lead a design will then be taken on by others and personalized for them. This is underpinned by the value of intellectual property and character branding, leading to parks based on fictional and real characters, including Bruce Lee, Abba, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Harry Potter.

The leveraging of intellectual property is also a significant factor in the recent trend to provide brand centres: locations that offer themed education in the history and development of a specific product or company. Typical examples of this are the ‘World of Coca-Cola’ in Orlando and Tel Aviv, Guiness Storehouse in Dublin and BASF Visitor Centre in Mannheim. Here one is entertained by films and exhibitions detailing the product, its application, manufacture and its usage. Often with a museum containing memorabilia or samples of the product and in the case of consumer product, an opportunity to sample and purchase the item itself. These centres are a hybrid of a museum and theme park, with the intention of promoting the product in a fun and entertaining way. Stefan Scholze of Flying Saucer: “The BASF centre contains separate acoustically-controlled movie theatres with 160° projection using multiple projectors with edge blending. There is a media table with six stations working together allowing visitors to explore the world of chemical manufacture and application. We developed the centre using technology to support experiences, not just because it is there.”

This technology is often imported directly from theme parks. At the World of Coca-Cola a 4D projection system is used to stimulate all the senses. Jeff Kramer of Jack Rouse Associates: “There is a lot of applicable technology but it must be meaningful. For example, the use of 3D glasses, wind generators and moving seats is ideal for a high speed travel, squirting water livens up a bottling plant.”

Museums too, are taking on similar special effects and concepts in an effort to attract visitors. Most will have portable audio players in different languages, combined with interactive touch panels to provide greater levels of information. A development of this is to provide role-playing sessions and the opportunity to become part of the action in real time. Jeff Kramer: “Museums are now providing attractions and exhibits with group voting, allowing people to work through the outcomes of lifestyle decisions in areas such as health care and defence and influencing the way a presentation is made. This combines the traditional museum with entertainment that captivates as well as educates.” Ross Magri of Sarner is currently building a climate exhibition in Norway: “Museum exhibits are becoming more interactive and immersive, we are using a sphere with internal projection to present weather maps with visitor interaction to monitor and control it.”

The use of audiovisual technology right across the spectrum of attractions is paramount in an effort to make them appeal to visitors. Brian Edwards of Edwards Technologies: “More and more technology and media is employed in an effort to make sites appealing and to allow them to compete with other forms of entertainment. The key to all this is integration; the combination of different technologies to provide the ‘wow factor’, using fire, water, lasers, lights, movement, sound and images together. In the digital world, everything is programmable and the challenge is to make education centres more easily digestible, theme parks more exciting, museums more enticing. Even architecture is affected as we are seeing acres of LED lighting and matrix display panels used in buildings to turn them into media surfaces and layers of different types of media to engage with guests and visitors.”

Casinos are also changing approach in a radical way; becoming more up-market and sophisticated. The casino centre of the world, Las Vegas, has changed over the past few years: Chris Conte: “We have experienced a shift in the design agenda from “themed” casinos per se to more upper-class design concept. There also is a push for high-end and mid-level ‘suites’ with tons of AV for entertainment. These suites are usually rented by an entire group so that they have their own party space with food and service at hand and the rooms come loaded with high-end audio, video and control systems. It is not uncommon for the AV in each suite to be worth $200K to $500K, each. Often, there will be 5, 10, 15 HD flat panel displays all with their own satellite sources, high end speakers and a comprehensive Crestron or AMX control system.”

Even bars are experiencing the same shift to an up-market status with high-end audio and video equipments aimed at a discerning clientele and positioning them deliver special events. A typical example is the Roxy Bar & Screen in London. According to Philip Wood, the owner: ”Roxy was created to bring together cutting-edge digital screenings with high quality drinks & food. As such we are receiving bookings from professionals in the film industry for special showings and launch events where they rely on, and benefit from, the high level of audio quality and projection.” With an AV spend of around £50K, the venue boasts a DLP 3-chip HD projector and Yamaha professional sound system and mixing desk installed by Kaurus and delivering a uniquely high level of quality to audiences of 150-200 people. This is likely to be the way forward as other establishments refurbish and re-equip to this sort of level. The trend within casinos and bars is clearly to raise the quality level and provide a more universal and high-end experience.

What is abundantly clear is that audio-visual technologies are being deployed in themed environments in what is clearly a rapidly expanding and growing area - one that is using the technology to best effect and not simply taking it as a product because it exists.

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