Swimming in the virtual oceans at SeaWorld Abu Dhabi

SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is home to the world’s first 360-degree Dome Ride Theatre. Paul Milligan speaks to the company behind this incredible immersive 5D project.

Opened in May 2023, SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is the first SeaWorld park to exist outside of the United States. The Abu Dhabi-based asset management  company  Miral is the owner and operator of SeaWorld Abu Dhabi under license from SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. As you would expect from the SeaWorld brand, and from any visitor attraction built in the Middle East in the last decade, the scale (it features the world's largest multi-species aquarium) and investment ($1.2bn) involved is huge.

Situated on Yas Island, it features eight marine environments, which are home to a series of immersive experiences and interactive exhibits, with more than 15 rides. One of those rides is Hypersphere 360, jointly developed by the Austrian systems integrator and visitor attraction  specialist Attraktion and Intamin Amusement Rides (a manufacturer of amusement rides and attractions). It’s the first ever implementation of its patented Dome Ride Theatre product.

Spanning 17m in diameter, the spinning and tilting ride is within a fully covered LED sphere featuring 75 million pixels, providing an uninterrupted 360-degree view in any direction for each attendee. The ride allows visitors to explore the ocean’s depths and to swim through the world’s seas on a fully rotating and tilting ring, supporting the illusion the sphere is gliding through the seas.

Attraktion became involved in the project with Intamin when the pair combined to win a tender process for this particular project. What did the original client brief ask for? “The tender originally asked for an experience inside a dome venue, and they knew about the Dome Ride Theatre, so it was after a very specific attraction experience, which the dome theatre can provide,” says Markus Beyr, CEO, Attracktion. “They didn’t ask for the Dome Ride Theatre specifically, but the description was very close to what we already had.” Visitor attractions can sometimes take years to come to fruition, so did the brief change throughout the planning and construction process? “The only difference was we originally sold it (the Dome Ride Theatre concept) with projectors. During the process we switched to LEDs. When the project became clearer and it was signed off, we recalculated the cost with LEDs, and found a solution where we could keep the costs similar with LEDs by spreading out the development costs to several projects. And that's the way it was then defined, and the client was happy with that.”

The big advantage of LED over projection in such a project says Beyr is that with projection there would be little holes in the screen. “The projectors would need  to come from outside, and project onto the other side, so you will see small holes, the advantage of LEDs is that you don't have the holes, and that you don't have any shadows behind the people.”

For the delivery of Hypershere 360, Intamin was responsible for providing the mechanics of the seating ring, which can impressively rotate 360 degrees up to 6rpm and tilt 30 degrees in both directions. Attraktion is audio and the 5D (wind, scent, vibration, strobe and lighting FX) effects. What  did  the client Miral want to achieve with Hypersphere 360? Is it educational or purely for entertainment purposes or a mix of the two? “SeaWorld always has an educational message,” explains Beyr. “We told them from the beginning that animated content would make more sense in an environment like this. They wanted to have a stylised animation or real footage, but shooting video in the arctic is not really possible so that's why the content is all animated.” Like the other SeaWorld parks, the message is very much based on the educational element, for  example the preservation of species and limiting the pollution of seas.

Visitors first encounter the Hypersphere 360 via  a holding room, where LED screens introduce the story with a short video, showing a conversation between a computer guidance system (called Jules), and a robot character (named Verne, if you haven’t guessed the link already) which invites guests on a journey around the world to monitor endangered sea life. Visitors walk into the nearly 14-metre high structure of Hypersphere 360 via two ‘hidden’ doors in the mid-level (the reason why will be explained below) of the sphere. The show is four minutes long and can accommodate up to 1,000 visitors every hour.

Once seated, and the safety checks have been completed, including the locking of lapbars in each one of the 80 seats, the show is triggered using Crestron touchpanels and the content is run on Brainsalt 2x6K video servers. Beyr describes how the show pans out for its excited attendees; “When the people enter the dome the full sphere isn’t revealed yet. The floor also acts as a railing when the people enter. The floor is actually on a hydraulic platform, your feet are hanging from the beginning, even when you sit down, like in a typical rollercoaster experience.” As soon the LED floor drops down it reveals the lower half of the LED dome. The ‘hidden’ doors described above are designed so the sphere can have perfect full 360-degree LED coverage, “When they close no seams are visible, so they are perfectly integrated,” explains Beyr.

Hypersphere's walls are surrounded by a giant (partly) transparent LED mesh in a large hexagon  pattern,  with an extra LED floor display at the base of the dome. The 4mm pixel pitch  LED  has been developed especially by Attraktion for the Dome Ride Theatre project. The pixel pitch was decided upon based on the viewing distance (1.5 metres) each visitor has from the screen in Hypersphere 360 at any one time. Why not just buy an off-the-shelf LED product to save time (and presumably money)? “It needed to be developed from scratch, we engineered it  in-house which was a very long process, but we thought it's better to work with the factory directly  and  not having a brand in-between. Nobody has done a full indoor LED sphere before; we are inventing a new rocket.

People have created flying theatres, where parts of a dome move, but nobody has done this, with these dimensions, where the LEDs are inside,” says Beyr. The outer rim of the sphere is lined with 80 seats with small K-Array Tornado-KT2 speakers built into the head rests, and scent atomisers, which spray the scent of the sea during the show, which are aimed towards them from the other side of the aisle, which runs around the circumference of the room.

Each chair features four audio channels, stereo left and right with a front speaker and bass, this is alongside a further 16 audio channels additional in the sphere. Audio is further boosted by a combination of QSC’s DSPs and CX-Q amplifiers, with Martin Audio CDD12 speakers and SX118 and SX210 subwoofers placed behind the dome, alongside Anaconda speakers on floor from K-Array.

Because as Beyr says earlier, no one has ‘done this before’, this installation also created some challenges. The biggest two of which were the supply chain problems suffered around the world, and the need to meet local health and safety regulations, “This was a big hurdle. What happens in the event of a fire, what do you do? We had to customise sprinklers to put out a fire, normally in a room when you have an LED screen it’s only part of the room,  but  when the LED screen is the full room there are different regulations which apply.” Another issue, and this one is found in a lot of AV projects in the Middle East, is managing the extreme heat at times of the year found in the UAE. “The problem with projects in the Middle East is the need to have a building ready with air conditioning (before you begin), even if it's a normal aluminium perforated dome or an LED sphere, you need to have a constant temperature inside. Otherwise, you’ll have problems with the LEDs expanding or getting smaller. If you don’t cool the room, you could be facing 60 degrees in the summer.”

The installation began in October 2022, because the structure is so large all testing had to be done on site, but Hypersphere 360 was ready well before the park opened in May. The ride has been gaining rave reviews online since opening, and it’s clear the combination of high resolution LEDs on such a large scale combined with the 5D effects and the combination of motion and audio within the seats is offering the immersive quality of virtual reality without the isolation of wearing a headset. Final word on a fantastic accomplishment goes to a very proud Markus Beyr, “I think it's a mesmerising ride, nothing else compares in the world.”

KIT LIST

Attraktion 4mm LED
Brainsalt 6K video servers
Crestron system control
Earthquake transducers
K-Array Anaconda speakers, KT2 speakers
Martin Audio CDD12 speakers, SX118 subwoofers, SX210 subwoofers
Neutrik Xirium wireless audio transmission system
QSC DSPs and CX-Q amplifiers
Weigl/Brainsalt conductor show control

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