Visitor Attractions

Steve Montgomery reports on the evolution of the visitor attractions market from one of the latest gadgets and gimmicks to a more holistic blend of interactivity and content.

With the onslaught of computer games, today’s younger generations are more technologically demanding and full of expectation when it comes to out of home entertainment. Hence the growth of high tech theme parks, amusement centres and arcade style gaming centres. This has resulted in a requirement for massive and expensive investment in hardware and software and has, in many cases resulted in a short lived ‘shelf life’ in an ever increasing circle of upgrades and new attractions. Prestige locations, such as Disney theme parks are able to invest the serious amounts of capital required to continually update individual rides and amusements. But local and smaller centres cannot even begin to compete.

Fortunately a minor backlash in visitor demand is becoming apparent, which we sense is slightly unexpected, but welcomed by operators of visitor attractions such as those in the museum, corporate and educational spheres. Peter Topping, Managing Director of Digital Video Systems, a supplier of equipment platforms to system designers and integrators: “In our close liaison with designers and operators it is becoming more and more obvious that visitors are demanding greater levels of stimulation; of all five senses, so the recent proliferation of rides and passive stimulation which provide a quick thrill are being replaced by more ‘touchy feely’ exhibits. A typical area where this is apparent is in the museum world, where gadgets to attract and entertain are making way for more hands-on exhibits, where an artefact is shown as you would expect, with audio visual support used to explain them at the overview level for basic interest, leading to much deeper information for more serious study, often by means of electronic demonstrations and touch screen controlled video presentations.” Moving away from the motion based exhibits usually frees up budget: in many cases up to 60% of the entire allocation is spent on machines with motors.

This is something that is endorsed by Hugo Roche, Managing Director of Sysco AV: “We are experiencing a trend toward more informative exhibitions and there are two levels: firstly museums that exhibit a broad range of artefacts and present different levels of explanation, starting with basic bullet point cards, and using touch screens for deeper levels of information and layers of complexity about the specific item; how it was used, how it works and so on. Secondly more experiental exhibits where the focus is on presenting the lifestyle and environment; what it would have felt like to have been there. An example of this is the Swansea Maritime Museum where technology is used to absorb the visitor into the exhibit, illustrating the noise and grime of the area and how local families were exploited but coped. As the museum itself promotes the exhibit; ‘It’s no soap opera, it’s what really happened’.”

In the Launchpad gallery at the Science Museum this trend is clearly observable. Its recent renovation has resulted in a new set of over fifty interactive exhibits and “electrifying shows and lively demos”. These include science based experiments and demonstrations using complex instruments and sequences linked to explanatory guides, successfully combining hands-on experimentation and demonstrations with informative audiovisual content, stimulating more senses than simple presentations would. Where else can you get to play with dry ice, lasers and thermal imaging cameras? Where this affects the audiovisual industry is at the core level, Peter Topping: “Designers of exhibits are, and must be creative. As suppliers of the technology we add processing power and technical elements that enable this, that releases them. We don’t offer them a feature and tell them how to use it, rather we develop features in response to what they want to do.” Similarly, the Exploratorium science Museum in San Francisco has recently been transformed from an ‘old-style’ museum with artefacts and plaques to a ‘smart’ museum with 3 dimensional projection, moving seats, surround sound and other special effects designed to educate rather than simply entertain.

The centrepiece of the Plymouth Aquarium is Aquatheatre, in which three remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are installed in a large eight metre by six metre tank, together with submerged obstacles and piloted from a co-located control centre. Audience teams support the three ROVs piloted by members of the audience around the tank in order to compete tasks, with underwater images and views of the control stations relayed to the audience along with the pre-recorded video clips over a series of six plasma screens. The system installed by Pyramid Presentations provides a fun way of demonstrating the use and agility of ROVs, without which the exhibit would be fairly dry and unappealing.

Ronen Brookstein, Director of Israeli based Barkai Benny Brookstein Ltd. explains the philosophy of his company’s approach and interaction with clients: “We are now being asked to deliver ‘edutainment’; which is the way centres wish to communicate to their visitors and customers, to convey a story.” Ronen also sees the decline of the motion based exhibits for multi-sensory attractions: “Our recent development of the Wonders of the World & Time Elevator exhibits in Jerusalem, India, Rome and many more other places around the globe are a result of close collaboration with designers and museum curators in which we integrate audio, video and show control system solutions to achieve a unique multimedia, multisensory visitor experience. It is crucial for the system integrator to be involved at all stages of the development, from the detailed design stage, to the actual installation, programming, commissioning, operation and staff training for the entire attraction.” Ronen too sees the need for creativity: “It is essential to use technology to serve creativity, not the other way around.”

An extension of the educational centre, also undertaken by Barkai is the use of available facilities for other purposes. Cinema Park, a brand developed in conjunction with ‘StORIteller’ Ori Yardeni, the first complex was launched in Ankara as a way of utilising cinema complexes that are usually closed during the day for educational purposes. The concept, which is now being extended to other major cities including Athens, Warsaw, Mexico and Tel Aviv invites visitors to go on a four-hour themed tour between the different movie theatres in the complex, structured in such a way that the journey can start anywhere and continue full circle. The program currently running at Cinema-Park is called "Journey through the Universe". In the 3D Theatre, a stereoscopic movie depicts the creation of the universe. In the Motion Theatre, the visitors sit on smart seats, with dual motion capability, built in ticklers, a bass shaker, a scent system, air and water effects and personal speakers. The movie is a ride around our planet, with an emphasis on conservation, which is perfectly synchronized with movements of the seats and special effects. Ori Yardeni says, "I come from a family of teachers. So I always knew that good content alone, or good teaching methods alone, wouldn’t work. The art is to combine them, and to do so cost-effectively. That's the key to quality, profitable educational experiences."

Variations in the budget levels between theme parks also affect the industry greatly. Where parks are associated with large entertainment organisations, such as the US and European Disney and Universal parks, ancillary merchandising provides greater funds with which to develop attractions. Bernard Whates, an independent consultant: “Theme parks here are less well funded than their US and European counterparts, but visitors expect the same level of quality, so installers have to work a lot harder to achieve the same level. In some cases it means that the money spent is weighted more towards the external appearance or a grand finale whilst other rides suffer. Parks also need to be wary of the problem of cut-price production. These days almost anybody can produce video and effects, but without top quality content the attraction will suffer adversely.”

Electrosonic also regard the story as the most important aspect of an attraction. Robert Simpson, Founder Director comments: “Customers and operators very often make the mistake of asking for new technology. Technology is not the problem. The problem is lack of imagination. The best work we have done over many years has always been when a client has had a really good idea for a story. When customers have the right idea for a story, and a good designer to realise the idea, the technology looks after itself. Of course technology has made many things easier. We can project images in ways we could only dream about a few years ago; we can do cinema quality images at incredibly low cost; we can automate hundreds of exhibits in a museum; we can do spectacular 3D presentations; we can use gesture inputs to interactive exhibits; we can subject audiences to sub bass sound that shakes their lunch out; but none of this has any point unless the storyteller is king. Currently we are working on some truly spectacular attractions which will, as they say, “push the envelope” in ways even we are surprised. The attractions will succeed because of the story, not the technology.

Several global manufacturers have also developed highly sophisticated visitor attractions as an integral part of their marketing activities. Brands such as Coca-Cola, Nike, Caterpiller, Guiness, Mercedes Benz and Ferrari have permanent attractions aimed at informing and developing potential customers. Even manufacturers of mundane products are getting in on the act, to educate, inform and entertain the general public. Danfoss, the Danish manufacturer of heating and ventilation system components is a typical example, having launched Danfoss Universe in 2005 and billed as “Denmark's first experience park crammed with live natural phenomena, interesting technology and fun-filled activities. Here, the entire family can spend an entertaining and inspiring day and learn more about the forces of nature, the wonderful world of science and the technologies that make our lives easier, aiming to enthuse children and young people and promote interest in and understanding of technology and science.” Its success is apparent, in its first two seasons over 330,000 visitors flocked to experience. The park combines a mixture of fun activities with educational services appealing to school parties as well as families at the weekends. Henrik Jorgnesen of Informationsteknik was involved in the development and installation of the Danfoss Universe: “Individual attractions within the Universe are designed to offer education and information and combine various elements. We use a mixture of technologies to achieve this, for example in one display in the Bitland hall includes a huge mobile phone keyboard is projected on the floor with interactive buttons allowing visitors to jump around the keys to crate text messages that are then projected onto a screen, designed to demonstrate and explain how text messages are created and sent between phones.”

The overriding use of technology in visitor attractions is to bring the exhibits to life; to find ways that visitors can be drawn into them. Sysco AV recently installed the Tutenkhamun and First Emperor exhibitions, which have achieved the largest visitor numbers of any UK exhibition. Using a mixture of technologies including touch screens, RFID, database management, an important inclusion is that of a Gesturetek system in which a camera detects movement of a hand to produce direct mouse control of a computer, so that any surface or space can be used as the interface, allowing a greater level of interaction. Hugo Roche: “Whilst there are many gimmicky products that can be employed, it is essential that only those with proven reliability and robustness are used; installations are running up to twelve hours a day, seven days a week and are given some fairly rough handling during that time.”

Clearly, the emphasis on visitor attractions has moved from shallow and superficial thrills to more educational but still entertaining appeal. The use of audiovisual technology and integrated systems is allowing this to happen. It is the task of the designers and installers to create and construct new and ever-appealing installations to tempt the visiting public.

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