An IAAPA Top 20: Technology and Secrets

IAAPA, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. The title says it all, right? If IAAPA isn’t going to be a fun show, then what would be? 

There’s so much to see and do at IAAPA; over 30, 000 attendees, trudging 500, 000 square feet of show floor to see more than 1, 000 exhibitors. With so much to see it took me a while to find the right theme for this article.

By Martin Howe, CEO, TEQ4 Ltd.

The best of IAAPA? What’s dapper at IAAPA? It wasn’t until my last moments of the event that the theme martin howebecame clear to me; the hidden secret, for reasons you’ll discover as you read through. To keep it as concise as possible I’ll continue my tried and tested adaptation of Pecha Kucha (the art of the concise presentations; 20 topics, each that can be read in 20 seconds or less, if you’re quick). Fasten your safety belts folks…

The Man with the Dragon Tattoo

It’s like he’s always been around, he’s always been there. You probably know him. Tall, sometimes menacing, certainly eccentric, yet wise and cynical all at the same time. For the purpose of this article I’ll refer to him as Siram. “So, Siram, oh wise one, what have you seen at the show that’s blown you away?” I asked. “Not much Martin, really. It’s generally the same schtuff, repurposed, slightly tweaked but you won’t see much to get excited about here”. Oh, I thought, that’s a shame, could be a waste of a week then. Oh, and yes he is real and he really did have a Dragon Tattoo. All up his arm. But thankfully, for his wife and family, this one washes off after a week; he got it done on one of the booths. It’s going to be a funky week, I thought, as I set off to discover for myself…

First up, Motion Bases & Flying Rides

Question – how many different ways can you fly people around, in front of, or inside of, a screen? Answer – Well I counted at least 20. 

Three of these appeared on the Falcon’s Treehouse booth, applying an imaginative use of AR (augmented reality) to show them off. One approach I hadn’t seen before was a kind of puppeteer’s rig (below) from which the seats were suspended. Whichever way the rig moved, the audience would follow. Probably.

The “Puppeteer Ride” from Falcon’s Treehouse

Brogent had a model (below) on the Vekoma booth of their very elegant solution which deploys all six DoFs (degrees of freedom; 1 – left/right, 2 – up/down, 3 – forward/back, 4 – roll, 5 – pitch, 6 – yaw) at the very successful Fly Over Canada attraction in Vancouver

Brogent’s 6 DoF Flying Ride

Triotech, who had a range of solutions on their booth (below), claimed to have created 37, 783, 702 emotions using theirs (I’m assuming that figure was total number of visitors over their 15 years in business).  

triotech booth at iaapa 2014

Others, including Holovis (below), were showing more conventional motion platforms and versions of ‘immersive screens’ that wrap around to varying degrees. And for certain, there will be more to come. 

holovis at iaapa 2014

Dome Rides

Markus Beyr of Attraktion! tried to persuade me that the self-titled Dome Ride Theater on the Intamin booth was the star of the show. But it was his idea so I presume he’s slightly biased. However, he did do a very good job of persuading me, simply by using an Oculus VR headset to place me, virtually, in the ride. Interestingly it was using this form of Pre-Viz (pre-visualization) that helped them to realise that the real feature of the ride was the view looking straight down. I think it’s going to be really cool, can’t wait to ride it again, for real next time. 

 attraktion! and intamin dome ride model at iaapa 2014

Virtual Reality

I was expecting to see more VR stuff at the show. I was pleased that MediaMation were making a good effort to understand how VR could be applied. Not only had they built a nice VR shoot-em-up space game combined with their motion seats and butt-kickers (below), they also went to the effort of interviewing riders thoroughly afterwards with an app based questionnaire. We don’t yet know, I think, quite how this emerging technology will impact the attractions industry, except that it most certainly will. I was really impressed with MediaMation’s efforts and gave them full marks. Not because it was perfect, they were pitching it as an evaluation, but because they did a great job with the motion cues from the seat, the head tracking synchronisation, and the game play. More please…

mediamation oculus rift

Opaque vs Transparent

I was hoping to see someone experimenting with what I call Semi-Opaque Reality. “What?” you ask. Let me explain. An Oculus is an Opaque Virtual Reality system. You put the headset on and the real world disappears. You’re immersed in the new virtual space. Google Glass is an example of a very transparent Virtual Reality system. In fact all it does in this current iteration is provide supplementary data about this real world. I’d like to see what happens when Oculus and the like become semi-opaque. This is when selected parts of the real world (your mates, for instance) enter the virtual world, or when parts of the virtual world (Zombies, for instance) enter the real world. Adding this ‘semi-opaque-fader’ feature, will in the future I believe, be the reason to get out of the bedroom and off to the Theme Park. To experience unique blends of the real and the virtual. What a great idea eh? © TEQ4 LIMITED 2014. There, it’s mine! Or is that what the guys at Magic Leap are working on?

FrieNDA’s & NDAs

Talking of ideas, protecting them and keeping them secret, I learnt a term called frieNDA’s. It’s the little bit of information about the secret project that you can tell your friends about (and no one else, right?) before they have to sign an NDA. And what a lot of secret projects there are. And this is when it dawned on me. That all the really cool tech, the crazy projects, the mega parks, are all a secret, that’s why they are not on the show floor. Sarim was right! I did agree a few FrieNDAs at the show and signed a couple of NDAs too. I can’t tell you much, but I can tell you this; they all involve the latest immersive tech of some sorts, they are already ‘in development’, they each have their unique IP (i.e. a strongly recognised brand) and they will all open around three years from now (strange coincidence that). Siram assures me they won’t all make it to opening day. What a shame.

Crazy Coasters

What wasn’t a secret at the show was The Skyscraper. A 535 foot tall coaster that wraps itself, snake like, inside, outside, upside down, around a giant tower. Termed Polercoaster, this new breed of extreme ride will give the VR guys a run for their money. I hope this does make it and get built. I’ll be at the front of the queue. And the front of the ride. 

Oh no, not another AV company.   Oh. No, not another AV company!

Still in search of the star of the show I was told to check out Smart Monkeys. So I set off to find these technical trendsetters. But hang on, I thought, they’re just another AV company. It says so on their booth; “Show Control and System Design”. I’ve seen it all before, that’s why I walked past their booth earlier without stopping. But I’m pleased I took time to spend some time with them. Their approach is simple. Don’t be an AV company. Instead ‘be more dog’ and think like an IT company. Use proven, highly robust, highly redundant and efficient technologies and processes deployed by the high-end IT industry. And they are. These smart monkeys have developed a really nice, park wide, integrated system for attraction and show control and information – a kind of telematics for parks. Really nice job guys. You’re in my top 3 of the show.

So, no more AV then?iaapa 2014 logo

What we’re seeing at the show (and behind the scenes) isn’t AV in the conventional sense. It’s high performance visualization, complex networking, virtual reality, 3D object tracking, precision motion system and robotics – often all integrated so you can’t see the join. As it should be. There shouldn’t be a join. It should be all integrated, with each part knowing where each other part is, in time (on the timeline) and in 3D space, physical and virtual. Exciting times ahead…

So, what wasn’t at the show?

Seeing Christie’s new 2.5mm LED display tiles on the Electrosonic booth reminded me of what wasn’t at the show. Where were the laser projectors (or more precisely the Laser Illuminated Projectors)? For certain, these will have a significant impact in this market. For giant screens (more than twice the brightness in 2D and up to five times as much in 3D), for multi-projector installations (controllable light and color – finally!) and for reduced maintenance (20, 000 hours plus). We were fortunate to have Christie’s laser system at our recent GSCA event in Toronto so I was a little surprised that one wasn’t on show here. I can tell you though, under a FrieNDA (because you’re all friends, right?), that they are already being designed into rides and attractions, behind the scenes, and coming to a park near you shortly.

And where were the Robots?

There were plenty of animatronics, and some would successfully argue that animatronics are robots. But I’m thinking of the humanoid type that appear to be more autonomous. I didn’t see anything particularly different than I’d seen years ago. Maybe I missed them (and please let me know if I did). But they are coming. I’ve just started to develop a project with one that will be able to run and jump. Although I haven’t yet worked out what it will jump over, or who it might run after, I’m already convinced it will be cool! And maybe just a little bit scary too.

halloween monsters at iaapa 2014

Scary!

Talking of scary, by chance I had lunch with a psychologist who specialises in Fear. In scaring the bejeezers out of people. It didn’t take me long to realize that with his skills and these new technologies we will soon be able to scare people all the way to the therapy couch. Whatever that fine line is between scary and profoundly disturbing, we will be able to walk it. And cross it, if we choose to do so. The disclaimers are going to need a new category; “This is going to mess you up, medication will be required”.

Robotic Rides

etf ride vehicle

Coming back to motion bases for a moment, maybe we should add a 7th DoF. The degree of freedom that lets you roam around inside a giant black box while all the time being subject to any number of the other 6 DoFs. ETF had a really nice looking people mover pod (above) that follows a track in the ground and can be programmed to take all sorts of paths depending on, well whatever you want it to depend upon. As did Oceaneering who launched their new ride vehicle (below) that will feature in Justice League: Battle for Metropolis due to open at Six Flags over Texas and Six Flags St. Louis next year.

 Oceaneering Justice League vehicle

Flying Robots

Yet more robots. This time flying ones. Air Stage had a very nice demonstration of how they fly nice soft, human friendly inflatables within a 3D camera-tracked space. They made a point not to call them drones, because you can’t fly drones near or over audiences, they told me. I’m not sure I fully agree, it’s all about the implementation. But they certainly understand the creative aspect, as you can see from their website. Very cool.

Cheesecake Cones

Back down to earth now. With a bump. According to another, also slightly cynical, industry luminary, the highlight of the show for him were the Cheesecake Cones. Unfortunately, I didn’t happen across them, but Cheesecake Cones perfectly illustrate the diversity that is IAAPA. There’s something for everyone.

Like this (Intensive Product Testing) 

pinball machines at iaapa 2014

And this (The Giant Selfie)…

freestyle at iaapa 2014
 
And this. (Realistic Guns to play with. Some handy targets in the background. Was that deliberate?)

toy guns at iaapa 2014

It’s a Small World After All

With annual IAAPA Expos in the US, Europe and Asia it’s clear that this is a growing global market. However as one observer, erm observed, the amount of Asian suppliers at this US Expo is on the increase. Will that place new price pressure on the domestic US market? We’ll have to wait and see. However others were more optimistic. Darren Ulmer, now Principle at Arc Thematic as well as Mousetrappe, felt that there is a growing confidence in the market which was reflected at this show. More happening, more projects. And more than one person expressed concern about the talent gap that might open up shortly because of this. Not enough, good enough, experienced people to design and deliver these dream factories. A nice problem to have though.

Lab-Rats

Another surprise for me were the amount of lab-rats at the show. Typically bi-pedal, 4ft high in trainers, these lab-rats were pumped full of M&M’s then thrown from tall structures into inflatable landing beds, time after time, then harnessed to giant three dimensionally mazes and forced to run around, lap after lap. Product testing in action. At least the ones who survive might be tempted to stay in the industry, to fill the talent gap. Perhaps that’s the master plan after all. A Darwinian approach to recruitment. 

rope course at iaapa 2014

What about sound then?

Well there wasn’t a lack of sound at the show, it was certainly noisy enough. But there wasn’t a lot of good sound. Or sound that was as immersive as the visuals. This is about to change though. Thankfully. Standby…

Thanks Harry. It’s clear now. The biggest secret of the show? It’s Magic!

I decided to sign up for the Universal Tour on the last full evening of the show. And boy I’m glad I did. Not harry potter knight bus universal studiosbecause I haven’t been before. I have. Not because I haven’t ridden the Harry Potter, Spiderman and Transformers rides before. I have. More than once. But because, this time, I wasn’t looking for fuzzy pixels, poor blending or 3D crosstalk. I was just ready to be entertained.

These latest shows are delivered to such an amazingly high standard. The Hogwarts train for instance. It’s a damn honking great big train, that looks and sounds like a train. You get on and, using Magic, travel from Orlando to London’s Kings Cross station in just a few minutes. And getting off felt just like being at Kings Cross Station. Until, weirdly I went through a corridor and I was back in Orlando. So I went to see my favourite again. Transformers. Having left my own cynicism on the bus, I was transported, yet again, this time into the future (I guess). That scene, when I’m moving quickly backwards to avoid being hit by the rocket, maybe for a hundred yards or more (and yet I wasn’t), I can feel the heat, and the motion. So, so, realistic. 

These moments are the ones which deliver the Magic. Which you’ll never experience on the show floor. Yes, some of the technology is there, as are most of the people, the magicians. It’s these people who are working behind the scenes on the next pieces of magic. They can’t tell you what they are though. It’s a secret. The biggest secrets of the show. But, for sure, they will be even more amazing than the last. Just wait…

Martin Howe,  CEO,  TEQ4 Limited,  martinh@teq4.com,  uk.linkedin.com/in/martinteq4

All images courtesy Martin Howe.