With the ever increasing sophistication of gaming technology in the home coupled with an uncertain economy, theme parks, museums and other visitor attractions are having to evolve like never before to gain the attention and interest of their visitors. They must provide them with distinctive, memorable experiences and do so at a reasonable cost, whilst utilising the latest technologies.
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At the cutting edge of the development of such new attractions are the audiovisual suppliers. It is their technical wizardry that breathes life into the stories and creates the experiences that make an attraction work.
We asked a number of key audiovisual specialists in the attractions business what they thought the major challenges facing the industry were and how might audiovisual installation companies adapt to these changes. Themes to emerge were the rapid advance of LED lighting technology, the rise of the “instant expert” and the constant battle to keep pace with the expectations of visitors armed with IPads, mobile phones and social media.
Steve Alcorn, CEO Alcorn McBride Inc.
The economic downturn of 2008 impacted nearly every aspect of worldwide business, and the A/V installation sector was no exception. Certainly the recession created a challenge for the industry, with capital funding drying up and many projects put on hold. But manufacturers who focused on product planning and sharpened their attention to customers overcame the challenges of the recession.
Themed attractions certainly saw their attendance fall—although it seems to be recovering nicely now. Two things helped them weather the storm: guests’ tendencies to take “staycations”, visiting local facilities they might have skipped before; and the addition of major new attractions, Harry Potter at Universal's Islands of Adventure being the prime example.
The major reworking of Disney's California Adventure will also bring in new crowds, as will Walt Disney World's new Fantasyland, a factor in what is turning into a bit of an arms race in Central Florida, with the Legoland Park also on the horizon.
With so many new parks and attractions coming online, there are great opportunities for everyone in the A/V market. It just takes careful attention to customers’ needs, both before and after the sale.
Alex Carru, CEO / Founder, Medialon
Challenges faced by AV installation companies follow the challenges faced by their clients, the attractions and theme parks, visitors centers and museums themselves.
Attractions are successful when, first of all, the story is good and effects are compelling. In this age of high definition 3D in-home entertainment systems, simply projecting an SD video is definitely not enough. Very high definition video such as 4K, bright projectors and immersive projection screens will be the norm.
But another challenge faces Theme parks and Museums: "interactivity". By definition an attraction cannot be an interactive unique experience for each member of the audience. Waiting lines are already long enough, if each visitor gets a special treatment the flow will slow down.
Yet, "Mass Customization" will become the norm. How can I interact with a great HD 3D video game at home by simply moving my body, and be just a passive spectator at a Disney attraction? Audiovisual will be the way to beef up attractions to interactive mode. For instance, selecting your favorite song in a ride vehicle before it starts is already a (simple) form of mass customization.
Museums that remember you and your last visit and offer different experiences each time you come, Museums that sends you an email with a summary of what you have (or haven't) seen, walk through experiences where video interacts and talks to visitors, even for a fraction of second, like a "Kinect" interaction, rides or museum exhibits where visitors hear the voices in their own language in sync with the video etc …
Finally, the attractions business will not be able to ignore what other industries deliver nowadays, that is, real time statistics of successful and unsuccessful products. Knowing which ride is successful by watching the queue line is easy, detecting which room is most visited in a museum and why or which part of an attraction is liked the most is another story. Knowing these pluses and minuses will help designers to tune up their "interactive" attractions to make them more compelling.
Designers, manufacturers and integrators will have to work together to invent, design and integrate all this and make it work. New technologies are here to help, but remember, the story first!
Bryan Hinckley, Business Development Manager, Entertainment at Electrosonic
One of our biggest challenges in the attractions sector is the rapid advances in consumer technology. Attractions designers are constantly looking for compelling stories that incorporate unique technologies. 3D has to be bigger, brighter and more unique than what you can get at home. Audio has to be more immersive with more surround sound channels. Social media like Facebook and Twitter are starting to play a role as well. Interactivity at the attraction has to be designed to incorporate a large group of people. As a result, we work hard to develop unique solutions that support these goals while meeting ever shrinking budgets.
Attractions owners and designers are also influenced by new consumer products such as the Apple iPad, which sets expectations for the user interface and creates a cost threshold. Our challenge is to convince our customers that low-cost, consumer equipment, like an LCD flat panel or a tablet PC from the local electronics store, is not designed for the rugged, long operating hours of a typical attraction.
Although we work in an industry that constantly needs to reinvent itself to draw repeat visitors, we are challenged by the economic realities of doing more with less. We educate our customers on the long term operating costs associated with various technologies and help them make appropriate choices that meet both their budget and operating goals for the project.
Kevin Murphy, Event Communciations.
On the business side, we work in a specialist attractions business which is international but still relatively small in terms of the people specifying and suppliers. With any AV installation, working with a knowledgeable AV hardware and software team, along with lighting designers and other specialists who know the business is absolutely key. The AV installation business is growing fast, particularly with the use of technology in the corporate presentation and domestic sectors and this is driving many innovations and the availability of tools and features. It is becoming simpler in some respects to specify relatively high technology systems and anyone can become an “instant expert”. In reality the advances in technology make it essential for more genuine experts, those who really know how the sector works and what creative designers, architects and clients want. One challenge for the AV installation companies is that they must compete with companies that consider the technology as a commodity. The continuing big challenge for the AV installation business is falling margins and the need to balance this with employed knowledgeable staff who understand creative needs, and deliver. Without them, we as designers cannot do our job.
As touched on above, the situation is made worse by more and more technology being made available that looks easy to design into environments. It is not easy, and frankly a lot of projects out there can suffer from technology ‘overkill’ and they can fail. At the very least, excessive use of inappropriate technology can land an end client with an operations cost that cripples an attraction. This has been said so many times by myself and others, but the use of technology in attractions needs to appropriate, needed due to the requirements of the content and the story and designed in professionally for the best effect and operational maintenance.
On the product innovation side there are a number of key issues. Not necessarily challenges, these are more a case of the industry waiting for the technologies to be developed a little further. I will pick on the couple we are waiting most anxiously for, and by chance these relate to video projection –
The LED source – We need to start seeing more video projectors with higher power LED light sources. Traditional lamp technology presents a real issue to installations with not only the cost for the lamps themselves, but also the costs and inconvenience of requiring relatively regular access to projectors to change lamps. LED projectors are starting to appear in the market and even in installations, but they are for smaller screens and low lighting levels. Designers are keen to see high powered projectors, but this may take some years yet!
Projection distance – oh, the holy grail for any attraction designer is getting projectors as close as possible to the screen with projectors tucked away above or below the viewing line. The education and business sectors already have some very innovative projectors, although relatively low powered ones, but we need to see optics getting even more innovative for our attractions sector. Projectors are often not suitable for operation 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, so whilst these education projectors find their way into the market, the manufacturers will often not support us or the client when they break down.
I could list a lot of small requirements to make our lives easier and better with AV technology, but when it comes to many technical requirements, there are a raft of tools out there that work well and can be adapted to our use. Augmented reality, 3D and 4D, mobile interpretation, holographic images, high resolutions – well, the attractions sector got on and used technology creatively for all of these things and more, and really been doing it for many years. The industry has made technology work to meet the required end result, and whilst the techniques were more basic, they often worked. The more recent ‘buzz’ in the domestic world and the heavy advances in portable and home technology make our end customers more ‘savvy’ but our sector needs to keep control, and carefully utilise the technology and avoid the bandwagon.
AV installation companies need to address the challenges ahead with people and skills whilst pushing for the advances to ensure technology remains a tool and not necessarily the whole attraction. When I visit a museum, I go to experience a story or objects and it just so happens that technology can enhance my experience and pump up the ‘wow’ factor. The same in a science centre or a brand centre. For the theme park, well the technology is allowed to be used more blatantly to increase the experience, but beware…..pushing the limits and expectations can present even more challenges.
David Willrich, Managing Director, DJ Willrich Ltd.
The use of AV in medium to large attractions has grown over the years with the improvements in projection. AV companies are now undertaking projects that were once very much the domain of companies working in film projection systems. Furthermore, the decrease in cost and increase in the quality of projectors and light output has in turn increased the use of projectors in Museums and Attractions.
Designers are using projection increasingly to create more immersive environments due to the fact that it is now relatively cheap to project over a large area. Of course this technique is ideal for shows, but projectors are being used to create dynamic graphics too; i.e. in cases where a designer may wish to have an area that would have traditionally been static graphics, they now have the option to make the graphics dynamic with high quality projection.
Smaller Museums and Attractions in particular are now more prone to not employing the services of AV integration companies when they can satisfy their requirement by purchasing equipment from a major out of town retailer.
It seems simple to go into one of the big retail chains and see equipment that is cheaper than that being offered by an AV Company. They have staff “advise” ( misinterpret?) the glossy brochure and assure the unsuspecting purchaser that the equipment really will do what they want.
At last people are beginning to understand what is meant by the term “HD” or large screen “LED” display i.e. that the display is actually LCD technology, but backlit using LED technology which is what enables it to be made thinner and lighter. It is frequently hard for professional AV companies to correct these misunderstandings without it sounding like an excuse to charge more.
LED is possibly another very misunderstood area of technology, commonly regarded as being the “Green” saviour of the future with its low power requirements and years of life. There is a big move in the lighting world to LED for all lighting needs, with little appreciation that this is still a technology in its infancy.
LED lighting does of course have its place and for saturated colours and colour wash effects it is great, but the quality of control and reliability still has a way to go before it fully replaces the current technologies.
However, it brings AV and lighting even closer together than before with the ability to create dynamic lighting effects, including low resolution graphics, using video media.
Large screen LED technology is a far more stable technology and has now been around for some time, but then OLED display technology is just around the corner and adding some excitement to this part of the market.
I remember clients pushing us to provide them with new technology projectors as we moved from CRT to LCD and from CRT monitors to early Plasmas. In both cases at the time of change, the desire to have the latest technology was overshadowed by the fact that the image quality was worse on both counts. It is only in the last few years that we have started to see projectors on the market that have geometric correction allowing the use of curved shaped screens as if the idea had never been tried before. Back in the CRT days (90’s) we took it for granted!
I have always hated the misuse of technology and I genuinely love new technology as it comes along when it can offer something better and more reliable than the exisiting technology, or better still can provide integrators with the tools to offer more to the creative process of creating a new display or attraction.