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Theme Park Reflections: a Conversation with Steve Alcorn and Peter Ed

I was recently fortunate enough to have dinner with two veterans of the themed entertainment industry, each of whom has been closely involved with both the theme park industry and with the themed entertainment association (TEA) over the past twenty five years.  With great experience in the audiovisual sector in general and expertise in show control systems and lighting in particular – it was a perfect opportunity to canvass the views of Alcorn Mc Bride’s Steve Alcorn and Light Emission’s Peter Ed on what has been a rapidly evolving business.peter ed lighting emissions

What follows is an edited higsteve alcorn alcorn mcbride show control systemshlight of the evening’s conversation.

When and how did you two first meet ?

Peter (right): It was on the coach making its way through the beautiful Netherlands countryside. We were attending a TiLE themed entertainment conference, and all the delegates assembled on the evening of the second day for the journey to Chateau Neercanne (image at top), one of the most enchanting  places in Europe. I happened to sit next to this chap, started chatting, and never stopped all evening, as we wandered from one gastronomic room to another.

Steve (left): Peter and I were attending a TiLE convention in Maastricht when we sat next to each other on a bus taking us to an evening event at a nearby estate. We struck up a conversation, and ended up spending the evening together talking about the future of themed entertainment, and discovering our many common interests. One of my fondest memories is of sitting on the estate’s stone wall sipping wine and watching a shepherd in the valley below bring his sheep in for the evening.light emissions peter ed logo led

When did you each first get involved with the TEA?

Peter: I was working with Strand Lighting, visiting the Los Angeles factory. I made some calls to designers and consultants, one of them being Brian Edward’s ETI. The star of the company was (and now again is) the charming Roberta Perry, past President of TEA. She turned to me with her big, lovely eyes, blinked a few times and said ‘Peter, you must start a chapter in Europe!’  Clarifying that the ‘Chapter’ had nothing to do the Hells Angels organisation, I charged back to London to obey.  A year later, with the winning team of themed attractions consultant Nick Farmer and Sara Hines, the three of us actually made it, and I became the first President of TEA Europe.

themed entertainment association logo 20th anniversary teaSteve: Alcorn McBride became involved in the TEA when the Orlando branch first formed, in the early 1990s. Our first major participation was in sponsoring the TEA’s IAAPA party during the IAAPA Expo in New Orleans. Today, several of our executives are involved in the planning of Orlando area TEA events and conferences, and we have a seat on the Eastern board.

What do you consider the biggest game-changers in the field of audiovisual in theme parks and attractions over the last 25 years?

Peter: Standards. This dawned on me back in 1986, when lighting control systems and dimmers from different manufacturers used different multiplex control signals. I remember when the big NY based lighting rental companies invited the major manufacturers to a hotel suite at USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology), giving them an ultimatum to agree on an industry wide standard. After a short period, and after a bit of a tiff over baud speed, the first iteration of DMX512 was born.  I happened to be in London with a lighting control system, a dimmer data de-multiplexor and two crystals – hearing which baud speed won, I fitted the correct crystal, screwed shut the lid and delivered the system to the Tricycle Theatre in North London.  I guess it was the very first DMX512 system in the world!

Steve: The major changes in audio and video in the past three decades all relate to quality and reliability. When Epcot opened 20 years ago it was the first theme park with good audio in every attraction.  This was accomplished through good acoustic and sound reinforcement design, but the epcot monorail at disney orlandomedia was the weak point.  Audio was stored on magnetic tape in binloop machines that required nightly Turtle Waxing!  And video was stored on laser disc players, which were amazing devices, but had motors that last only three years or so in constant use.  Alcorn McBride has spent the past 20 years replacing all that stuff with digital audio and video sourced from flash memory, with no moving parts.  Not only is the quality much better, but the mean time between failure has increased from a few years to many decades. 

Steve,   from your early experiences with Epcot, how has show control developed, what have been the biggest changes and challenges faced?

It’s hard to believe, but when Epcot opened we didn’t even have IBM PCs yet!  Every computer was essentially custom built and programmed for the job.  The advent of PCs didn’t really increase the reliability of show control systems, though.  In fact, they had quite the opposite effect, because Windows is not a particularly robust operating system. PCs also greatly complicate the lives of maintenance personnel, because it is impossible to replace them with identical hardware, even 18 months later, which makes it difficult to deal with spares.  And viruses are becoming an ever increasing threat.  One theme park ended up with a massive downtime when viruses propagated through their network destroyed their show control systems, and even infected the programmable logic controllers. 

Alcorn McBride has addressed these challenges by never using PC hardware or operating systems in any of our products.  They’re designed specifically for control of themed entertainment systems, and are immune to viruses.  And, like our audio/video products, they contain no moving parts to wear out, so mean time between failure is many decades.

torre agbar leds show lightingPeter, lighting: what would you say have been the most significant developments?

There have been huge leaps every ten years or so, starting with the thyristor, bringing in the age of the cost effective dimmer, and the arrival of the microprocessor, suddenly allowing control of many dimmers.

Then, the most visible impact came from the wondrous colour changing and moving lights, heralded in by VariLite and Genesis. Suddenly light would not only fade placidly brighter or dimmer, but actually moved in 3D space! This had obvious benefits for the large scale concert designers, but also for stage and architecture.

Then, who would not note the event of LEDs… A real game changer, in every way! For lighting, we can place light sources practically anywhere – they are tiny, light, bright, cool and do not need dangerous voltages. Not a replacement for the theater spotlight, for many reasons, but adding a huge number of new and exciting capabilities to the designer’s toolchest.

Peter, you have called LEDs “the new pixie dust”. Why?

I must credit the expression to Peter Scharff, previously of Scharff-Weisberg, when visiting the booth of G-LEC at an LDI.  He looked at our transparent LED video screens, thought they were wonderful and said that the ‘ultimate would be when we can just scatter LEDs anywhere, just like pixie-dust’.  OK, we do need to supply the LEDs with data and power, but we are practically there now, with the ability to map video pixels to any physical pixel in any space.

What have been the most significant, game-changing developments in AV over the last ten years or so?

Steve: The big change for theme parks has been that video projectors have finally reached brightness and resolution levels that allow them to replace film projectors, saving maintenance organisations tons of money. We’re now seeing video images with 4, 000 lines of resolution, and some parks are even seaming these together to provide far larger images.

Peter: Seen from a lighting guy’s perspective, it must be the convergence of lighting and video.  I love the theme that Visual Terrain had on their IAAPA booth – ‘every light is a pixel, every pixel is a light’.  So, instead of having a booth showing pictures of how brilliant Visual Terrain are (they are), they had a wall with a variety of light sources – a low resolution LED video screen (ours), LED light tubes, individual addressable LEDs on a string, lighting Perspex rods coming out of the wall, huge and lovely low wattage light bulbs and two free standing standard lamps.  All of these were controlled by one video file!  I guess there is an interesting point in where the responsibilities of an AV and media designer and that of a lighting designer intersect, which is happening more and more often.  There is a great danger that they ‘tread over’ each other’s work, mostly unknowingly, making the result less than intended.

What technologies are not yet available but which will have the potential to transform AV in the attractions industry?

Steve: Our next challenge is to support these higher resolution video display devices with solid state video players that, like our other products, contain no moving parts. This is a big challenge because of the massive data rates involved, but we’ll get there in a couple of years.

Peter: The technology that I dream about is the augmented reality contact lens….  Dave Patten from London’s Science Museum spoke of this at the SATE Themed Entertainment conference in Amsterdam last year.  There is work currently under way to integrate electronics inside a contact lens, powered by induction from something like glasses.  The main thrust of the work is to measure physical data inside the eye, but they are also experimenting with tiny, tiny LEDs in arrays, shining into the eye.  The thinking is that this could develop into a ‘in-eye’ display system!  I could do with this when skiing, to know which turn to make to find the lunchtime restaurant!

With the advance of gaming and at-home technology, how can attractions compete?

star wars weekends at disneySteve: It’s essential that theme parks focus on the shared experience, and the emotional pull that has on visitors.  No matter how good home entertainment systems get, they will never involve true interaction with others.  Playing an online game is very different from experiencing, say, a Haunted Mansion ride, which combines a physical environment and the excitement of the shared experience with other guests.  Theme parks should concentrate on new attractions that capitalise on people’s desire to interact with one another.  One great example is the Star Wars Jedi Training show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (that’s not in Hollywood, but Orlando for some reason).  The show lets kids go one on one–with light sabres–against Darth Vader. That’s an experience you can’t get in your living room.

Peter: Being more on the technology side, I think the answer has more to do with the psychology of humans than with advances in technology.  One can ask, why do people still go to cinemas?  Sure – a multi-million dollar attraction can throw incredible technology at the visitor, and some of the most inventive designers can work awesome tricks with storyline, lighting, sound, projection, motion, etc., but there is something special in shared experiences.  Moments of shared experiences are treasured and shared throughout life (sitting in a pub back home in Liverpool: – ‘Do you remember when Roger dropped…. etc.’).violin on white background

Steve, your company, Alcorn McBride recently celebrated 25 years in the industry. What would you say makes it unique?

The company has a great staff that is wholly committed to building terrific products and supporting them like no other company.  It’s the only organisation I know of where you can call customer support and talk to the engineer who designed your product.  Our products are designed in direct response to customer’s needs, so we’re very close to our end users and understand their requirements.  And because we have no stockholders to keep happy by maximising every dollar, we can invest and plan for the future, which lets us make intelligent decisions for the long term.  This lets us do things like issue free software updates for 20 year old products, and stock spares for decades.  Our customers really appreciate that level of support, which is why we have such a close relationship.

Peter, tell us about your new company, Light Emissions (www.lightemissions.com).

A key design element is providing ‘immersive’ experiences bspider-man on white backgroundy controlling the senses of the visitor, in ‘informational’ and ‘emotional’ ways.  HD video screens are good at providing information aimed at cerebral processing.  With the emerging low resolution LED video technology coming of age, it is possible to totally envelop the visitor space with ‘video wallpaper’.  Not only can we ‘play back’ video, but allow interactivity, integration with mazes, spaces that can change with use, etc.  Use of color, dynamics and images on a scale much larger than a person allows the designer a huge amount of emotional control over a space or attraction.

Steve, I’ve heard yours is a musical company.  Do you have jamming sessions?

We do have a lot of musicians on our staff, and our offices are filled with musical instruments.  At lunch or after work our staff sometimes gets together for jam sessions.  It’s interesting how math, science and music go together.  But I think it also reflects the well rounded nature of our staff, because in addition to their technical skills, they are also very creative, artistic, and great communicators.

Outside of this business what other passions do you have?

Steve: I’m blessed with such a great staff that it allows me to spend much of my time pursuing other interests.  I’m passionate about teaching.  I teach theme park design at imagineeringclass.com and I also teach creative writing through the online extension programs of more than 1500 colleges worldwide, through writingacademy.com.  I’ve also written quite a few novels and some non-fiction including my popular book Theme Park Design, which green tractor in field of poppies with snow covered mountain behindyou can read about at themeperks.com (see also Theme Park Design and why Steve Alcorn’s Time Portal won’t get made)

Peter: Three really: – Skiing – nothing so cleansing as bombing down a mountain in the Alps to get to a gourmet restaurant overlooking some of the most stunning views in the world.  Driving my tractor – lots of landscaping to do at our place in France – and, at our place in France, sitting with a good bottle of wine watching the sun set.

Looking back, what use of AV or lighting in an attraction has really stuck in your mind as being the most effective?  Any particular attraction that stands out?

Steve: Over the years we’ve been involved in thousands of attractions that have impressed me, but I do have a few favourites:

The best combination of story telling and technology is Mystery Lodge at Knotts Berry Farm. Designed by BRC Imagination Arts, it combines a live actor with an amazing effect that allows him to summon images from the smoke of a campfire, and it has a truly mystifying ending.

My favourite rides are both at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.  Spider-Man is an amazing accomplishment, synchronising 3D projection with a vehicle and physical sets to create a truly disorienting and convincing experience.  And the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is an equally immersive experience with an equally impressive queue.  These are exactly the sorts of attractions theme parks should be building to transport their guests far beyond their living rooms, and I hope we see many more of them in the future.

Peter: The single moment that sticks out for me was seeing Terminator 2 3-D.  The orchestrated effect of 3D projection, a physical motorbike and actors roaring through the audience, dropping seats, water spray, terrific storyline all combined to create a truly thrilling experience!

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