Theme Parks in the Digital Age

by Clark Dodsworth

Somewhere in the future...

"What to do tonight? Well,
Blade Runner II beckons. I've seen the movie four times since it came out last year, but there are other ways to enjoy it now... I'll just log in to the 3D multi-user Blade Runner Adventure sim and see if that replicant role I played last week has evolved in an interesting direction. Since they added real-time voice, a lot more women seem to be spending time in-world which makes it more realistic. Speaking of realistic, maybe I should drive down to the mall instead. The Blade Runner II site there has vehicle motion-base sims and 110-degree out-the-window displays with surround sound, not to mention better textures, more polys, and a higher frame rate than I can afford to run here at home. And I can meet some of the people I played with last week in person -- maybe get something to eat with them afterwards. One of these days, though, I want to experience the Blade Runner sim world in its full glory, at the theme park in Orlando. I'm certain the guys who go in-world from there have better maneuverability and reaction times than I do, because of the force-feedback. Plus, seeing the actual faces of everybody mapped onto their character's head in full video would be great; I could really act the role, then..."

Clark Dodsworth.

Let's Talk Today & Beyond
As this issue goes to 'Net, the finishing touches are being put on the largest theme park to open in North America since Disney World. Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure "expansion" to their Orlando park is larger than the entire original park. Size is the smallest detail however; the expansion uses roughly two orders of magnitude more digital infrastructure than the original, and is designed to accommodate additional interactive features and functionality in the future. This is far from just being a matter of convenience for maintenance and security however. It's about putting ubiquitous digital sensory intelligence into an entire theme park environment, indoors and outdoors.

The guiding notion is that a park should ideally be aware of everyone who enters, learn a few facts about them like age, gender, and when they last visited, and then provide a customized user experience based on those facts, plus what the person does at the park. In fact, to take themeing to its logical extreme, every bit of a park, including the landscaping and robotic fauna, should respond interestingly, engagingly, or compellingly as one walks by, and then respond differently to the next person or family! I call that Active Themeing, and it's coming to a thrill ride site near us soon -- that is as soon as embedded computing processors and development tools evolve a bit more in power and price.

At the same time, the information that the systems gather from our behavior will go into a database and be used for marketing programs after we go back home. The guiding notion in this context is to provide maximum opportunities for any demographically targeted consumer to access themed services and licensed-character-based product and service offerings, in as many media as possible, in as many places as possible, 24 hours a day. The concept is an evolutionary descendent of "brand spread" in consumables, an example of which is Marlboro Lights/Menthols/100s, etc.

The competition for our leisure dollar is fierce. The good news is that competition drives new park attractions to innovative digitally-based heights of amazing fantasy or adrenaline-spiking experience. A recent example is the Indiana Jones Temple of Doom ride at Disneyland. One can return to the ride several times and be scared by different beasties at different moments each trip; digital equals enhanced variety or richness in the experience design. That ride, in fact, is so successful that the new Disney
Animal Kingdom in Orlando has a version of the same ride technology, re-themed as a prehistoric dinosaur chase called Countdown to Extinction.

To attract the widest range of visitors, Disney's Animal Kingdom goes beyond simply being a zoo and becomes more of an experience.
© Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The Disney Animal Kingdom is a good example of another key trend in theme parks: convergence. The convergence of markets, media, and demographics, with the tools that make them all work together. The park even has a resemblance to good science museums, in that it enables those who are interested to find out more information about some of the animals. Just as in the software business, parks are trying to cover more areas to attract a broader user base, and Animal Kingdom provides extraordinary, exotic, accurate African themeing, in addition to the animals (which are showcased with elements of The Lion King). In fact, just as Animal Kingdom can attract an older demographic than Disney World's kids and young families, and as the Disney Institute appeals to adults, Universal's traditional teen and 20-something demographic is about to be greatly augmented by its new offerings to the Disney World demographic. Islands of Adventure has Popeye, Dr. Seuss, and many other characters for kids.

What's In It For Me?
So where does it get interesting for us, as designers, builders, and animators? Simple. Popeye and his associates need to come to life in as many ways as possible (see marketing goals, above). So, for example, the Star-Bellied Sneeches need to live forever in 3D on the Universal park web site, with plenty of artificial intelligence (AI) and synthetic personalities to keep them interesting when you log in repeatedly. They need to remember your name when you come back, greet you by name -- with voices, not text -- and have interesting stories to relate and adventures on which to take you. Spiderman needs the same outlets; in a few years, he'll have as context the time you rode his dark ride at the park. In fact, he will know who you were with and the date. So the conversations he will strike up with you will not be inane, that is if the code is well-executed. Plus, you'll probably end up helping him take out the Bad Guys. You'll also get occasional well-timed promotional pitches back home, skewed to your demographic interests, and most importantly for the park, you'll end up with a stronger "relationship" with it, long term.

All this is going to take a huge amount of character and world design, and world-building, not to mention the refresh; the new locations and new adventures that have to keep filling the pipeline. In addition, it's going to take a lot more polys and textures, and the hardware-accelerated home machines fast enough to run it effectively have only begun to ship in the last couple of months. Richness of experience, and sensory overload, in a care-free environment is what the theme park business is all about. This must carry over into the digital/virtual versions of those same parks, which is not easy on a 17" monitor. Building rich worlds takes more effort and results in far more lasting impressions on the customer. As Mike Backes said when he was at Rocket Science, "Create a rich environment and pepper it with rich and cunning discoveries, to invoke a lot of the same emotions movies do, like fear and hope."

The ways we can do that are based on genuine advancements in the tools -- like Alias/Wavefront's Artisan, and N-Dimension's SimStudio -- that put more nuanced power in the hands of the individual. Those individuals will make sure that instead of an irritating, animated paper clip on screen, any user can design a custom character to inhabit their central processing unit (CPU), and go along for the ride on their Pilot Pro 5. In the future, when you arrive at a theme park, the first thing that will happen after you buy your ticket and exchange identification information with the park network, is to receive a download of variable-res maps, an event database for the day, and a help function for any queries your assistant character might need to ask the licensed character, who was included in the download, representing the park. Maybe this information and application set will ride on your kid's hand-held, wireless personal digital assistant (PDA), or on a hired video badge with radio frequency (RF) capability that the park issues you. It will also have a global positioning satellite (GPS) function, by the way. This piece of the park experience that you are carrying adds to the personalization of your experience. For instance, your child will choose which favorite character comes along with you and comments on the attractions you approach.

At one time a few years ago, the single most requested service at Disney World was a kid-tracking device for parents; it's definitely going to happen, and not too long from now. The kids being tracked, however, will be much more interested in free-roaming animatronics and immersive, shared experiences that can process more than a handful of people at a time. An early version of successful interactive design in parks is the post-show experience for the Hanna-Barbera Cartoons attraction at Universal. Designed by Art & Technology in Los Angeles, it's got touch-screen paint apps that are the precursors of the current hands-down winner in interactive park entertainment -- DisneyQuest.

One of the many real-time simulators at DisneyQuest is Hercules in the Underworld, a ride that pits you against the evil Hades. © Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The Future of Real-time Simulation
DisneyQuest is the first major production of Disney Regional Entertainment; if you haven't seen its Orlando site, you can catch much of the same attractions at the second DisneyQuest at Rush Street and Ontario in downtown Chicago, Illinois beginning next summer. It's the first well-diversified, well-integrated attempt to combine real-time simulators with story, food & beverage, merchandise, traditional arcades and other interactive attractions. It's also by far the highest density of sim rides and SGIs per square foot in the history of entertainment. Besides the fact that both the Hercules in the Underworld and Virtual Jungle Cruise rides are genuine steps forward in attraction design (for different reasons), and ignoring the significant throughput issues, DisneyQuest's big contribution to our business is that it goes a long way toward legitimizing out-of-home real-time simulator entertainment...and the world-building that goes with it.

The issue for real-time image-generator-based, networked sim attractions [out-of-home/location-based entertainment (LBEs)] is simple: cost per seat vs. image quality. Story design and 3D environments are tasks we can do well now, but haven't been able to put them into a cost-effective vehicle. Jordan Wiesman's landmark original Battletech system achieved excellent results with the hardware available at the time, but our customers today are incredibly jaded by Hollywood-style pre-rendered graphics. As 500MHz boxes become the baseline and acceleration becomes a commodity, the cost per seat problem goes away and talent in entertainment design becomes the differentiator.

E&S's StarRider digital theater at the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum in Chicago is the first-of-its-kind 3D interactive show and will be presented in the first-ever domed digital theater. © 1998 Evans and Sutherland Computer Corporation.

A year ago, at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) convention, there were half a dozen new interactive, motion-base simulator companies exhibiting one- and two-passenger systems, some running home games like Descent. The hardware is the easy part; making it a compelling enough combination with good content to attract repeat customers at a profit is the hard part. The next conference will be held in November, 1999. I'll be spending my time at the ridefilm simulator exhibits, including SimEx and Iwerks, which brings us to our final topic: the gradual replacement of 70mm ridefilms and star-projector planetarium systems by seamlessly tiled, hi-res RGB video projection, driven by big CPUs. This means more world-building and 3D product creation for you.

Both Evans & Sutherland and SGI/Goto have developed systems which have remarkably broad applications; on flat, round or curved screens, in IMAX-style theaters, shopping malls, LBEs, and on billboards. With the huge array of new and existing 2D video content, and custom 3D content creators available, owners of such systems will have tools to educate, entertain, and market to anyone who steps outside. The E&S Star Rider system, for example, will use 6 video projectors to cover seamlessly the dome at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago as of January, 1999. At 1024 lines x 1024 pixels per screen, that's enough pixels to make for a powerful 3D viewing experience. In addition, E&S realized that the entertainment division of a flight simulation company should be run and staffed by entertainment professionals. The talented team they brought in from Universal, Disney/Luxor, and BRC Imagination Arts (formerly, Bob Rogers Corp.) is really pushing the envelope with the first show for their new system.

The theme park industry is a lot like the animation business: we both always need better, faster tools; we both entertain and sell; and we're both convinced that the most fun thing in the world is to create an illusion that convinces the audience of the impossible. Most importantly, we're going to be seeing a lot more of each other, soon.

Clark Dodsworth, a principal of Osage Associates, lives in San Francisco and does product development and strategic planning for high-tech entertainment companies. Recent and current projects include smart toys, ambient intelligence in the home, sim rides, and multi-user avatar environments. He co-produced the Digital Bayou at Siggraph '96 and has been involved in producing the emerging technologies venue at Siggraphs '95-'99, as well as the Electronic Theater in '99. He was also part of the team that produced the VRML '97 and '98 conferences. His book, Digital Illusion: Entertaining the Future with High Technology (Addison-Wesley), just went into its second printing. He is beginning a project to develop a high-tech infrastructure for the city of Vienna, Austria.

Clark Dodsworth's book, Digital Illusion: Entertaining the Future with High Technology, is now available on-line in the Animation World Store.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to

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