Andrew Mellor sees the value in adding interactive elements to today’s attractions…

Interactive attractions, a buzzword in our industry for some time, are becoming increasingly popular with both operators and their guests. Indeed, such attractions are almost expected in today’s amusement and theme parks.

As well as guest expectations and demand driving this growth, however, advancements in technology have also played a huge part in allowing designers and manufacturers to create ever-more elaborate interactive experiences. When once many park-goers would have been happy – and of course in many cases still are – with a simple shooting experience in a dark ride, for example, nowadays they want more. And happily, they can get it!

Interactivity today means a whole host of things from the aforementioned shooting experience to a magic wand which records and saves everything you do within a game and even allows you to go home and come back again to start where you left off. It means whole new experiences in attractions, from snow in a 4D effects theatre to choosing the way your vehicles goes in a dark ride.

And perhaps most crucially, it enables every member of a family, from children to grandparents, to take part in and enjoy an experience together, providing all ages with an active role, a part to play and that vital commodity of interaction between each other rather than with a piece of hardware.

The type of technologically driven interactive experience provided by different suppliers and manufacturers will, of course, depend on what individual companies do, as will how involved the end user actually becomes in the attraction. But the choice for operators is expanding… and technology is allowing that to happen.

It’s a social thing

What constitutes true interactivity in rides and attractions according to suppliers? For some, it’s using hardware and software to make a guest feel they are part of an experience, while for others it’s creating a situation where people interact with other people that’s the key.

“It’s not that you interact with the attraction,” said Denise Weston at Creative Kingdoms/MagiQuest in the US, “it’s that you interact with each other. There’s a lot of product interactivity but not social. A lot of products offer interaction in a hands-on way but if it doesn’t cause two people to interact together it’s not true interactivity.”

At simulation and effects theatre specialist Simworx in the UK, MD Terry Monkton believes that using motion cues to make riders feel they are part of an experience and 3D imagery to enhance the realism of that experience creates a truly interactive attraction, while at entertainment systems integrator MediaMation, in the US, Dan Jamele said: “Interactivity is a widely overused word. When we program fountain shows, it is common to call a fountain that kids can play in ‘interactive,’ even though they are simply playing in the water jets. In the broadest sense of the word, they are interacting with the water, but there is no return interaction by the fountain as it is simply playing back the pre-sequenced show.

“A better description of an interactive show or exhibit, would be something that modifies its behaviour, or show, based upon real time input from the observer or user. Typically, this refers to some sort of exhibit that can be as simple as a touchscreen and a computer display, to a multiplayer game that changes constantly based upon the player’s actions.”

At capsule simulator supplier FX Simulation, UK, Alan Fleming believes interactivity can be represented by any sort of game where the player can affect the outcome but he does not believe interactivity in attractions is necessarily more important today than ever before. “None of our products are interactive,” he said. “The brain gets immersed in the simulation. If you are very competitive then you’ll want the interaction but we concentrate on providing the same experience for all. Some interactive simulators are very realistic and really give you a jolt, for example, if you crash a car or something like that. But younger or older riders may not want that and just want to be immersed in the simulation experience itself.”

Simworx too supplies capsule simulators but this is just one of several motion base products on offer from the company and Terry Monkton feels interactivity is increasingly important in attractions.

“People are looking for the boundaries of technology to be pushed further and further,” he said, “and they expect much more than, say, 10 years ago. As an example, we provide film experiences with interactivity (4D effects) rather than just a ride on a roller coaster or something similar where the guest simply sits down and watches a film.”

MediaMation’s Dan Jamele, however, is of a different opinion to many when it comes to the importance of interactivity.

“Movies are still one of the main sources of entertainment and there is absolutely no interaction involved in a movie theatre,” he said. “It is a totally passive experience where the viewer simply lets the experience happen. However, on smaller attractions, especially in museums where there is a goal of educating as well as entertaining, interactivity is far more important. People tend to retain information for a much longer period of time if they are actively involved in the process than if they simply view the attraction.

“However, from an entertainment point of view, some of the best attractions are purely passive, non-interactive attractions (such as Spiderman or Indiana Jones rides). The trick with interactive attractions and exhibits is that the interactivity needs to be properly integrated so that the user has some control over the results and process, while the basic show or attraction still steers the viewer into the final goal or entertainment elements that the creative developer wants the user to experience.”

Denise Weston on the other hand believes interactivity is much more important today than it has ever been.

“By far this is the case,” she states, “with technology and its advancements allowing true social interaction. What will save the theme park industry is a true understanding of interactivity between one another, not using technology in a computer screen. The competition is not the guy down the street. We have to make ourselves really stand out as different and put people in situations where parents play with their children and siblings play with each other. Eventually people are going to miss this type of experience. This is the answer for all types and sizes of attraction from the big Six Flags type parks to the smallest FEC. We need to make it necessary to leave home to experience this type of interaction.

“We do a great job in our attractions of creating escapism but spend a lot of time in the design stage looking at how grandparents can play with their grandchildren as it’s so different to how they (the grandparents) used to play themselves when they were young. If you can’t satisfy them you will lose them so we spend a lot of time and money ensuring that all visitors to our attractions have something to do.”

The MagiQuest experience provided by Creative Kingdoms provides all these elements as guests walk through the attraction, but of course it’s a different challenge when it comes to providing interactivity in rides.

“We are seeing a higher demand for family rides that incorporate interactivity,” notes Ruud Koppens at ETF in the Netherlands. “Parks are looking more to attract a wider group but the interactive elements change from park to park depending on how the operator views his facility. For example, at Efteling here in the Netherlands the story is the most important element in their attractions so they do not have guns on rides. This would go against what they are trying to portray. But the combination of a highly decorative and themed ride with interactivity as well is too much. If you are shooting at targets, for example, you are concentrating on the shooting element not the decoration or theming.”

Koppens says companies will increasingly work together to create attractions and indeed ETF is currently building a ride at Futuroscope in France, which will be highly interactive, in conjunction with another company specialising in interactive attractions.

Water-based attractions too can benefit from the advances in technology which now allow interactive elements to be incorporated in them, including waterslides and other waterpark attractions. At Van Egdom, also in the Netherlands, Lars Lenders notes several benefits of doing so.

“One trend we have seen is interactivity in attractions. It extends the stay of the visitor and involves the child in play structures and other water attractions to give more playtime so that they don’t get bored so soon. We can custom design any interactive zone or water play area and include all kinds of sensors so guests can fire water jets or other spray elements via a pump or manually. Or they can change the course of the water in a particular direction, for example, so the user has the choice of what the water will do in the various features we create.”

Technological advances

So how have advances in technology changed the interactive elements available today?

“Technology in this situation (MagiQuest) is a blessing for us,” says Denise Weston. “Technological elements are usually very hard to maintain, for example in museums, but ours allow the guest to do things by waving a wand so there is no physical contact with anything which might lead to items being damaged.

“But we use technology on many different levels. It allows us to evaluate how players are doing, we can track all players and what different age groups are doing, who they come with, etc. And the adults love it as it’s the first time they’ve seen technology being used to get kids off the settee!”

Terry Monkton says new technology has resulted in lower prices thus, in the case of Simworx, bringing the cost of high definition projection systems down so they can be integrated into products more effectively. “4D effects used to be in the reach of only the major theme parks like Universal,” he notes, “but now all kinds of attractions such as FECs and museums are installing them.”

And Alan Fleming comments: “We have used LCD monitor technology to provide rides in true high definition for a crisp and deeply immersive ride,” he said. “The quality and size of the monitor is paramount and especially important because people are sitting closer to this than a normal monitor and will pick up any defects in quality.”

FX Simulation continues to develop new rides in high definition that appeal to all sorts of audiences, while the company also has SMS text facility where users can get financial and technical information from the simulator as well as text a credit to it.”

Dan Jamele, meanwhile, says computers have made even the simplest interactives much more flexible and entertaining. “We have almost unlimited ability to alter the content and presentation at a moment’s notice,” he said, “based upon inputs from buttons, sensors, touchscreens, etc., which allows us to incorporate more and more interactivity, both basic and complex, into more and more aspects of each attraction.”

In the ride sector, ETF’s Ruud Koppens commented: “New technology has allowed more things to be done and will continue to do so. More and more people want interactivity in dark rides and other attractions – the Splash Battle ride is a good example; people get wet but it’s all part of the fun. People don’t always want to sit in a car and just go round a track. We have noticed that people of today are not as they were 20 years ago. They want to make choices and that’s the level of interactivity we can now bring into a ride. They are deciding the direction the rides go in, for example.”

Lars Lenders noted that some technological developments have helped in the waterpark market, commenting that like anything the public can touch, it has to be very sturdy but also user friendly, so a balance is required.

Intelligent interaction

So what of the future? How will advances in technology help interactivity in rides and attractions of all types. Our interviewees have some interesting insights to offer.

“It will allow operators to learn about the consumer,” said Denise Weston. “The future of our business is in the hands of the consumer and being able to use technology to better understand the consumer.

And she continued: “Technology in general really gives us a chance to appeal to a wide age group. We make people feel they are in a real adventure and give them real play. What we offer appeals to a mom. And many kids are looking to play with parents again.”

“I think the main area for development in interactive attractions will be the user input devices,” stated Dan Jamele. “As more and more user input devices become popular in the consumer market, such as gaming inputs, these offer more and more options to the interactive attraction developer. Motion tracking, head mounted gear, green screen devices and other technologies aimed at other markets quickly find their way into the interactive market.

“Eventually, I think that we will also see more ‘intelligent’ interaction where the reactions of the interactive equipment become more and more independent based upon sets of algorithms instead of the fixed responses that we typically use these days. Although there are many cases of these more intelligent attractions popping up, the cost of programming something truly useful in this area is still prohibitive to most operators and attractions.”

On the simulation and effects theatres front, Terry Monkton reveals Simworx is currently working with an interactive specialist on a project that will increase the interactivity levels in simulation products in the future, providing individuals with more involvement in what happens on screen. But he also stresses that, as far as film and motion base attractions are concerned, it will be important for operators to continue to consider the relevance to the venue and the film content they choose. It will also become more affordable and easier to build products off the shelf.

At FX Simulation, Alan Fleming explained the direction his company is taking. “Simulators will only become more immersive,” he said. “We are already the first small simulator supplier to add 4D effects and we will continue to lead the field in this aspect. In future we will add more degrees of freedom and more effects, not just on the inside but on the outside too so that the simulator will be immersive to watch from the outside as well. We really want to push the ‘wow’ factor and give the customers something they’ve never seen before.”

Ruud Koppens sees an increasing demand for interactivity in attractions, not least because parks and other venues are becoming more family orientated again.

“We know parks that have invested in huge coasters in the last 10 years or so but now they admit this is not necessarily the way to go. This is also why we are seeing more hotels being built at parks for families and others who want to split their visit into two days, particularly during the week when you see a different group of people visiting than at the weekends.”

ETF’s rides will feature more interactive elements in the future, as will be the case in the aforementioned project at Futuroscope (further details not yet available) while in the waterpark industry too, technology is playing its part in enhancing attractions.

“The new generation of slides has more digital effects with sensors triggering these when riders pass by, for example,” said Lars Lenders. “Low voltage lighting and other effects can now be incorporated into water slides and other waterpark style attractions and although it’s not true interactivity as we know it, it’s along those lines.”

As parks and other venues look increasingly towards the family market, advances in technology will quite clearly help many different sectors to enhance their products even further by adding more and more interactivity. But as MagiQuest’s Denise Weston pointed out, done correctly, this will also allow guests to enjoy different experiences in the same attraction, thus encouraging repeat visits which will be a key to success. It will be fascinating to watch how manufacturers take advantage of the opportunities that will continue to be presented to them.