Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Alcorn McBride: Take flight with a big-picture approach

A holistic mindset enhances problem solving and product development

by Scott Harkless, Alcorn McBride

“The person who merely watches the flight of a bird gathers the impression that the bird has nothing to think of but the flapping of its wings. As a matter of fact, this is a very small part of its mental labor. Even to mention all the things the bird must constantly keep in mind in order to fly securely through the air would take a very considerable treatise.

–Wilbur Wright

I‘ve always been interested in the history of technology and the people behind its development, and a recent vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina enabled me to visit Kitty Hawk, where Wilbur and Orville Wright carried out their flight experiments and where the Wright Brothers National Memorial now stands. It’s humbling just to be in a place with that kind of historical significance, and often these visits lead to some kind of new realization, which is what I enjoy most. On that front, Kitty Hawk offered much more than I expected.

We all grow up learning the story of the Wright Brothers and how they were the first to achieve powered flight in 1903 with their incredible new flying machine. Of course, the airplane was not invented all in one piece, and seeing and studying the 1903 Wright Flyer in person reveals a much deeper story. These famous brothers from Dayton, Ohio didn’t just invent one thing to conquer the skies, but rather many, bold new inventions that all had to work seamlessly together to soar above the sands of Kitty Hawk.

It all started with their earliest experiments in wing design where they would realize that the research they had been relying upon was riddled with inaccuracies. The only way around this was to develop new wind tunnel technologies to perform their own research, which led to the breakthroughs that would lift their machine off the ground. While some had been experimenting with gliders, nobody offered a solution for stable, 3-axis flight control in those days either. The brothers had to invest years studying and experimenting before they finally overcame this challenge, using a clever combination of wing-warping, a fixed rear rudder, and elevator control in their 1902 glider. Then when it came time to address the challenge of propulsion, they quickly discovered how their innovations in aerodynamics could be adapted to build a new kind of “rotating wing” that would use the same principles of lift to pull the aircraft forward. They even had to design their own lightweight combustion engine using atypical materials such as aluminum, to provide the power they needed without anchoring the plane to the ground.

When considered individually, any one of these inventions could have easily been regarded as a major accomplishment. I suppose that one of the reasons I love this story so much is that the Wright Brothers didn’t think about it that way. They chose to focus on the larger vision of building a machine that would allow mankind to soar. As incredible as these inventions were, they were merely stepping stones on the way to achieve the bigger goal. I believe that the Wright Brothers’ big-picture approach to problem-solving was key to their success, and something that has a surprising amount of relevance to the role we play in designing themed attractions.

While it may be a very different contraption compared to the Wright Flyer, a modern visitor attraction is also a complex blend of form and function, with many individual components that must all work together. On the technology side alone, we have unique systems such as ride control, animated figures, audio, projection, LED walls, special effects, paging, intercom, cameras, and lighting.

Now, imagine how a project with so many types of systems would pan out if different people were hired to design each independently, without any concern for the other systems and how they would interact. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? On the flip side, we also can’t expect any one person or company to handle all of these on their own. Each system requires highly specialized skills and technology to implement properly. Building a successful attraction requires the collective efforts of many vendors that each specialize in some of these systems, but also understand how their individual piece fits into the larger puzzle, the context of the overall project and vision. This is why a hallmark of the themed entertainment industry is its team culture.

As a manufacturer focused on building an ecosystem of tools for the industry, Alcorn McBride uses the big-picture mindset as a basis for developing new products. Whenever we consider adding a new gizmo to the family, we always take a step back and consider how it fits in to the overall attraction architecture. Is it clear how this product integrates with other components? Is it configured and monitored from a familiar development environment? Most importantly, will it improve the experience of bringing the attraction’s technology systems together? It’s important to ask questions like this to ensure that we’re not focusing too much on the product idea itself, but rather the value it will add to our entire ecosystem of tools.

One of the best examples of how this approach helped us improve our ecosystem was the challenge of synchronization between attraction systems. If an animated figure were to start moving its mouth two seconds before the on-board audio system played the vocal track, guests would feel like they’re watching a poorly dubbed film. Failing to achieve precise synchronization is one of the easiest ways to ruin the guest experience, yet it is also one of the most difficult technical problems to solve. Especially when you consider that we’re bringing together two different specializations with wildly different skillsets to build these systems.

If our goal is to provide a toolset that enables attraction designers to synchronize properly, we must look at this situation from a unique perspective and consider the players involved. Let’s say we have two smart specialists on the project: one is a whiz at electro-mechanical control, and another is an acoustical genius. Despite those obvious differences, what common ground do they share? What concepts within their worlds overlap? It turns out the answer for these two parties, and pretty much everyone else involved, is the concept of timelines. The animation vendor looks at their control data as a motion profile plotted over time, while the on-board audio vendor sees their audio content as a set of waveforms played over time. Though the terminology and types of data are different, the overall concept is the same. Their systems operate based upon a timeline, so the most intuitive solution we can offer them is timeline-based control that allows their individual systems to be triggered precisely.

This perspective is what fueled the development of our Show Control and SyncCore engines, which are the heart of most of our products. These products may be individually applied to a wide range of attractions, but we’ve ensured that they can all function seamlessly together. This gives vendors a clear understanding of how their system will interact with others, allowing each of them to focus on the tasks where they add the most value.

Of course, this is just one of many examples, but our best developments tend to share a common trait; they are all just stepping stones toward achieving a larger goal. For us, that happens to be creating innovative tools that empower attraction designers to bring memorable experiences to life. The problems we choose to tackle, the methods which we use to solve them, and especially the people who choose to work alongside us are all inspired by achieving that goal.

If you haven’t already, I hope you take a moment to consider what the big picture looks like for you and your organization. Especially if you’re in the business of solving problems, there’s no better way to inspire you and your team to follow the best path for achieving your goals. To paraphrase Wilbur Wright: What one person can do alone is but little. If, however, you can stir up 10 others to take up the task, you may accomplish much. • • •

Scott Harkless
As Chief Innovation Officer at Alcorn McBride, Scott Harkless works closely with clients to determine their biggest areas of need and leads a talented team of problem solvers to create the products used in many of the world’s most popular attractions. He draws upon his experience in product development, system commissioning, client training, marketing, and sales to ensure that the products stamped with the Alcorn McBride logo exceed client expectations and offer value to the entire industry.

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