Friday, December 9, 2022

Alcorn’s tech ecosystem

At 6488 Binloop Drive, you’ll find AV leader Alcorn McBride

by Gabrielle Russon

This year, the city of Orlando changed the street name where you’ll find Alcorn McBride to Binloop Drive. The company is headquartered in a 19,000 square foot building in the MetroWest area. The new, permanent road sign is a nod to Alcorn McBride’s long history and legacy helping create the sights and sounds of Orlando’s theme parks, and to its flagship product, the Binloop.

Over the course of more than 35 years in business, Alcorn McBride has built its niche in creating, engineering and manufacturing show control, audio and video equipment. The company does work for museums, retail, cruise ships and casinos but it’s specialty is theme parks. Alcorn engineers and builds products that have long life cycles to meet the theme park industry’s needs.

“Our focus on theme parks is what makes us valuable to our customers,” said Chief Innovation Officer Scott Harkless. “We’re proud of the number of major theme park attractions, all around the world, that contain our gear – including many that have recently opened.”

Like a fighter jet

For Alcorn McBride, there is no better place to be an AV innovator than the attractions industry, where the company’s engineers are designing for the leading edge.

As Product Development Director Hunter Olson says, “Theme parks and attractions are the most leading-edge audiovisual industry out there. They demand the most robust and innovative solutions. Because they’re trying to create these experiences that people will travel and pay for, they want the absolute latest and greatest.”

Providing the latest and greatest, year after year, project after project, decade after decade, is an automatic mandate to constantly innovate. Alcorn McBride leaders say they are basically working in research and development (R&D) all the time. It’s an engineer’s wildest dream and biggest challenge. There is no set guide to follow, but best practices come into play.

“We’re a unique company,” Olson said. “We design the circuit boards and then build the software that runs on them. We design everything from the chip level up. The time and effort we spend on this ensures that the code running in our products is something we understand and have full control over.”

Rather than simply write software for PCs, as many companies do, Alcorn McBride uses its own embedded hardware. The advantage, per Olson, is a reliable, high-quality, long-lasting solution. In their quest for just the right elements, they freely borrow from other industries – including military fighter jet technology, and cell phone tower technology – “believe it or not,” Olson said. “It’s fun to talk to the big chip companies because they’re just not used to their parts going into the theme park industry. They don’t think about it. They’re usually dealing with the military.”

Building a tech ecosystem

Alcorn McBride sees itself as providing the technological glue that holds all the pieces together. That approach is reflected in their suite of products. It’s a validation of the original vision that so many Alcorn products have become familiar names over the decades and are still going strong in their updated, more versatile and modular versions. As the needs of the industry have evolved, that has meant having the capacity to engineer and deliver entire tech ecosystems, as opposed to providing this or that black box.

“We’re trying to make sure that our product design and their programming options eliminates as much friction as possible,” Olson said.

“Since we’re engineering ecosystems, it’s our job to make the technical logistics come together, freeing up clients to focus on the creative vision and guest experience,” Harkless said.

For a new ride, Alcorn McBride engineers the timeline for the projection system, the lighting, the animatronics, the audio and video and the rest of the subsystems to sync together, to the nanosecond. “What we do and what we manufacture supports the project and the client,” said Harkless. “We never lose sight of that.”

Alcorn McBride is currently preparing to launch Winscript Live 6, the software package Alcorn’s customers use to program Alcorn’s equipment. The latest version has a cleaner look and more user-friendly interface.

Scott Harkless and Hunter Olson look at the company’s equipment at the Alcorn McBride warehouse

Alcorn McBride is also debuting the new BinloopX hardware platform that is the descendant of one of the company’s early, classic products, the Binloop. Back in the day, the original Binloop was a groundbreaking product that replaced oversized, high-maintenance tape players and helped theme parks transition to digital media. The new BinloopX handles uncompressed video content and uses industrial automation synchronization to link up with the show control and ride control systems. The company debuted BinloopX’s control platform module and an audio playback card last year. A new facet, coming out either later this year or early 2023, is a video playback module for BinloopX. “The new Binloop X is a more flexible piece of hardware that we’re deploying into these attractions so that not only can we continue to innovate and add features to it, but down the line if the attraction wants to upgrade, it’s easier for them to do that also,” Olson said.

“For example, if we do a video update, we’re doing 8K. Or you know, whatever’s next – 64K, for instance. We can just swap out that module but still leverage the control and the packaging and actually leave it in the attraction – not have to redesign a whole entire product from scratch,” Harkless said.

Alcorn McBride touts its other products that work seamlessly together to ensure that all the various subsystems within the attraction offer a high-quality and synchronous show experience, such as the V16X show controller. The BinloopX leverages the same methods to provide high-quality synchronous AV for all the wayside elements such as projection, LED walls, flat panels and point-source audio. The RidePlayer also provides synchronous control and audio playback on-board the actual ride vehicle. They work with the WinScript Live 6 software which Harkless described as “basically our show control development environment, which allows you to configure and program all of these products to coordinate together.”

Alcorn intentionally chooses not to install its products. “There is already a well-established pool of great integration companies that exist for this purpose,” said Harkless. “It is in our mutual interest to offer them free training and technical support to ensure they have everything they need to successfully install our equipment. This allows us to focus on what we do best: designing and manufacturing great products that are useful to the industry.”

Usually, the company is involved fairly early in the process of a new ride or attraction – three or four years out. “We try to stay in very close contact with these major attractions as they’re rolling out,” Harkless said.

Building an industry ecosystem as well

To foster better collaborations that better serve clients in realizing a successful ride or attraction, Alcorn McBride has taken a leading role in creating the Attractions Technology Lab (ATL) along with Christie, Oceaneering, Weigl, and Garner Holt Productions. The ATL recreates a technical mockup of a complete attraction and will be held off-site at Oceaneering Entertainment November 14-15 during the week of IAAPA Expo in Orlando, where Alcorn McBride will also have an exhibitor booth. “Guests can test and play, seeing for themselves how their devices for ride control, animatronics and more sync up and fit with Alcorn McBride’s AV components and its timeline,” Olson said.

ATL provides an opportunity for clients and other manufacturers to get the full picture of how the systems work together. “We build the full technology backbone of an attraction, and let people come in and see it, and ask questions and open panels and see the wires in the boxes and everything involved,” Harkless said.

Registration is available online: attractionstechnology.com.

The family on Binloop Drive

Company Founder and CEO Steve Alcorn was among the talent recruited to Orlando to develop the original EPCOT park. After EPCOT opened in 1982, Steve used his talent and his theme park connections to start up his own business. (Read more about Steve’s journey in his book, Theme Park Design: Behind the Scenes with an Engineer.)

Steve added his wife’s name to the company name. (Steve Alcorn is part of a theme park power couple. His wife, Linda McBride, was the first female engineer hired by Walt Disney Imagineering, and was honored by the Themed Entertainment Association in 2020 as a TEA Master.) Thus, the business Alcorn McBride was born in 1986, selling its first product, the V16 show controller in 1989.

“Our kind of mandate ever since then was to identify these niches in the industry – older equipment that we could replace, or something that we could do better, and latch on to those and develop new products,” Harkless said. The company’s next major product was the Binloop.

Today the company has 21 employees – many of whom have been at Alcorn McBride for decades. One employee recently retired after 35 years. Harkless hit his 20th year milestone. Loren Barrows, the company’s COO, recently celebrated her 13th work anniversary. “That longevity speaks volumes to what it’s like to work here,” Barrows said of the close-knit environment. The lack of turnover ties into the company’s success in building deep relationships with clients and expertise in the field. A further boon is having a sales team who are engineers with the technical acumen to understand the technology behind the products. Entering the lobby of Alcorn McBride, the tiki bar is the first thing a visitor notices. Demonstrating the company’s attention to detail, the tiki bar isn’t an afterthought. It’s exquisite – an integrated experience that showcases the company’s audiovisual capabilities as well as the sense of community that imbues the company culture. Talking tiki masks decorate the space. Relaxing tropical noises play in the background. Waves and sailboats rock on the screens on the walls. And on appropriate occasions – such as employee happy hours and celebrations with clients – it’s also a working bar posted with the motto, “Have fun. Make money.” An actual church occupied another space elsewhere in the building. In redeveloping the two-story structure, Alcorn McBride removed the pulpit, and turned it into a screening and demo room. That room is still referred to as “the church.”

On a recent tour of the building, Barrows showed off plenty of gags and inside jokes that reveal the light-hearted spirit and camaraderie on Binloop Drive. A space labeled “special closet” holds tools and paint while the “not-so special closet” holds bathroom supplies. Funny name tags, like “favorite intern,” are posted outside workers’ offices.

Alcorn McBride genuinely seems like a family. In the kitchen, Barrows’ mother baked cookies for employees to snack on. Employees work out together in a small space with fitness equipment. The company’s CFO even got married in the headquarters, in “the church.”

“Steve’s vision was to have a company for the employees, so it wasn’t ever his goal to become this huge manufacturing mogul giant,” Barrows said. “His vision was always to have a place where people could come and work in a fun environment while they do cool things and engineer cool stuff.”

And that’s what happens every day on Binloop Drive. • • •

Gabrielle Russon ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist who lives in Orlando. She previously covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel, earning several statewide and regional honors for her coverage on theme park injuries, the economic challenges facing theme park workers and the pandemic’s impact on the tourism industry. A Michigan native, she is a Michigan State University graduate and has worked at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Toledo Blade, the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Elkhart Truth during her newspaper career. In her spare time, she loves visiting Orlando’s theme parks and running marathons.

The tiki bar at Alcorn McBride entertains staff and guests with special effects controlled by Alcorn McBride equipment.
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