Saturday, September 18, 2021

Alterface: Kernels of truth

As its name implies, the Erratic Ride provides for an unpredictable yet rewarding experience in Walibi Belgium’s new Popcorn Revenge attraction

by Martin Palicki

ABOVE: Vehicles converge in the “lobby” of Popcorn Revenge before heading into one of the themed theaters for more game play. All images courtesy Alterface, unless otherwise noted.

What would YOU do, if popcorn suddenly tried to eat you? That Seussian-style question is what riders are faced with at the new Popcorn Revenge ride at Walibi Belgium. The dark ride, created by pairing Popcorn Revenge IP with the Erratic Ride® system (both developed by Alterface), is as whimsical and unpredictable as a Dr. Seuss story. The IP and ride technology are available separately or as a package, as is the case at Walibi.

“There’s something magical about not knowing what is going to happen next,” says Alterface Founder & CEO Benoit Cornet. Erratic takes a traditional trackless dark ride and allows for variations on the ride path and effects, creating almost limitless combinations of experiences, and encouraging repeat riding.

Founded in 2001 and headquartered in Belgium, Alterface has 68 dark rides installed worldwide. Erratic marks a shift in how the company approaches dark rides. Traditional dark rides (and storytelling in general) have followed a linear format, where scene A is always followed by scene B, always followed by scene C and so forth.

More recently we have seen multi-linear style rides, such as Mystic Manor at Hong Kong Disneyland, Antarctica at SeaWorld Orlando and Symbolica at Efteling. There, vehicles travel in groups through the same A, B, C scenes, but the guest might experience a different path or effect in each scene. The car you are seated in determines which path you get to experience.

The non-linear style of ride pioneered with Erratic allows each car to go to different places in any order, and in fact, a complete ride will likely not include all the scenes in an attraction. Additionally, scene lengths and gameplay differ based on a wide variety of factors. A vehicle may travel A, C, D, B or maybe D, E, B, C or perhaps A, B, C, D. Although the system is random, the experience does not come across that way. It’s highly choreographed with a large number of variations and designed to be a high capacity ride. The ride can occupy a very small footprint and fit in a variety of spaces.

The name Erratic actually refers to a family of rides, all of which are non-linear. They can be compact or large, and don’t have to have the same design style or layout as Popcorn Revenge.

Players enter a theater and neutralize popcorn targets invading a space-themed film.
Walibi welcomes the popcorn

With 1.5 million in annual attendance, park CEO Jean-Christophe Parent considers Walibi “one of the key players in the leisure market.” Walibi Belgium is part of the French group Compagnie des Alpes, which owns and operates theme parks, ski resorts and attractions across Europe.

Being close neighbors for over 15 years, Popcorn Revenge marks the first real partnership between Walibi and Alterface. Cornet first pitched the idea to Parent several years ago, who fell in love with the idea and incorporated it into Walibi’s park planning.

The attraction is part of a multi-year enhancement program announced in 2017 that includes new attractions and extensive re-theming of lands throughout the park. By 2023 guests will be exploring eight new immersive worlds. To date, Exotic World and India-themed Karma World have been completed. Karma World’s Grand Maharajah Theater is home to Popcorn Revenge, which blends a western movie theater with the sights and sounds of Bollywood.

Realistic projection creates the appearance of a movie theater stage with animated popcorn wreacking havoc in the theater
Bringing popcorn to life

Alterface decided to use an IP of their own for the attraction to help people understand how a non-linear Erratic ride could actually operate. According to Alterface creative director Laurence Beckers, the popcorn in Popcorn Revenge have come to life and are upset that they never get to see the end of films (because they are eaten). They think it’s time for us theater-goers to learn a lesson, so they are on the attack. Armed with shooting devices designed as popcorn topping dispensers, we are able to neutralize the angry popcorn kernels, who have already wrought havoc in the theater.

The team at Alterface took six years to develop the characters, which they now license as IP directly to the parks. Compared to major studio IP, the Popcorn’s Revenge IP is reasonably priced so smaller parks can include a story-based attraction with an IP that isn’t tied to a particular film or TV show. The IP license also includes merchandising opportunities on a revenue-share basis. This allows a stream of revenue for the park, but also income for Alterface to put into updating and improving the attraction.

The IP is not limited to the Erratic-style of ride and can be used on other dark rides or attractions. According to Alterface, merchandise sales have exceeded expectations at Walibi and more products are in development.

Through queue theming, riders are armed with the backstory information and then board one of seven six-seater vehicles. Once dispatched from the loading station, every vehicle proceeds to the first scene. Here, guests see the popcorn come to life and can start a bit of target practice. From there the car moves into the theater lobby scene, which is circular. Radiating from the lobby, four curtained doors lead off into individual theaters. Only one vehicle will be in a theater at a time, but multiple vehicles can be in the lobby area at the same time, meaning riders will likely see others during the course of the ride. Vehicles can travel clockwise or counter-clockwise around the lobby on the way to the next scene. Depending on where the Erratic ride sends the car, it may linger in the lobby for a little bit, or it may proceed directly into one of the theaters.

Inside, popcorn have taken over the film and riders have a few seconds to use their topping dispensers to vanquish the angry popcorn appearing on the screen. Because the shooting system is camera based, both screens and objects can be targets. Animatronic targets could also be added easily.

Vehicles then either back out into the lobby or can move laterally into another theater. Most riders will experience three of the four theaters before entering the final scene and then returning to the station.

Cornet discloses that there are “Easter eggs” hidden within the ride: special routes and vehicle movements that can be unlocked based on players’ scores. He won’t share these secrets but advises checking the scoreboard after exiting the ride. It shows which high-value characters have been caught, and also shows which other ones were missed. A team that captures them all will have had access to the Easter egg rewards during the ride.

Players in trackless vehicles move unpredictably throughout the Popcorn Revenge attraction. Right photo by Martin Palicki

Behind the scenes

According to Cornet, Alterface’s Salto show control system operates as the “master of ceremonies” for the attraction and runs the Erratic ride. Each vehicle operates independently and is sent directions of where to go periodically throughout the ride. Roughly every 45 seconds, Erratic sends out another information update to all the vehicles, instructing them where to go next and what to do. Cornet likens this to a dance instructor clapping to keep the rhythm. Each clap checks in with every vehicle and the computer decides where to send all of the vehicles based on that moment in time. These periodic updates keep the ride moving smoothly, yet unpredictably. In this application there are seven different paths the vehicles can traverse, but there could be more.

Unlike a traditional linear ride where each scene lasts for a specified amount of time, the cars in Popcorn Revenge may stay in each scene for around 20 seconds. This variation in scene duration allows for the differences in ride paths. In essence, Erratic can tell a vehicle to stay in a scene for a few seconds longer so another vehicle can clear out of its way before moving.

The media facilitates this timing flexibility by having three components. An intro loop plays while a vehicle enters the room and continues until it is time for the next scene. Then a special event (custom to the theme of each film) happens in the media to transition into an exit loop, while the vehicle moves away from the screen.

“The whole ride is really dynamic, because the computer is constantly adjusting the media content and duration for each scene based on the location and paths of all the other vehicles,” explains Cornet. “It’s a very sophisticated system of movement required to keep the ride from slowing itself down.”

According to Cornet, a non-linear dark ride allows changes to the attraction to be made easily. Without a precise linear story for the ride, adjustments can be made without affecting the narrative. At Walibi, the park opted to have a soft opening for the ride as soon as it was ready and has been open to making adjustments to the attraction based on guest feedback and experience. Already there are plans to start the gaming action in the opening scene sooner, and enhancements are coming to the Hall of Fame at the end of the ride.

“Walibi is a place where old and young can have fun together with their family and friends, and Popcorn Revenge epitomizes that philosophy,” says Parent. “It’s a perfect addition to the park and a good example of how the park will evolve in the future.” • • •

In this Alterface rendering of the Popcorn Revenge attraction at Walibi Belgium the central lobby of the attraction is visible, along with the four themed theaters, entry and finale scenes and load/unload areas. As is evident, the attraction fits in a relatively small footprint.

A fruitful Benelux collaboration

In addition to Belgian-based Alterface the Netherlands’ design/build company Jora Vision and ETF (trackless ride vehicles) made for a Benelux-centric production team. Other partners include Belgian-based Barco for projection technology and Painting with Light for light technology. [Editor’s note: Benelux refers to the three countries Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg]

Jora Vision worked on Popcorn Revenge’s storyline and design. “We wanted to provide a precise level of detail,” says Robin van der Want, project development director for JoraVision. Every movie theater room has custom-designed wallpaper themed to each film, and the main lobby of the theater has all the projectors piled in a heap – the result of some popcorn shenanigans.

ETF has long partnered with Alterface on attractions and since 2014 they have been a 45% shareholder in Alterface. ETF’s vehicles have been used in countless rides, and Popcorn Revenge utilizes their standard trackless car, which follows a guidewire buried in the floor. According to ETF CEO Ruud Koppens, the trackless car provides several advantages. Aside from being able to move in different routes, staff can quickly add or remove vehicles from operation, vehicles can almost always return back to the station for an evacuation operation, and the battery powered vehicles can use lowercost electricity overnight to charge for the following day.

Popcorn Revenge Facts

Time: 3-4 minutes long, randomly

Length: 99 meters of track

Throughput: 510 people/hour

Vehicles: 7

Shooting devices: 42 (6 per vehicle)

Projectors: 9

Maximum score: 500,000

The future is Erratic

by Benoit Cornet, Founder & CEO Alterface

The idea of non-linear experiences has been on our mind for a very long time, as far back as 2001, when we presented the first concept of a non-linear walking experience featuring screens and interactivity. At the time, however, there were still technical challenges involving the ride vehicles and other tools needed to create a successful experience. Additionally, these non-linear attractions present challenges for storytellers, who must ensure a storyline is not compromised if a guest does not experience every element of an attraction. Now we have been able to address those challenges, both technical and creative, and developed the Erratic Ride®. In addition to being a new concept attraction for the market, it is well-designed to take advantage of three driving forces in the industry:

1) Non-linear attractions are valuable commodities. In recent years, operators have begun to understand the value of a non-linear attraction. By their very nature, non-linear attractions create nearly unlimited experiences within a single attraction. That drives demand for repeat ridership, which in turn means repeat visitation to parks.

In recent years there have been more attractions that allow for some differences within a singular ride experience. But in these attractions (Mystic Manor, Symbolica, Antarctica, Star Tours, etc…) the variations between the different experiences are limited. Erratic allows the operator the option to set the limits of the variability. When parks decide to install an Erratic Ride, we provide a simulation system that can detail all of the various paths, variations and options possible in a given attraction. This allows the team to select the ones that make the best sense for a specific location.

2) More throughput, please. All operators understand the value of a great guest experience. A critical component of that is ensuring enough people are able to experience an attraction, and visit enough attractions during a day to make their visit feel worthwhile. This is why throughput matters. Rides have to be able to absorb more people as attendance increases. Erratic excels in this area, especially when comparing throughput to the size of the attraction. Depending on the venue Erratic can process 500-1,000 people per hour. Erratic helps keep lines moving and people cycling through an attraction reliably, day after day. Because the ride continually makes adjustments while operating, throughput is rarely affected, even if one vehicle has a maintenance issue.

3) Space is almost always at a premium. There aren’t many venues out there that don’t have to deal with some sort of space limitations. Most parks have limited acreage available for development. More than likely an attraction will need to be worked into an existing space or converted from an older attraction. Erratic can be shoehorned into small spaces without a lot of infrastructure investment on the part of the park owner. Because vehicles don’t have to travel in one line from start to finish, structural elements such as pillars or “dead ends” can be worked around. The vehicles from ETF have tight turning radii and can enter and back out of scenes with ease. Of course, Erratic will also work in a large venue, but it is truly designed with the small venue in mind, including FECs and indoor parks. We have already designed some packages that allow for adjustment of each attraction to different geographies and type of partners. •

Painting with Light boosts visual & sensory experiences at Popcorn Revenge

Painting with Light, the Belgium-based light technology specialist, was commissioned by Alterface to design and install the complete lighting at the new Popcorn Revenge dark ride in Walibi Belgium. The main requirement was to have lighting enhance and support the highly detailed video action appearing on the screen in each space, along with additional elaborate scenic elements. It had to help ramp up the gameplay and blend seamlessly with other visual elements in the ride. “We really had to get our heads inside the psychology of the Popcorn Revenge characters and storyline,” says Luc Peumans, CEO of Painting with Light.

Eleven areas in total needed imaginative lighting, including the individual theater spaces through which the ride cars pass plus the queuing area and car loading station. After receiving the technical drawings of the scenery and descriptions of the visual material in each space, Painting with Light created a technical lighting design, including illustrations of how the lights would be used and explanations of practical aspects like cabling and maintenance.

Maintaining flexibility in the lighting design was a major challenge. All the movies playing in the theaters might be changed or modified in the future, so lighting had to be thought through not just for what is there now, but also for potential updates yet to come. The Painting with Light team chose a mix of architectural and show lighting fixtures. Most of the architectural units highlight the many highly detailed decor aspects of the ride. In the theaters, effects lights are instrumental in building a sense of anticipation throughout the ride.

The central lobby area alone features four different moods: black light and UV denote darkness and suspense; angry is evoked with blue chasing lights; happy sees the space lit with bright and positive colors; melodrama has lighting descending into a gaudy, chaotic atmosphere with flashing and clashing colors.

Over 100 Gantom LED fixtures light the primary architectural areas, 80 Gantom DMX RGBW Floods are deployed for highlighting and accenting props, curtains and other set pieces. Six Gantom Precision Z Spots in cool whites are picking out the graveyard theatre space spiderwebs, bringing their intricacy alive with crisp bluish tints. Gantom One Pinspots are used in all the theatre spaces, crowning the tops of the stages, and six Gantom Precision Z Floods are deployed lighting the popcorn machine outlets in the queuing area.

“We have enjoyed great teamwork, creativity and fusion of ideas and skills with Alterface and the other expert partners,” says Peumans. “Together we produced a world class attraction that is a huge success and a whole lot of fun for the park visitors.” •

Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki owns and publishes InPark Magazine. Started in 2004, InPark Magazine provides owners and operators the perspective from "in"side the "park." Martin has also written for publications like Sound & Communications, Lighting & Sound America, Attractions Management and others. Martin has been featured in Time Magazine, CNN.com and Folio. Martin lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

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