The changing nature of media-based attractions
edited by Judith Rubin and Joe Kleiman
Media-based attractions have broken free of theater settings and can now be found in a greatly expanded range of
environments and types of experiences (including theaters but no longer confined to them). We asked leaders in the field to share their perspectives and forecasts.
- David Beaudry, Principal and Founder, Beaudry Interactive LLC – David’s expertise is dealing with both the creative and technical aspects of real-time show control and interaction design in the worlds of live performance, entertainment, museum exhibition and experiential design.
- Mark Stepanian, President, CAVU Designwerks – Mark brings years of experience in innovative engineering of large-scale theme park attractions. He is involved in the ASTM F24 standards committee, and also sits on the IAAPA Young Professionals subcommittee.
- Ryan Penny, Head of Sales, HOLOPLOT – After a decade of diverse roles within the pro audio industry, Ryan joined HOLOPLOT in 2021 to lead the company’s global commercial expansion, drawing from his experience in sales and project management on cultural events and entertainment venues.
- Charlotte Huggins, CEO and Executive Producer, Miziker Entertainment – A prolific producer of 3D films, Charlotte was included in Daily Variety’s “2008 Women’s Impact List” and The Hollywood Reporter’s “Digital 50.” She is a member of the Producers Guild of America New Media Council, on the founding Executive Board of the Visual Effects Society, and an emeritus member of the Writer’s Guild of America West.
What is important for operators, designers and producers to understand about the new media-based experience landscape?
Huggins: Media – meaning original, produced audio and visual content – is so pervasive that there is now essentially no difference between a media-based experience and what might be called a traditional attraction. In themed entertainment, we deliver story-based experiences, and media is one of the ways we tell stories and immerse guests in a story-world. Dark rides, roller coasters, walk-through attractions, traditional attractions, etc. are now all filled with media, in the form of images on screens, projections on scenic elements, music and point-source audio.
Is “media-based attraction” still a meaningful category?
Stepanian: Media is just one of the increasingly large toolkits of storytelling devices. Depending on the stories we are trying to tell, these new technologies may provide better or at least different means to tell stories. Ultimately, stories will be told across a sophisticated blend of technologies that closely mimics the way that we experience our lives. It’s through a complex combination of storytelling techniques that stories become their fullest, most robust, most engaging, most emotional, and ultimately most effective versions.
Penny: Consumers may not actively think about the impact of this on their day-to-day activities, but when choosing to visit an attraction, the term ‘media-based’ suggests ‘new.’ I see the term ‘media-based attraction’ as an educational term, used to distinguish ‘traditional’ entertainment from the more cutting- edge and experimental experience offering we’re seeing more and more of. Judging by the extreme acceleration of technological advancement, however, I’m convinced that soon there’ll be a whole new vocabulary to articulate the next generation of themed entertainment experiences.
Huggins: I think the answer is no, it isn’t. But the use of media in attractions is more important than ever. In our work at Miziker Entertainment, we have found that media is not only ubiquitous in attractions, it is a permanent part of live shows as well. Media is seamlessly integrated into parades, such as the Journey of Lights Parade we created with Chimelong for Ocean Kingdom. That parade includes nearly a million LED lights, but also hundreds of thousands of pixels of media that are beautifully part of the parade of lights.
And certainly, media is part of any live spectacular, in the form of architectural projection mapping, projection on water mist screens, even imagery synchronized to smartphones as part of the show. We are always looking for new ways to integrate outstanding visuals into live audience experiences.
How does the ubiquity of media change the project development process?
Beaudry: As designers we must give guests something that they can’t experience at home. And we feel this goes doubly so for media. When creating content for out-of-home experiences, it is easy to become complacent thinking that because you have dedicated so much time and resources on media production that your work is done once the last frame is complete, but it is not!
Today’s experience-driven economy is wanting so much more. Guests are demanding to be active participants in your experience, and you must design for that call. This involves non- linear storytelling and in-the-moment content that feels as if it has been uniquely produced for just that audience at that given moment. This requires a different design approach where audio and video need to sound and look seamless, even if the bits and pieces that are used to bring it all together are not. Giving agency to your guest means you, as a designer, are designing a “field of possibilities” – guardrails that shepherd the experience but keep it nimble and fluid enough that every guest feels they experienced something unique to them.
Penny: Delivering truly immersive experiences that can suspend disbelief requires all technical elements to gel. It’s comparable to a symphony, where it’s the composition of different instruments that makes the music.
At HOLOPLOT, we don’t believe in off-the-shelf loudspeakers, but rather that the full impact of advanced technologies such as our X1 Matrix Array is best felt when working closely at the point of conceptualization with creatives to understand their aspiration and vision for the project.
Stepanian: The project development process will change because the way we tell stories is changing. At their heart, the concept, the hook, and the meaning of the story will stay the same. But then beyond that, the decisions we make on how that story gets told will rely on a new generation of story crafters who are well versed in how to tell stories using these new mediums. Just as producers and directors of movies represented the new frontier of storytelling in the middle of the 1900s, we are now on the brink of another storytelling leap forward. Stories no longer will be as linear as they once were, as technology will allow for ever-evolving stories to be told. The ways we present to and engage guests will be different. The integration of technology into the experience will change. With all those areas and more, we will need new creators to help guide us through how to tell these stories in new ways.
Huggins: This is an important question that perhaps has a surprising answer. The use of existing characters, music and stories that guests know and love – intellectual property – is such an important part of new attraction development that asking the question of how those characters are brought to life is more important than ever. We never set out to use a particular technology in an attraction or a live show. But more and more, whether it is a much-loved animated character or a scary monster, we carefully consider how that character is visualized, and more and more often, it is not through costumes or animatronics, it is through thoughtfully produced media segments.
Using media to visualize characters and story-worlds is so important that even when the character has never been visualized in this way before, we at Miziker Entertainment take the time to develop characters for shows or attractions. We have done this for decades and have adapted or invented characters that become digital assets that are used in media in many different ways. We have created 40-foot-high frog monsters with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, beautiful 3D animated princesses that appear on water screens, and original hand-drawn or paper-sculpted characters that become visual media that are part of a nighttime parade.
Tell us how your company has applied technology in a guest experience that has helped redefine the genre of media- based attraction.
Beaudry: For us, it’s all about agency. We are bombarded with so much media in our regular lives that it often becomes noise or set dressing when we experience it in public spaces. Making the guests agents means that, at least for a few moments, you have an attentive audience that wants to see and hear what you have to say. We had a great example of this a couple of years back. At Sesame Street Land at SeaWorld Orlando, you can visit Elmo at his apartment window. Working with Sesame Workshop, we produced more than a dozen, super cute skits that would run throughout the day.
Given the rockstar-like popularity of Elmo for 2- to 6-year-olds, all those working behind the screen initially assumed that beautifully produced content was all that was needed to keep the audience happy. The skits even occasionally broke the fourth wall where Elmo would ask guests questions, or a scene would trigger a physical prop outside Elmo’s window, like a spinning pinwheel or “Happy Meter.” But come opening day, very few people gave Elmo the time of day. With the media content running like clockwork every few minutes, Elmo became scenery. It didn’t take us long to figure out why, either. Elmo did his thing whether you were there or not.
That all changed a couple of months later when we added a simple motion sensor. With the sensor, Elmo only appears when you are at his window! Rather than watching a video, it became a conversation – a playdate with Elmo. And as long as you stay at his window, Elmo keeps coming back to talk to you. The scheduler that used to trigger the skits was replaced by the guests’ arrival. And when that happened, they stayed and watched. Note that the media content wasn’t altered during this change, only the agency for action!
There is a similar situation for museums. Large budgets are spent on media content, but much of this ends up on a monitor on an endless loop. Again, it often becomes set dressing. For the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, we instead created “peeps.” These were small similarly themed 10” displays. The displays were dark. No instructions. No attract. But it was clear something should be playing on the small screens. And when you leaned in a bit, your suspicions were confirmed. With a simple proximity sensor, the guest became the agent for triggering the media content. The result is that, when triggered, guests watch the entire 60-second clip and learn a little something in return.
Penny: The creators of Illuminarium Experiences, two trailblazing, experiential cinema installations in Atlanta and Las Vegas, set out to create an inspirational environment that transports visitors to new worlds. They wanted to invite the audience to explore the room freely, creating their own journey around the moving, interactive content.
HOLOPLOT delivered a completely hidden X1 sound system, unshackling sound objects from the position of the loudspeaker and the 2D surface of the projection wall to make this vision a reality. Unlike conventional audio solutions, our audio objects can appear to be far away or, on the other hand, whisper in your ear. In addition, visitors can track a sound across the venue in perfect synchronicity with distinct visual show elements, making running alongside a moon rover in close proximity possible for the masses.
Apart from sonic authenticity in terms of moving objects and visual synchronicity, another major challenge of this project was ensuring the audio installation remained invisible. This was achieved by positioning each speaker behind a specially designed micro-perforated wall panel. Audio transmission losses from the panel were fully compensated for in the X1 optimization engine. The result is clear, full-range sound with virtually no coloration (elements that distort or alter sound) and a seamless visual projection surface. The audio and visual technology at Illuminarium work together in harmonious synchronicity, on a scale and level of sophistication not seen before, showing AV technology at its very best.
What are some exciting and inspiring ways in which technology has liberated media and opened up new opportunities?
Beaudry: Technology has given us a means to engage directly, and uniquely, with the guest and audience. We have a long history of embedding sensors inside props and costumes to give performers the ability to trigger media (sound and visuals) in the moment. Our most recent adventure into this realm was giving Big Bird, as a walk-around character, a voice in the new Sesame Place San Diego park. The media content in this case comprised over 500 pre-recorded lines of speech by Matt Vogel, the iconic voice and puppeteer behind Big Bird. The screen was replaced by a full-sized, in-person, puppeted Big Bird that was able to directly engage with the guests in the park.
Using simple gestures and poses, along with some technical and design smarts behind the feathers, the Big Bird performer walks around and interacts with guests anywhere in the park, completely untethered. The technology also gives Big Bird the ability to interact with the surrounding environment, including fun exchanges with Oscar the Grouch, shoutouts to the neighboring Laundromat and Bike Shop interactives, and live shows with Sesame’s Storyteller, creating a truly dynamic and immersive environment. For us, this represents an entirely new direction in how to utilize pre-recorded media content by enabling the environment and the performer, allowing them to take the show where they need to.
Stepanian: As technology evolves, so does the way we present stories. Today, AR and VR are changing the way that media is presented on screens and this is the short-term next step. In the long game, explorations into new technologies to bring experiences back into a 3D space are rapidly progressing. Projection mapping on physical environments that can change as guests move through space creates virtual reality in a 3D space without needing a headset. Animatronics and AI development are allowing even more organic interactions, further driving stories back into that 3D space. Finally, new computing technologies are allowing stories to react to guests, continually changing and evolving based on the unique set of experiences that each guest brings. In this way, we inch closer and closer to real-life interactions that unfold organically and evolutionarily, interactions that are unique and personal, and interactions that create exceptionally deep and emotional connections with guests.
What’s the really cool thing coming around the corner?
Penny: As audiences gain the ability to explore a given space more freely, the creative team are granted the opportunity to build ever more immersive worlds with the help of cutting-edge AV technology. Our technology lets you create discoverable audio rather than blanket sound. Experiences become tailored and changeable depending on how a visitor moves through an attraction.
Dark rides are a great example of the impact of sound. These attractions have evolved from mechanically driven, theatrical tours to highly detailed, immersive experiences that invite visitors into 3D, movie-like journeys. As the name gives away, part of the ride takes place in the dark. Sound plays an important role in guiding a visitor’s discovery, directing the gaze to specific moments, underlining certain points in the visual content or setting the mood with background music. Sound can be used to paint pictures in darkness, triggering the imagination and envisaging what’s to come next.
The importance of audio is also highlighted by the advancement of other visual technologies such as holograms; localized, unobtrusive audio is absolutely necessary to bring such digital objects to life.
Stepanian: In what almost feels like coming full circle, we are starting to see attractions across the board embracing the importance of real human interactions in their experiences. On the major operator’s side, we are seeing multi-night hotel stays set within a controlled environment that involves elaborate tasks and games that stretch throughout the entire day, supported by a delicate balance of technology and cast members. On the smaller operator side, we are seeing escape rooms and visitor center attractions that rely more heavily on the human component for storytelling. Taking the roots of entertainment, using live actor participation, and supporting it with incredible technology will allow for the next generation of experiences in genres that we don’t even know exist yet. • • •