New levels of engagement
interviews by Joe Kleiman
Interactivity and gamification are ever more integral to visitor attractions. At the new Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser experience at Walt Disney World, elements of analog game playing, technology-based interactivity, live action role-play, and hospitality blend into one cohesive experience. Industry leaders Benoit Cornet, Founder & CEO of BoldMove Nation; Mark Stepanian, President of CAVU Designwerks; and Dina Benadon and Brent Young, respectively CEO and President of Super 78, spoke with InPark’s Joe Kleiman about trends and technologies shaping the next generation of interactive attractions.
What have you learned from past experience that you’re applying to attractions now?
Benoit Cornet: What I’ve learned from the past 20 years is that we have to be judicious in gauging people’s interests and preferences when it comes to interactivity. Sometimes, we’ve put elements into gameplay that were overly complicated. As a result, people missed the fun in their experience.
Our work needs to be a humbling practice. Our sole agenda and reward should be that people enjoy a great experience. It can be exciting and immediately gratifying while also being smart and simple. Interactivity should be based on feedback and movement, with a superfast learning curve and easy to grasp, so people can focus on doing what they want to do right away. Walk in their shoes. Don’t overthink it. If you give them a shooting device, they will shoot. For certain rides and attractions guests do not need an extensive explanation or tutorial but want to just dive right into it and enjoy the experience.
Mark Stepanian: Nine out of every 10 requests we get for new attractions reflects the desire for more interactivity. With “Battle for Eire” at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, we used basic eye tracking and head tracking with the VR headsets. “Twilight Saga: Midnight Ride” at Lionsgate Entertainment World in Zhuhai, China, was the next step of interactive experience design for CAVU. It combines scent, force feedback, and several other sensory devices to provide an increased level of interaction that is experienced in real-time. One of the new attractions we’re currently working on takes “Midnight Ride” to the next level, further deepening interaction and sensory engagement.
Noting that people have become more reluctant to use VR gear that others have put on their faces, we introduced our Quest product line in the midst of the pandemic. Quest provides a similar, wholly immersive experience to VR without users needing to wear a headset. In an early version, handheld devices with embedded sensors were used to track guests. Projectors would illuminate the area where the tracker was pointing. Now, we’re able to use a combination of body tracking and eye tracking to trigger projection mapping and special effects without the need for physical devices. By using guests’ natural actions, we can trigger experiential responses organically. In that way, the experience is much closer to how we interact with our world in real life.
Brent Young: We’ve learned a lot and have a ton of fun with our Geppetto digital software. As technology improves and awareness builds for this Super 78 proprietary interactive digital characters system, we are able to leverage the software and hardware and continue to upgrade and improve to meet adjacent experience markets. We’re now developing a touring live show for the LOL Surprise doll line that brings the dolls to life. And we’re working on an interactive character for the new Mattel theme park coming to Glendale, Arizona.
During the pandemic, a lot of out-of-home entertainment migrated to in-home and in-theater environments, and we used Geppetto for a preshow involving an animated elf for kids waiting for a virtual Santa. This allowed U.S. servicepeople who couldn’t be with their kids during the pandemic to participate in the activity with them.
What impact will Disney’s recently launched Galactic Starcruiser have on the industry?
Cornet: The cold truth is that in most cases, nothing beats live experiences, and live actors often turn out better than animatronics. I am a firm believer in the use of AI [artificial intelligence] but unless your budgets and access to technology are unlimited, a live encounter is the best option for an emotional connection.
Galactic Starcruiser shows what you can do — and how much you can ask of guests — when you’re working with a really strong IP, in this case, Star Wars. Guests are ready to go the extra mile; being familiar with the IP and its culture, they bring a good understanding of what is requested from them. Not all IPs are equally powerful and therefore you may need to scale back your ambitions and depend on your live cast. A great example is Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town Alive, where actors can correct guests on the spot if things are heading in the wrong direction.
Stepanian: Galactic Starcruiser is the first of the next generation of immersive experiences. When developing projects, the first question is always about the general population’s willingness to participate in the story. For more mainstream attractions, such as theme parks, how do you give the guests agency without giving them too much agency, so that different types of guests can enjoy different experiences? We try to balance an active experience while still delivering the core narrative. For example, Midnight Ride has path variability, but a rider who wants to sit there and not steer the motorbike will still experience the main story. We’re always trying to determine when to put the attraction on autopilot and when to make guests part of the experience.
Young: We’re all captivated by Galactic Starcruiser. We’re all watching it as a pioneering example of a high-capacity, interactive hotel experience. We have to keep in mind that it’s too early to tell with this project. It’s challenging conventional hospitality models, but it’s also pushing the ticket price to the stratosphere. Already there has been some serious reaction cost. We need to wait and see. The Van Gogh experiences are a price point that makes it easier for guests to feel that they got some value for what they paid, while also being game-changers of interactive multimedia immersive projection. Black box ideas can bring in media, new shows and new formats to display those shows. If they catch on and things are standardized around a format, people will develop new and exciting things around them.
How does technology factor into interactivity?
Cornet: We did the utmost to keep our Smash and Reload attraction, which is now in production, as plain and simple as possible. With every step, we think how to make the fun as immediate as possible. This is an exciting exercise in “less is more.” Our goal is storytelling with a strong emphasis on humor, action, experience and sound. The audio part is a strong element in our partnership with Triotech: they work hard to deliver superior sound and movement, with each vehicle being a genuine auditorium with no less than 16 loudspeakers.
The mixing of two different actions — smashing and reloading — is designed to balance the strengths of the players and make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone. We keep the story basic. Exhilarating action, characters that you enjoy targeting, an environment of music and sound, and a great ride dynamic; this is a simple, efficient recipe for entertaining a broad audience. This approach helps keep the attraction compact, simple to operate and within budget. This is the result of experience acquired in producing many dark rides — going back to the very essence of dark rides and what people like them for.
The same philosophy applies to our AR [augmented reality] Hybrid Quest product. Again, we have started with what people like and actions that are familiar, eliminating any complexity that is a barrier to immediate enjoyment. With AR Hybrid Quest, people use their phones. The park infrastructure requirement is minimal; yet it adds an extra dimension to the park environment. We can help integrate the attraction within a bigger story and additional elements. People go to the parks for the live experiences; AR should add value but not replace them.
Stepanian: When approaching any storytelling experience or attraction, we ask, “What are the emotions we want guests to feel and how do we achieve those emotions in the best possible way?” Sometimes those emotions can be best conveyed with a flying theater, sometimes a custom-designed motorbike motion platform, and sometimes a live performer. We never want to put new technology into an experience just because it’s new technology. Technology must be used to help deliver that emotional response. The magic of any experience comes to life when you don’t even realize the technology is there. For instance, our eye-tracking room amazes guests because it allows guests to drive the experience organically without any physical or visual technology. When the tech fades away, the emotions become the center of the experience.
Young: In our flying theaters, we’ve had smells, temperature changes, water sprays — that sort of thing. Now that we’ve established the baseline, we can build on top of what was already there. Smells are now expected — so what is the next engagement of the senses? We must have it — it can’t be an option. In our new flying ride in New York City, we’ve added strobe lights into the canopy that flash in accompaniment to fireworks on the screen. We’re bringing the action closer to the guests.
At one time, I would have said physical elements are not important. Now integrating real props with media is the magic. The trick is to make it feel more real. These blended realities become more and more important as people are now used to just looking at screens. Movies have become an everyday event.
Dina Benadon: One way we’re bringing magic back to the movies is through Magic Screen — creating interactive ways for consumers to be a part of the movie experience, to be immersed. We’re taking proven theme park technology, building an interactive network to theaters around the country and bringing that theme park level interactive experience to local theaters. Imagine being able to interact with your favorite movie and that special animated character, live, before the movie starts.
Do interactive attractions need a storyline to be successful?
Cornet: Our role is to make sure the guests have fun and in the most direct way possible. Surprise is good, but meeting expectations is paramount. We help our clients offer a competitive experience — not everyone can mount a gigantic effort around a mammoth IP, but there is a “no nonsense” approach to making magic with a lesser-known IP. Being active in Europe means we deal with many different cultures and languages: In this area, we have to carefully weigh verbal and non-verbal aspects, and keep in mind the impact language itself can have. Keep the storytelling as smart as possible; support the visitors in creating and living their own stories.
Stepanian: We have a new experience called Battle Arena, which is based around our Self-Driving Vehicles (SDVs). We designed this because certain experiences don’t demand a deep story. The digital assets needed for stories can take years and significant investment to develop. In Battle Arena, guests on the SDVs have a variety of different tools to use, and they can interact with others in the same arena. Each person has a different set of tools and goals for the battle and those drive the experience instead of a story.
Young: One project we’re working on involves creating immersive, interactive dining experiences, highly customized for individual guests. They receive info about the food they’re eating and the wine they’re drinking in a Holodeck-style, interactive environment. Cooking and food are arts that engage all the senses.
We looked at how much interactivity guests want in high-end dining, how much eye candy. It has to be very intuitive and very simple, something recognizable you can engage with. The dining experience is part theme park, part museum, and part restaurant — there are already a lot of mashups in the industry. The human element is very important. The curator will be knowledgeable, but also perform a bit of theater.
Benadon: The immersive dining experience adds another whole level to the senses. It’s an example of how we are developing new ways to touch guests’ emotions through storytelling. I call it “immersive fusion.” This is really what Web 3.0 — the Metaverse — is truly all about. That should be the next opportunity — the blending of the physical world and the metaverse; adding this digital component — essentially a digital experience — that guests can share.
Are there any exciting trends you’re following?
Cornet: I am totally into all the progress of AI and the ability that it will give to create what we call “contemplative interactivity,” where the content and the attraction are revolving around the visitors, anticipating their reactions (or absence of) and making the experience different every time. If you think of it, it comes down to bringing attractions alive, yet in a way that will be affordable for most park owners. It can be challenging for the smaller players to come to market with competitive visitor experiences, but that’s where our creativity comes in.
Young: The next level of engagement is with digital online — renamed and repackaged for attractions and experiences. We’re going to be depending more on AI soon, but we’re not quite there yet. The real game changer will be real-time speech conversion, where a live actor speaks, but the voice heard on the other end is the character’s; this kind of AI transformation is very close. Think about the bot technology we interact with now frequently on the phone, that’s tech we’re looking to deploy. As long as latency and realism don’t go wrong, it’s 99.9% bulletproof.
Benadon: The deepening level of digital and online engagement has prompted us to reach out to form partnerships with companies like Microsoft, Unity and Nvidia who are leading the way with these types of technologies.
Stepanian: Recent openings have included attractions that offer substantially longer experiences from the more traditional dark ride experience. Feature-length attractions are a new genre and we’re starting to see more interest in them. Where we used to put our sole focus on the attraction portion of the experience, we can now create a whole cohesive experience from approach to queue to preshow, then the main attraction, and finally the postshow. Experiences are drifting away from being just about the ride and are now bringing in many different areas including connected or integrated retail, thematic food and beverage offerings and the ability to build upon the experience after you have left the physical attraction space. At CAVU we are starting to explore integrating sensors into merchandise that can enhance the on-ride experience. We’re also developing companion apps that enhance the on-ride experience while also allowing our guests to continue the experience at home. We think these exciting trends of viewing the attraction as a more holistic experience will continue to evolve. • • •