Thursday, September 23, 2021

Mass Effect: New Earth Brings Innovative AudioVisual Technologies to Silicon Valley’s Great America

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[tab title=”REVIEW”]by Joe Kleiman, InPark News Editor

Star Tours, Back to the Future-The Ride, T2:3D – these are among the benchmarks to which all immersive media attractions strive.  What differentiates those attractions from the hundreds of ridefilms and 4D theaters that follow similar formats is that they’re not just turnkey theaters with rotating films.  They are custom designed facilities utilizing leading technologies. And to this prestigious list we can add a new benchmark – Mass Effect: New Earth, at California’s Great America in Santa Clara, part of the Cedar Fair chain.

Mass Effect: New Earth is housed in the former Paramount Action Theater, which at one time played host to ridefilms based on the James Bond, Days of Thunder (NASCAR), and Spongebob Squarepants franchises.  The exterior looks much the same, but it is inside the theater where the differences are startling.

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The IP in this attraction is the Mass Effect video game series from Electronic Arts studio BioWare.  Creating an attraction based on licensed IP can be a tricky prospect, and licensed projects run the gamut from simply sticking a name on an attraction to fully fleshing it out in the franchise’s given design.  One thing is certain standing in the covered preshow area, where you can look around and see riders on the adjacent flat rides twirling into the air – this is a regional park. It’s not Disney, it’s not Universal.  But once inside the building, that perspective changes completely.  The 4D adventure itself has the same level of quality you’d expect from Cedar Fair’s bigger competitors.  It’s just as good as Star Tours or Transformers.  And from a technology standpoint, in some ways, it’s even better.

California’s Great America lies in the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s surrounded by technology.  Levi’s Stadium, the most technologically advanced stadium in the NFL was built in its parking lot.  You pass the headquarters for Avaya, a leading digital communications company, as you enter the park.  From California’s Great America, you can walk to the headquarters of Intel or Cisco Systems in 15 minutes or less.

Partnering with the world’s largest video game company, Electronic Arts, headquartered in nearby Redwood City, the park created an attraction based on one of the most technically advanced video game franchises on the market – and one that would be highly palatable to the video game geek community – Mass Effect.  To complement the tech angle of the attraction, revolutionary technology was employed, including the largest 3D LED screen ever installed in an attraction and near channel binaural sound that emanates from about three feet in front of each rider.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE LED SCREEN AND UNIQUE AUDIO SYSTEM BY CLICKING THE TABS ABOVE

The sound plays a very important role.  This is a “holographic journey.”  Characters appear as holograms floating in front of the screen and interacting with a live actor playing the role of the ship’s captain.  As the hologram speaks, directional audio through the binaural speakers makes it appear as if the voice is actually coming from the holographic image (click the audio tab above to find out how this works).

Is it necessary to be familiar with the Mass Effect universe to enjoy the show?  Not at all.  The attraction throws its own non-stop punches and the visuals combine with the motion seats, 3D sound, live actor and in-theater effects to create a completely visceral experience which is far beyond what one would expect at a typical park full of coasters and flat rides. There are plenty of “Hidden Massies” for the hardcore game fans – the character played by the live actor is an actual character from one of the games.  And, as with Cedar Fair’s Voyage to the Iron Reef attraction which opened last year at Knott’s Berry Farm, there are references to other California’s Great America attractions during the show.

Nineteen years ago, I entered the attractions industry as an operator/technician on the IMAX Ridefilm motion simulator and as an IMAX 3D projectionist.  In the nineteen years since, I’ve been involved in media-based attractions, 3D and giant screen cinema, and digital fulldome in a number of capacities. Whenever I encounter a new immersive theater, I always try to go through more than once and experience it from different angles.  Mass Effect: New Earth was no exception.  I rode it twice, first in the sweet spot – center row, center seat – and the second time in the back row towards the end of the row. I have never said this before about any 3D attraction or theater I have ever experienced:

No matter where I sat, there was absolutely no discernible distortion with the audio or image and there was no ghosting at all.

With this attraction, Cedar Fair and California’s Great America have created a new benchmark for immersive media-based attractions.  Mass Effect: New Earth is part of Cedar Fair’s technology initiative, which also includes new physical and virtual architectures for ticketing (what CEO Matt Ouimet referred to as “the beginning of the death of the turnstile”), the FunPix digital photo platform and smartphone apps.  On the attractions side, this emphasis on digital technology has brought us Amusement Dark, featuring the interactive dark rides Wonder Mountain’s Guardian at Canada’s Wonderland and Voyage to the Iron Reef, and the new partnership with Electronic Arts, which also includes an interactive Plants vs Zombies attraction at Carowinds. While most of us are keeping our eye on Disney and Universal, Cedar Fair has been in the forefront of a technological revolution on the regional park scene. As part of this, Mass Effect: New Earth is the kind of attraction the entire industry – designers and operators both – could learn from.  In my opinion, Mass Effect will have its own mass effect on the attractions industry.  I’d be glad to give it ten thumbs up, if I only had ten thumbs.  Maybe I do in the Mass Effect universe.[/tab]

[tab title=”AUDIO”]PRESS RELEASE FROM CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE FOR TELECOMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO

A new, immersive 4D audio and visual experience at California’s Great America amusement park in Silicon Valley is the first attraction worldwide to feature patent-pending spatialized audio beamsteering technology developed by researchers at the University of California, San Diego.

“Mass Effect: New Earth, A 4D Holographic Journey” features Near/Far Acoustic Field (NFAF), an audio infrastructure developed by researchers based at the Qualcomm Institute, the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. This infrastructure makes use of 3D audio beamforming technology that was licensed exclusively by Comhear, Inc., an inaugural partner in the Qualcomm Institute (QI) Innovation Space. The attraction also represents the first time the Comhear MyBeam Sound Bar has been used in a public venue.

The attraction’s 3D spatial audio system, combined with what is being billed as the world’s largest and highest resolution 3D LED screen, will immerse guests of the park in the popular “Mass Effect” video game developed by BioWare™, a division of Electronic Arts.  The experience features settings, characters, music and visuals familiar to players of the critically acclaimed game series and will take guests on an outer-space adventure, hurtling them through visually stunning landscapes to face off against larger-than-life adversaries and help “save the day.”

Working under the auspices of their start-up company, Crescendo Media Engineering, QI Sonic Arts researchers Peter Otto and Jeff Sandubrae and a small team of audio engineers including Daniel Ross from UCSD’s Music Department created the attraction’s audio design from a library of sound from the Mass Effect game provided by BioWare, as well as custom-generated sounds. Unlike the restrictive limitations of headsets and personal entertainment systems, NFAF audio is seamlessly integrated with story, picture, motion effects and multi-sensory production on a cinematic blockbuster scale by way of the theater’s 72-channel state-of-the-art theatre speaker system, integrated with an advanced 480-speaker binaural auditory imaging system.

“Comhear’s MyBeam platform is ideally suited for Great America’s 4D experience theme park attraction,” says Comhear CEO Perry Teevens. “Participants would normally need to wear headphones to experience deep immersive spatial sound effects, which are an essential part of the 4D theater experience. This is a major breakthrough for public audio applications. We are proud to be associated with California’s Great America, UC San Diego and Crescendo Media Engineering on this project.”

The MyBeam speaker arrays are located directly in front of the guests’ motion seats, with one array for every two guests. The system enables the arrays to project four audio beams to “create sound objects that move around the room and also project some very intimate sounds right next to your ears,” Sandubrae says.

“This is the first environment of its kind to have this many individually controlled speakers,” Sandubrae adds. “We’ve found that this spatialized, personalized audio experience elevates the suspension of disbelief that 3D video provides, providing a highly realistic and engaging experience. It’s very technical on one the one hand, and very artistic on the other. It is a new paradigm for sound design.”

“We call it ‘wow factor’ for your ears,” says Christian Dieckmann, Corporate Vice President of Strategic Growth for Cedar Fair Entertainment, which owns Great America, Knott’s Berry Farm and 12 other theme parks. “This is the kind of technological experience that can’t be replicated at home or even in a small entertainment venue. It’s next-generation, next-level 4D.”

The 4 ½ minute experience takes place in the park’s 80-seat, newly renovated Action Theater. Guests take their seats aboard the “Terra Nova Cruiser” and are debriefed by a live actor on their impending inter-galactic adventure. Through a fictional relic of ancient alien technology known as a “Mass Relay,” guests travel to the planet Terra Nova, where “not all is as it should be.” The experience is made all-the-more realistic by water and air jets, neck and leg ticklers, scent generators, and vibrating transducers built into state-of-the-art MediaMation seats, providing the 4D effect. Sandubrae notes that the family-friendly journey, while intense, “doesn’t involve any violence against people – only monstrous aliens.”

The Crescendo team faced numerous design challenges during the execution of the project.  While auditory realism was the top priority for Crescendo, scenic elements in the theater had to also create the illusion that guests were inside of a star cruiser that roars to life and launches through space at faster-than-light-speed. The team used numerous techniques to integrate the massive sound system into the theater’s “acoustically transparent” scenery.

“3D Live is always looking for new technologies to pair with our technology,” said the company’s co-founder and CEO Nathan Huber.” When I first met the Crescendo team I knew we would work together on something, I just didn’t know what it would be. When the park approached me for this project, I immediately thought I should bring in Crescendo.

“Many productions treat sound design as the last piece of the puzzle. We wanted to take this visually immersive project and make sound design an integral part of this concept. I think the audio technology in this project will lead the way in live immersive entertainment.”[/tab]
[tab title=”VISUAL”]PRESS RELEASE FROM 3D LIVE:

3D Live, leaders in stereoscopic 3D LED technology, has excelled at turning imagination to reality. The debut of the new 4D amusement park experience “Mass EffectTM: New Earth”, at California’s Great America amusement park in Santa Clara on May 18th, marks another milestone. 3D Live, in collaboration with BioWareTM (a studio of Electronic Arts) and Cedar Fair (parent company of California’s Great America), have created an experience that will allow park guests  to directly participate in the universe of the critically acclaimed game franchise.

Guests will travel through space to a distant planet, face off against bigger than life adversaries and ultimately help save the day.  Mass Effect is an award-winning science fiction role-playing video game series that has been met with critical acclaim globally. Fans and critics alike have lauded the game for its rich tapestry of story, character development and action. The new attraction is the culmination of close collaboration between the 3D Live team, BioWare and California’s Great America.

Although rudimentary 3D experiences are in widespread use today, most suffer from several major limitations. Unlike the projected 3D typically used in a movie theater or standard 4D attraction, 3D Live’s stereoscopic LED panels send polarized light straight to the viewer’s vision instead of bouncing it off a silver screen. This new LED tech produces a more impactful and immersive 3D effect surrounding performers onstage with brighter colors and truer blacks than projection.

“Our technology affords the actor the ability to physically interact with holographic-like virtual environments,” explains Nathan Huber, Chief Executive Officer for 3D Live. “The performer or participants directly interact with the visuals, without casting a shadow or having projected images on their bodies. The result is a much truer augmented reality holographic experience.”

The gaming world was a natural fit for 3D Live’s new form of augmented reality where digital visuals can be blended with live actors and other physical elements without the need for a headset. 3D Live’s technology is now making direct immersion in a gaming-based environment a reality.

“There’s no truer sense of being part of the Mass Effect universe than being surrounded by the actors, ships and worlds,” says Ryan Pardiero, Chief Operating Officer for 3D Live. “Entertainment is converging quickly where the format of the media and the story being told have a  direct impact on the user experience. Whether its gaming, live music events, theme parks or any exhibit, the team at 3D Live can create a  custom environment that will leave the participants speechless.”[/tab]
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Joe Kleimanhttp://www.themedreality.com
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe has been News Editor and contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, and MiceChat. His blog, ThemedReality.com takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @themedreality Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his fiancé, two dogs, and a ghost.

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