Saturday, May 15, 2021

Alcorn McBride: The era of the timeline

(Timeline aka “That’s Show Control!”)

by Scott Harkless

ABOVE: An example of an Omnimover system at Hong Kong Disneyland. Photo by Lotues Wosheang, Wikimedia Commons

One weekend not long ago, I took my 5-year-old son to a local air show. I can never resist an opportunity to blow his mind with something he’s never seen before, and the debut performance of an F-35A Lightning II slicing through the sky right over our heads struck me as a good opportunity. Let’s just say that he wasn’t disappointed! Still, the thing that always captivates my attention the most at these air shows are the formation flying teams. The skill and coordination required to perform advanced maneuvers within a few feet of other airplanes at speeds pushing the edge of Mach 1 is just mind boggling to me. I’ve seen the documentaries that talk about how much these pilots practice, how they rally behind the team leader, and how they coordinate maneuvers by using their own lingo to communicate their every move in cadence with the show, but it’s still impressive to see in action. Without their precise coordination, the team would not offer a thrilling performance for the fans below or return to the flight line safely for that matter.

Come to think of it, designing theme park rides is almost exactly the same, right? Ok, so maybe we don’t have afterburners, flight suits, aviator sunglasses, or the threat of constant peril but, in all seriousness, we actually do share at least one common challenge. We share the same need to coordinate multiple systems with extreme precision in order to safely put on an amazing show for our guests. Instead of hot shot pilots, the team members of our ride-based attractions are sub-systems like projection, on-board audio, ride control, special effects, figure animation, and lighting. Under the command of their fearless leader – the show control system – these sub-systems all need to coordinate perfectly with one another to put on hundreds of performances a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for 10+ years with no time to stop and sign autographs.

The scene trigger and the game change

We’ve devised some nice solutions to this problem in the past. For example, one of the easiest ways to achieve a respectable level of synchronization has been to slice up the ride into sections we refer to as “scenes.” Sensors would be installed along the ride path to detect whenever a vehicle enters a scene. The exact method in which this is done varies, but the end result is typically the same; both the vehicle’s on-board show system and the wayside show control system receive a momentary trigger when the vehicle trips the sensor. Each system reacts as quickly as possible to this trigger to play their portion of the show experience for the current scene. In other words, this shared trigger is the only thing responsible for synchronizing the onboard and wayside show systems at the beginning of each scene. Once they start running their individual portion of the scene experience, they both free-run individually until the vehicle enters the next scene.

This method has served its purpose well for some time, but now, the game is quickly changing on us.

We all know that the industry is growing at an incredible pace right now. The big players are competing intensely with one another in a global marketplace. This is leading to the development of many new attractions, each with more complex design requirements than ever before. Staying ahead of the curve means re-thinking how we design sub-systems – so that they can offer more flexible control and also be more easily distributed between multiple vendors to make the workload more manageable. All this must be accomplished without sacrificing the precise synchronization that’s critical to the guest experience. The new trends born of competition are forcing us to reconceive the way we coordinate our systems so that we can meet the demands of new attractions.

One circumstance that exposes the limitations of the scene trigger is the need to stop and then resume the ride vehicle’s journey, along with the show experience, in the middle of a ride. Why, you ask? It’s often for safety reasons. Some of the most popular attractions in the world are “Omnimover” style ride systems with moving load platforms. Anytime you have a moving load platform, there’s always potential for the entire ride to be stopped for a number of reasons. Perhaps a guest isn’t properly fastened into their vehicle or requires additional time or assistance to be seated properly. Though it would be powerful motivation for everyone to load up quickly, the operators don’t really have the option of letting guests leave the load platform unless they are properly secured to their ride vehicles.

The problem with stopping an omnimover ride system is that if you stop one vehicle, you stop them all. Although John and Jane Doe boarded their vehicle just fine, something can happen 25 vehicles behind them that forces operators to take action to stop the entire ride. John and Jane’s experience becomes that of being halfway through a ride scene, sitting in a motionless vehicle with no show experience. Although the ride starts back up promptly, they have another 30 seconds to go before they encounter the next scene trigger. That’s 30 seconds of dead air that they may well post to social media for all of their friends to see. Once they step off the vehicle, they will demand another ride in compensation for their interrupted experience, adding further to the overall wait time for guests in the queue.

Show control: the fearless team leader

Another trend is an increasing number of sub-systems within a single project, each with its own vendors responsible for integrating and programming them. All of these individual show or scene timelines need something to coordinate them, to precisely trigger them along with all of the other vendor systems. In other words, we need a fearless team leader to call the shots using lingo that all of the team members can understand. We need the show control system.

The first important component of this coordination is to get everyone/everything on the same page or, to be more precise, the same time reference. Utilizing the right show equipment in conjunction with industry-standard clock distribution methods such as PTP, NTP, GPS, and SMPTE timecode, we can ensure that all sub-systems know exactly what time it is with microsecond-level precision. This is critical because it isn’t enough for the show control system to just tell the subsystems to “GO!” Factors such as wireless network latency would pretty much guarantee that everyone receives their triggers at different times and that’s not precise coordination. Instead, we need to empower our show control system with the ability to give everyone a little advance notice and issue a more specific command like “EVERYBODY GO AT EXACTLY 01:02:03.456.” The command packets bounce through the network, soar through the air, and arrive at each sub-system in their own due time. Each sub-system then waits for their precisely synchronized clock to match the scheduled time, and away they go!

The second critical part of this coordination is making sure that all systems share a common understanding of what exactly they’re supposed to do when they receive these “GO” commands. Since we’re often dealing with timed series of events or media playback, show control timelines offer the cleanest solution that everyone can understand. If you’re not familiar with the concept, imagine that you’re using audio or video editing software. In this editor, you can view your 30-second clip in a horizontal, timed-based layout. You can play, stop, pause, loop, or even skip around the clip as you please. Show control timelines work in the exact same way except that, in addition to audio and video, they can also control lighting fixtures, animated figure positions, and many other types of entertainment systems. Using this common platform, you can have as many sub-systems as you wish as long as they each have their own timelines that are designed to synchronize with one another. Just like the lead pilot at the air show, the show control system can dispatch commands to all of them to coordinate a perfectly synchronous start – so they can all fly in formation, so to speak.

The era of the timeline

As for the control flexibility required to solve our omnimover debacle, keep in mind that these new synchronization methods no longer depend on momentary scene triggers. Instead, the show control system can interface to the ride system at a much more intimate level to gather information, such as a ride vehicle’s exact position along the track. When it comes time to start the ride back up, the show control system simply reads the vehicle’s current position and then dispatches commands to start all of the necessary show control timelines at the appropriate position. If the vehicle is halfway through the ride, no problem. We just skip to the middle of the timelines so that the show experience picks back up right where it left off. For example, let’s say our friends John and Jane are 1:30 into the ride when the ride is stopped. When the ride starts back up again, the show control system will command the on-board audio system of their vehicle to skip ahead to 1:30 within its show control timeline. It would also do the same for all projection, motion control, and lighting sub-systems that are surrounding their vehicle. In a fraction of a second, all show elements resume seamlessly from 1:30, John and Jane enjoy the rest of their ride, share their awesome experience on social media, and the guests patiently waiting in the queue advance at the expected pace for their turn.

Show control is a key factor in making today’s high-end attractions perform reliably and keeping a property competitive. Use the right equipment combined with industry-standard communication and control methods, and you will be well prepared to take on even the most advanced ride systems to create a robust attraction and a great guest experience. You’ll be on your way towards making your next ride project the best of the best. • • •

As Chief Innovation Officer at Alcorn McBride, Scott Harkless ([email protected]) works closely with clients to determine their biggest areas of need and leads a team of problem solvers to come up with creative solutions. He draws upon experience in product development, system commissioning, client training, marketing, and sales.

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