ABOVE: The Holovis facility in the UK is set up for demonstrations and R&D of presentation systems and technologies, like this CAVE simulation environment.
Holovis: virtual environments, real-world business • by Judith Rubin
[dropcap color=”#888″ type=”square”]I[/dropcap]t’s a cycle in themed entertainment for a new, high-end guest experience to be introduced by a major operator, and as the technology becomes more mature and affordable, for smaller operators to introduce similar experiences as providers find ways to package them. “Every solution can be scalable,” says Stuart Hetherington of Holovis, a full-service provider of hightech, immersive, media-based attractions for an international body of clients.
Another cycle is to revisit a concept or platform with new technology. Just as certain kinds of movies get remade with ever more convincing digital effects, the attractions industry refreshes certain kinds of attractions with new and ever more sophisticated tools.
Motion simulation, dome projection and virtual reality are cases in point. These are all experience platforms that have been improved and enriched in the past few years by new technology, digital tools and gamification (integration of video gaming features and interactivity). The benefits are more compelling and seamless effects, smoother and better coordinated motion, and a more immersive experience.
Thanks to new tech and new tools, entering a virtual world is easier and more enjoyable these days than it was in the 1990s – whether via ride vehicle, headset, specialty theater or a combination – and it’s more likely one can have a good, long visit there without getting seasick or having to work too hard to suspend disbelief. Better tools for technologists also means better tools for storytellers.
This is the environment in which Holovis has been building international success. This versatile company maintains a turnkey facility and a seasoned staff to work on the leading edge of media-based attractions for entertainment and education, in a range of budgets. “There is a demand for scalable, custom attractions,” said Hetherington. “Clients are looking for a certain level of immersion, a certain type of media, a unique story and experience, within a particular budget. We can value-engineer that when needed – or go higher-end.”
Own the problem, own the glory
Holovis has the in-house capability to provide design, fabrication, hardware manufacturing, AV and media integration and now also media production and game design out of its UK facility. Hetherington calls it “taking control of all parts of the value chain. We are rethinking traditional supply-chain methodologies to more effectively deliver the next generation of dark rides.”
This differs from a frequently seen model in themed entertainment wherein a team of small companies, consultants and producers comes together specifically for that project and then disbands. Hetherington feels that turnkey minimizes risk while it increases responsibility. “I have seen clients relying on lots of third party suppliers and seen it break down in some aspect: ride system, visuals, interactivity. By producing from start to finish, by not taking a fragmented approach, we own the problem, and we own the glory as well.”
Another benefit of having a large R&D facility is the ability to demonstrate systems to the client, first-hand. “It’s like a miniature theme park and VR center here,” said Hetherington. We have the means to test, prove and continually improve everything: next-generation 4D theaters, a dark ride test cell, fulldome theaters, two virtual reality CAVE facilities and all the software and tools needed for mockups and visualizations. We can have an in-person group in the immersive space having a proper collaborative discussion.” The facility is approximately 100,000 sq ft. in size currently and occupies an old farmland site. “We took it over 10 years ago and are in the early planning stages to expand the site with a brand new technology and innovation center double our current size again,” says Hetherington. “We’re making magic, hidden away in these old barns…”
Three divisions and gray-haired geeks
The company is currently organized into three divisions, and continues to serve manufacturing, military and government clients in addition to entertainment. More than 70 employees work at the main facility in the UK and this figure continues to expand monthly. The company now also maintains offices in Los Angeles and China. New additions to creative staff include Amy Steele, a veteran of Universal Creative with a background in gaming. “We will be bringing on more game developers in our LA office,” said Hetherington. He shows a leaning toward seasoned professionals at the top of their game, “Gray-haired geeks, that’s what we look for. People who meet our vision and values and goals. Everyone we bring on board is incredibly talented. Everything in our business is innovation led.” He sees the US as a market to cultivate and promises “a lot more to talk about in the next six months.”
The in-house media production was also formed in response to the challenges of quality control when working with third parties, especially for gaming applications. “We are still partnering with key players on the media side,” said Hetherington. “We are not in a place where we would want to take on big film and animation houses. But because we have our gaming and software development teams in-house under our brand, we are doing some CGI and film work ourselves. It’s about owning the challenging creative aspect, paired with the physical attraction side, and the interactive technology. We think this is the ideal and most effective way to build attractions.”
Juggling client sectors as diverse as manufacturing, government/military and entertainment is a challenge that not all companies are able to meet. According to Hetherington, it takes discipline, robust design and realism. “We have a very good design and creative team that can balance quality with value engineering. There are different budgets and different requirements in each marketplace. We understand that; we have been very flexible in how we adapt; we are solution oriented.” Hetherington and Holovis Co-Director Joe Jurado come from a background in automotive research. “We both worked in physical testing, and that led us to virtual technology for crash testing and simulation, which took us to the study and research of immersive volumetric CAVE VR systems. From there we moved into military simulation and training and then early fulldome technology. Joe managed one of the world’s very first permanent digital planetariums, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We have continued in that space as well and are seeing where next we can take large scale immersive 3D experiences.”