The economic downturn has proved an opportunity for some sections of the AV industry as people head for museums, theme parks and other attractions rather than venture abroad. Ian McMurray finds out more.
The English language is a wonderful and fascinating thing - especially in its ability to create new words from old words. Take 'staycation' for example - the concept of staying at home for vacation. Five or six years ago, it was unknown - but now, it is to be included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Not taking a holiday abroad - because of economic uncertainty, the high cost of travel or adverse exchange rates - is, it appears, a phenomenon that has particularly benefited at least one part of the AV industry. When people stay at home for their vacation, it seems they head for theme parks, museums, cultural centres and a host of other attractions - and that's been good news for companies such as Sarner, which specialises in the design and installation of visitor attractions.
Bucking the trend
"We've seen a substantial drop in corporate AV installations," says managing director Ross Magri, "but that hasn't been reflected in leisure and visitor attraction projects."
System integrator IVC Media's experience is similar. "Despite the UK's poor summer weather this year, attractions and visitor centres have still been busy," says the company's business manager, Phil Firestone. "We expect this will give them more confidence to invest in the future."
"Our customers are telling us that attendances haven't dropped," confirms Henry Corrado of Alcorn McBride, which specialises in the provision of audio, video, lighting and show control for themed entertainment. "On the contrary. The economic situation means that people are going to local attractions instead of the major ones - and the major ones are benefiting from families looking for alternatives to longer, more expensive vacations."
And, as show control systems company AV Stumpfl's commercial director Tobias Stumpfl points out, the planning cycle for a visitor attraction tends to be much longer than that of, for example, a boardroom refit. This means the market is less susceptible to short-term economic pressures.
"The general situation in the visitor attraction business for us is pretty good," he says. "Of course, some projects are postponed or reduced in size, but the demand for AV systems for themed attractions is still there."
Many note that there is greater optimism about the outlook for the world's economies than there was a year ago and, while credit and funding remain tight, there are positive signs that projects that were delayed are coming back on stream.
The market seems to be vibrant, independent of geography. Magri sees cultural and heritage attractions maintaining and increasing their popularity in Western Europe, with real growth occurring in Asia - and Firestone highlights the Middle East as a "hothouse of new attractions and work for systems integrators". He does, however, remark on a potentially worrying trend. "In the Far East and India," he says, "there is plenty of demand for our knowledge - but they want to use their own labour."
Greg Jeffreys, a director at screen specialists Paradigm, says that his company too is involved in a number of large projects in the Middle East as well as in Germany.
The complete package
Stumpfl has seen the same phenomenon as Firestone. "In the past, we had a situation in which many installers in highly developed countries just wanted to buy components and then tried to do as much as possible on their own," he says. "Nowadays, more and more of those companies appreciate complete packages of equipment and service rather than components." It seems likely that, as markets mature, they place greater emphasis on value rather than price.
Another part of the AV market that has benefited to some degree from staycationing is the residential systems market, with consumers spending more on home entertainment as a substitute for more expensive leisure pursuits.
Paradoxically, that is the real challenge for the visitor attractions industry: how to get consumers out of their homes and away from their high-definition large screens and 7.1 surround-sound systems by delivering audiovisual experiences that cannot be replicated in their lounges. It is, inevitably, a moving target.
"Not that long ago, high-definition video would attract visitors in its own right," says Magri, "but this is not the case any longer as the technology becomes more widely available for home use. This means that the use of other technologies to create unique visitor experiences is essential to compete with the technology available to the home user."
That is, of course, easier said than done - although, as Jeffreys points out: "Very few consumers have anything at home that can compare in size, audio impact and visual impact to what can be achieved in commercial attractions." And, as Stumpfl notes, sheer scale can still deliver the elusive wow factor, citing as an example the Adidas Brand Center in Herzogenaurach, which uses 25 projectors to deliver an image 350ft wide (see IE93, March 2008, page 46).
But the requirement is, typically, greater than just to give visitors more of what they've got at home: rather, it's to give them something different. "The fact that the image has 33 million pixels and the sound quality would satisfy any audiophile is becoming less important," says Firestone. "It's not about the technology - it's about the content. It's well-designed, well-produced content that creates the wow factor."
"A successful attraction should be creatively driven," says Magri. "The use of technology for technology's sake is bound to fail. However, if it is creatively led with the visitor in mind, technology can be an extremely powerful tool."
"As much as we would like to think our industry runs the show, it is the storytelling that creates the complete guest experience," says Corrado. "The best attractions are enhanced by high-quality sights and sounds, but the biggest impact comes from immersing the guest in a themed environment."
If you ask the industry about the worst visitor attractions they have seen, their criticisms are invariably of the original design rather than the execution - and of using the technology for its own sake. "TV screens for the sake of being seen to be modern, rather than it adding to the message, are something you see too often," says Firestone.
"Plasma screens showing films you could just as easily see at home," says Steen Iversen, CEO of 3D specialist ColorCode 3-D. "Oh, and interactive kiosk-type installations with a monitor and mouse that give you no more than you could get at home on the internet."
"Interactivity is still popular, but it's often irrelevant or redundant," adds Magri.
"I was driving the freeway once," smiles Corrado, "and I saw a sign for an automobile museum advertising that it had more than 100 plasma screens. I thought: 'I'm glad we're not part of that'. Technology can never be a substitute for poor content and lack of imagination."
And then there's underfunding. "I believe that the worst thing a customer can do in our business is to try to save money," says Stumpfl.
Jeffreys agrees. "Most often, if you see a poor visitor attraction, it's because of a poorly thought-out brief and/or a lack of budget," he says. "But the worst crime is being dull!"
The challenge, then, is to avoid being dull - but equally, it's to recognise the unique nature of a visitor attraction. "It's a communal, shared experience, rather than the individual experience you get at home," says Iversen. "Visiting an attraction is something you decide to do as a family or as a group of friends. Focus group surveys have shown that it's the collective experience that is the big motivator for attractions. The best attractions know this, and design accordingly."
But what are the AV technologies that can support a well-funded, well-designed visitor attraction? An obvious candidate is 3D, not least because it is showing substantial promise in cinemas - driving not only attendances but higher admission prices - but is not (yet) available in the home. The industry is, for the most part, enthusiastic - but it is not without its challenges.
"The key stumbling block for 3D has always been the cost of the technology and the necessity of using 3D glasses," points out Magri. "Digital projection has made it possible for 3D to become an option for many, but mastering 3D footage is expensive - which means that many revert to the use of CGI animation, which has its limitations. The cost of production was, and still is, a key factor in limiting the availability of 3D original footage and only attractions with deep pockets would consider such projects."
It is also, as Iversen points out, a logistical challenge. "3D needs glasses," he notes, "and they must be handed out, collected, washed, repaired and replaced. It's a task that shouldn't be underestimated."
Firestone is also wary. "As the cost drops it will be challenging to dissuade clients who will not benefit from using 3D in their venues from using it," he says.
"Overuse can make 3D attractions appear gimmicky," echoes Corrado.
It seems likely, though, that 3D has as bright a future in visitor attractions as it does in the cinema. But, inevitably, 3D is already passé. The next big thing, according to Iversen, is 4D - which is 3D with added sensory stimulation, such as touch or smell. "4D theatres using vibrating or moving seats, scents and other effects are very popular with audiences," he says. London's most popular paid-for attraction, the London Eye, now features a 4D movie to whet the appetites of those waiting to take the ride.
3D technology that leverages the enormous popularity of the Nintendo Wii - which has sold close to 60 million units worldwide - also shows promise. Jeffreys picks up the story. "In the next few years we may also see the incorporation of 3D motion-sensing cameras that will enable interactivity to become 3D too," he says.
"We have already seen Gesturetek's latest offering in this area. I experienced this at ISE earlier in the year and was able to make a car in the game respond to my hands as they held an imaginary steering wheel. As the price of this technology falls - the cost is mostly linked to the cost of very high refresh rate 3D cameras - we will see it start to be used to control 3D images in a very intuitive way. Lots of people have experienced a similar thing with their Wii, but this is even more powerful because you don't have handheld controls to lose."
"You could take that further," he continues. "If a visitor attraction is a communal experience rather than an individual one, you could have a group of visitors controlling what happens with the use of gestures. If some preset percentage of the audience wave their hands to the right, for example, the virtual ride goes to the right - or perhaps frantic waving of hands could mean 'go faster'."
Of course, some visitor attractions are designed more for the individual than for the group - and here, personal technology may have a role to play. "Nearfield communications systems are developing the ability to deliver information and video to the client on their own device, rather than an expensive one provided by the venue," says Firestone. "That has to be the future of the personal audio and visual experience."
The message from the industry is simple. The market is remarkably buoyant - and the technology exists to ensure it remains so, and that it can indeed lure consumers from their home entertainment systems. The key is that the technology is not itself the attraction - rather, it is a means to an end. In fact, in an ideal world, it is all but invisible.
"We completed a project in a major park in which a strong story line is served by an impressive ride and massive audiovisual technology," says Corrado. "Although video and sounds are essential to the show, people barely notice the presence of technology. It's exciting for us to see that, when we do our job well, the results are transparent."