Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Visitor attractions: Where man meets machine

When English 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon said that money is a good servant but a bad master, he could also have been talking about interactive technology – if, of course, England had had visitor attractions 500 years ago. Ian McMurray finds out what works, and what doesn’t.

When English 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon said that money is a good servant but a bad master, he could also have been talking about interactive technology – if, of course, England had had visitor attractions 500 years ago. Ian McMurray finds out what works, and what doesn’t.

Since time immemorial, man has travelled. In pre-history, he travelled to find food – but the great early civilisations of Greece, Egypt and Rome saw travel increasingly become a leisure pursuit for the well-off. The Grand Tour – a largely British phenomenon (“Foreign travel completes the education of an English gentleman,” noted historian Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) with its roots in the late 17th century – involved visiting the major cultural cities of Europe over a period of months, or even years, and gave rise to the word ‘tourist’. In the UK, the Industrial Revolution saw ‘leisure time’ being extended to a broad section of the population, with Thomas Cook beginning to organise tours for the masses and earn himself the soubriquet “the father of tourism”.

Tourists have always looked to be educated and stimulated – and, increasingly, entertained. Today, entertainment can be the purpose of tourism (which is widely defined as travelling to a place unconnected with home or work); witness the rise of theme parks and adventure centres. But in a world in which no ancient monument is complete without a tourist information office, no self-respecting zoo does not feature a visitor centre, no country house does not have a museum, entertainment is never far away – even where the ostensible goal of the tourist is enlightenment. Visitors are looking for something more to engage their senses.

Added extra
And that ‘something more’ invariably means something more than they can get at home. Interactivity and experience personalisation are now taken very much for granted with the proliferation of mobile phone and tablet touchscreens, TV control by voice command and gesture and so on.

“Just like movie theatres, visitor attractions need to offer a larger-than-life version of something you can get at home,” notes Henry Corrado, founder of theme park consultancy Tejix. “That will probably be more a function of their size than of the technology used.”

There’s a temptation to think that interactivity is primarily found in individual exhibits and attractions –
but the truth is that, increasingly, the entire visitor centre or theme park experience can be made interactive, and thus personalised, from start to finish.

“Some visitors are involved from the point the attraction’s website is accessed,” points out Ross Magri, managing director of visitor attractions company Sarner, “allowing them to create an experience that is unique to them – and this can continue throughout the experience from the moment a guest enters a venue until that same guest leaves,” going on to note the potential power of mobile devices to further enhance interaction.

“Even the waiting area leading up to, for example, a popular rollercoaster ride can be set up to allow for different kinds of interaction,” adds Hans Christian Stucken, marketing and communications director at media and show control systems company coolux. “Instead of simply looking at high-resolution displays in a passive way, technologies like real-time tracking or face recognition can be used to allow visitors to actually do something fun while waiting.”
And then there’s the ubiquitous deployment of digital signage. “Our dZine colleagues have systems that use touch, gesture control, audience recognition, mobile apps and so on, so that visitors can interact with the content and the owners of the screens can get feedback about who is viewing them and what they are doing,” notes Richard Marples, strategic marketing director for venues and attractions at Barco.

(Pic: Dataton’s WATCHOUT provides the view from London’s Shard)
viewMarples points out that, in his company’s case, interactivity is something which the integrator provides. It’s the same at eyevis and projectiondesign – but the three manufacturers have a consistent point of view.

“What’s the worst interactive exhibit I’ve ever seen? One that wasn’t working,” smiles eyevis marketing manager Max Winck. “Our role is to make sure the system is as reliable and robust as possible – providing protective glass, for example.”

“Projection is a key technology for interactive visitor experiences,” says Maria Dahl Aagaard, product marketing manager at projectiondesign. “A truly captivating interactive experience will generally also be an immersive one where the audience is surrounded by video projection. Projectors tend to be integrated to deliver a seamless, edge-blended image that can display content on curved or dome-shaped surfaces.”

Completing the illusion
As Magri points out: an interactive home-based experience such as a flight simulator running on a PC or Xbox can be transformed with widescreen projection and a motion platform. “The illusion of flying is complete,” he says.
Aagard points out that projectiondesign and parent company Barco have proven expertise in training and simulation where domes, curved/bent screens, interactivity, motion platforms and 24/7 operation are often vital characteristics.
“The visitor attractions market often has similar types of installations, and the same tough requirements for uptime,” she continues, “as installations are often run close to 24/7 – especially as they often have dual-purpose use, with corporate venues or parties being held after closing hours.”
In the same way as Barco and projectiondesign are able to leverage their training and simulation expertise into the visitor attractions market, so eyevis brings its control room experience.
“Touch control is quite commonplace in control rooms,” notes Winck, “but it’s likely to be implemented very differently. In a control room, the touch system needs to be very precise – but it is in a very controlled environment. In visitor attractions, the touch control system will often need to be much less precise – but more attention needs to be paid to protecting it from the user and the elements.”

There is, of course, crossover between the interactive technologies that are used elsewhere in the AV world – in boardrooms, for example – and those used in visitor attractions. As Winck notes, however, a key difference is in the prospective users.

That’s a theme taken up by Magri. “In many respects, a corporate or similar installation presents fewer challenges as the use is more specific and the audience fits within a relatively narrow profile,” he says. “On the other hand, in the visitor attraction world, almost all ages and all backgrounds have to be catered for – which presents a host of issues when it comes to the design and application of the technology.”

And, as Lars Sandlund, COO of Dataton, points out: “The technologies we use need to be intuitive and easy to use not just by visitors, but by museum and visitor attractions staff as well.”

It’s not just about video and screens, of course. Sound can also play a key role in delivering a highly personalised experience.

“One of the biggest challenges for AV technology is to reproduce content smoothly and independent of source or format,” points out Kai Tossing, portfolio manager, Integrated Systems Division at Sennheiser. “The Sennheiser guidePORT system plays back not only recorded content but also live generated content – whether it’s self-triggered or automatically triggered by a visitor approaching an exhibit or location. It enables visitors to get the best of both worlds – an individual, but guided tour. Thanks to identifiers, audio content starts automatically as soon as a visitor approaches the point of interest. However, that visitor also has the choice to skip the track or play it back later.”

Transform the mundane
Certainly, the technology exists to turn a mundane experience into a
compelling one.

(pic: space shuttle Atlantis visitor attaction)
“Multiscreen displays, panoramic projections, 360° projection, real-time rendering and different kinds of tracking – camera-based, infrared-based – along with sensor-based triggering are some of the key technologies that can turn fixed installations from being relatively passive to becoming truly immersive,” notes Stucken. “Our Widget Designer Software means integrators can cross-connect a vast number of different input and output devices to really let their customers’ creativity run free.” He believes that higher resolutions, such as 4K, have a vital role to play in creating truly lifelike experiences.

And it’s there, for many involved in applying the potential of AV technology to the visitor attractions market, that the real challenge lies. There’s much that interactive technology can do – but what should it do?
The simple answer is: “not get in the way”.

“When all is said and done, it is the story you portray that wins the people – not the technology. The technology is just the facilitator,” says Aagaard. “Finding and using the correct interactive technology that really enhances the storytelling and the experience can be a challenge. There must be a thought-through concept where the story doesn’t get lost in technological complexities. The experience needs to be intuitive and engaging for the visitor.”

“The storytelling is key,” echoes Stucken, “so, in a sense, the interactive elements should not just stand for themselves but would ideally manage to bring the general storytelling concepts behind a particular visitor attraction to life. Even a great gimmick can attract people – obviously – but ideally you want the visitor to feel that they are part of an unfolding story, an alternate reality that they help create. It is also not just enough to have great technology at your disposal, you need the same level of quality in your content too. And good content is expensive.”

The biggest challenge
“Many make the mistake of focusing on the technology rather than the end purpose of the interactivity, and this can be detrimental to the project,” adds Magri.

“The biggest challenge with any interactive exhibit or activity is how to convert an idea into a practical solution.”
Corrado absolutely agrees. “The key issue is to have the technology serve the purpose, and not the opposite,” he says. “Technology-centred attractions will last as long as the technology they use – which might be a very short time. Interacting with the guest is the key. That, and exceeding guests’ expectations – which can be a challenge when they are already surrounded by fairly elaborate interactive technology. This is the reason why interactive technology must only be the means to an end.”

Winck develops the theme. “A touch system, for example, isn’t of itself either remarkable or spectacular,” he says, “because we’re all used to that technology. What makes it special is when it adds to the visual appeal of an attraction or when it addsreal value in terms of access to the information that is interesting for the individual visitor.”
Interactivity is, as Sandlund sagely points out, about delivering more meaningful experiences. Increasingly, those experiences are becoming personalised, making them even more immersive and, therefore, compelling. That the AV industry is helping deliver the kind of interactive experiences that visitors are looking for is demonstrated by continuing growth in the market – despite the broader economic picture.

mostly buoyant market

“It seems that when there are times of economic downturn, families are more inclined to invest in leisure activities in the visitor attractions sector – while cutting back on other types of holiday expenditures,” says Aagaard. “Many global theme parks are reporting growth and even record-breaking visitor numbers.”

“We see a very buoyant visitor attractions industry, especially in Asia-Pacific where it’s certainly growing,” notes Marples. “In all the Asian countries – not just China – there are a lot of new builds. We also see many in the Middle East, and even Europe and the USA have their fair share.”

“The UK market for visitor attractions is slowly picking up, and we have seen an increase in enquiries and interest,” adds Magri. “Whether these translate to real projects is yet to be seen. However, the market outside the UK has been much more healthy and we have been involved in a number of projects over the last 12 months.”

From Thomas Cook’s first excursion, which took a group of 540 temperance campaigners the 11 miles from Leicester to Loughborough in 1841 at a cost of a shilling (£0.05/€0.06) each, the worldwide tourist business in 2012 is estimated to have been worth $1.3 trillion – spent by more than 1 billion tourists, according to the World Tourism Organization. The AV industry would appear to be well placed to capitalise on the opportunity.