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Healthy outlook for visitor attractions market

Activity levels remain strong as installers work to strike a balance between innovative, immersive group experiences and offering a more personal touch, writes Ian McMurray.

“When every house has a high-definition television and a Nintendo Wii or Xbox 360 with Kinect, children have access to media rich interactive technologies at home,” smiles Alex Carru, CEO of the North American arm of French show control company Medialon. “Museums and parks are challenged to entice these same children to their attractions and exhibits using new technology, clever storytelling techniques, or even familiar technology applied in a way they couldn’t possibly have at home.” ‘Challenged’ is, perhaps, the operative word at a time when economic turbulence is possibly discouraging investment in visitor attractions. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the market appears to be buoyant – although there are regional differences. According to Stephan Villet, principal associate at Smart Monkeys, which specialises in providing advice, project management and programming for show control, global attendance at theme parks grew by almost 4% in 2011 – twice the rate of the previous year – and visitor attraction spend on AV solutions reflected that. “In the past, the out-of-home entertainment market has been relatively immune to poor economic conditions,” notes Henry Corrado, who has created Tejix, an integrator focused exclusively on theme parks. “This crisis is no different.” He believes that theme park attendance in Europe has grown by 5% in the past year – and the Asian market at twice that rate. “The visitor attractions market is very healthy,” says Fredrik Svahnberg, marketing director at Dataton. “We are seeing increasing use of our Watchout multiscreen software and Pickup audio guide as museums and visitor attractions invest in more efficient ways of storytelling, information and knowledge transfer.” “We’re handling around the same level of business as we were five or 10 years ago,” says Rowland Hughes, commercial director at ShowCAD, which manufactures DMX lighting and show control systems, “and the majority of it is new projects.” Most industry players see a similar picture: good growth in Asia, an emerging recovery in North America, and a flat-to-up European market. It’s not just about geography, however, as Ross Magri, managing director of visitor attractions design and build company Sarner, points out. “There are still quite a few relatively small projects,” he says. “It’s a well-known fact that, during a recession, visitor numbers to such venues peak, as many look for more cost-effective ways to spend their money.” He makes the point that visitor attraction investment was at its highest to support celebration of the new millennium – and a similar level of investment is unlikely to occur until the end of the century. New versus oldThen, there is the question of whether money is being spent on new attractions – or on upgrading what’s already in place. “We are seeing a significant number of new projects,” says Pierre Gillet, VP of European sales for digital signage company BrightSign, 30% of whose worldwide sales come from the visitor attractions industry. “Museums and attractions recognise that they need to offer interactivity in particular to appeal to younger visitors, and see digital signage as a flexible platform for delivering this.” “We’re seeing a mix,” says David Willrich of DJ Willrich, an integrator whose focus has historically been on the visitor attractions market. “In the Far East, we are working on new projects and the majority of our projects here in the UK over the past 12 months have been new attractions. However, in the year ahead, it looks more like upgrades for the home market.” For Smart Monkeys, most of the new projects are in Asia and the Middle East, while Tejix’s Corrado claims that there are some relatively large projects in the works, with several new parks planned to open in the next couple of years. “In the US and Asia, we have seen a lot of new projects in addition to refurbishments and technology updates,” says Carru. “There are new projects in Europe – but there seems to be more activity in refurbishment and updating older attractions.” Immersed in activityThere seems, then, to be plenty of activity. But what, exactly, is being installed – what are visitor attractions providing in terms of an experience that can’t be replicated in the home that Carru referred to initially? “The trend is very much towards immersive experiences as this is something you can’t get at home,” believes Willrich. “A driving factor is the improvement in the light output and cost of projectors, meaning that it is much cheaper to create an immersive and exciting experience requiring the use of multiple projectors.” “LED lighting has made a big change too,” he continues. “The more positive aspect of this is in the theatrical range of RGB fixtures that can give you pretty much any colour you want. Furthermore, it is possible, if you wish, to control each fixture individually – giving greater creative freedom without a dramatic difference in cost between LED and conventional lighting. Therefore, dynamic lighting is no longer only to be found in really high-end shows.” Villet believes the contribution of 3D and very high-resolution video to creating a compelling experience is significant. “They’re used intensively in new projects, because they place the spectator in the middle of the action,” he says. Another important contributor is high-quality audio, with Villet noting his company’s growing use of Merging Technologies’ Ovation media server and sequencer. Carru too notes the growing importance of LED lighting – but for different reasons, citing its low cost of ownership as well as the ease with which museums can control – and record – the amount of light falling on precious exhibits. LED technology isn’t just prevailing in lighting. Maria Dahl Aagaard, product marketing manager at projectiondesign, notes that visitor attractions – which are becoming an increasingly significant market for her company – are embracing LED-based projectors. “Yes, the move is towards immersive displays – the creation of ‘caves’, for example,” agrees Greg Jeffreys, director and chairman of Paradigm Audiovisual. “But we’re also seeing a move towards greater interactivity – especially in the areas of motion tracking and 3D sensing.” Gillet is looking at a similar future. “We expect to see an increase in requests for wireless and/or cellular network connectivity of visitors with the exhibits – via text messaging and the like,” he says. “In addition, we continue to see unique interactive controls implemented to engage visitors via GPIO, USB, serial, etc, such as motion sensors, RFID, and so on.”
 The consensus appears to be that interactivity is both an opportunity and a challenge for companies operating visitor attractions. Corrado is cautious.
 “Sharing is the main reason why people go to attractions,” he says. “I believe that there’s a danger in tampering with the social dimension of family outings by isolating guests. That being said, portable devices can be a powerful tool to plan and optimise a day at the park.”
 Villet shares his view. “The mobile revolution that is shaking our everyday life is proving a bit challenging to integrate in visitor attractions,” he notes, “not so much because of the required technology, but simply because it is a very personal experience.”
 And while the apparently ubiquitous mobile phone can provide a convenient, low cost way of personalising an experience, it must be handled carefully – with the profile of target visitors front and centre of planning.
 “This is generational to a degree,” points out Willrich. “Not everyone has or wants a smartphone, so there is a wariness on the part of museums in particular about going in too deep too soon, as they don’t want to upset visitors that don’t have smartphones.”
 “However,” he continues, “it is coming and already adding another layer to a visit. There are museums that already have their own apps to enhance your visit, and this is a trend that will continue without question.”
 Magri notes the challenge of developing apps to run on multiple types of mobile phone platform – and the fact that not all visitors will feel comfortable with the process of downloading and installing those apps.
 Striking the right balance between a shared, communal experience on the one hand and a personal, individual one on the other is the key to success. Many in the industry point out the importance of not using a technology just for its own sake, but of making it serve a well-identified purpose. As Corrado wryly points out: “Clever designers know that technology is a good slave but a poor master.”
 The same thinking that applies to mobile phones should also be applied to other forms of interactivity. It is also, as Jeffreys points out, important to remember that the visitor attraction experience needs to be one that is not easily obtainable in the home. 
 “Touchscreens are just a commodity now,” he says. “They’re nothing special any more. It’s more about turning surfaces such as tables, floors, walls and so on into interactive displays. It’s about using proximity and 3D sensing to trigger and create content and responses.”
 “Another area that has seen rapid development and an increase in use, is digital image processing and various flavours of augmented reality,” notes Sarner’s Magri. “There is now on the market a host of technologies and processors that allow you to manipulate a video image or create one that changes in real time – for an outlay that only a few years ago was too prohibitive to consider for the average projects.”
 “In the meantime, but not specific to any one technology, the transition to digital has been an ongoing process,” he continues. “Strangely enough, the use of analogue technology still forms a major part of any AV install. However, the switch to digital will eventually ensure that all components within an installation operate at the digital level, although the cost is still too high for many of the installations.”
 It becomes clear that the AV industry is providing some seductive technology – and in the search for something novel, different and compelling, the visitor attractions industry is responding to that seduction. The technology can be (and is) occasionally misused, implemented for its own sake rather than to serve an identified purpose – but that’s hardly the fault of the AV industry. And for every failure, there are many more successes. Most of all, the visitor attractions business is an ideas business – and AV technology is helping make those ideas a reality. If it is indeed true, as at least one commentator believes, that consumers would rather economise on clothing than entertainment, there will always be a market for quality attractions, regardless of the state of the economy. n