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Visitor attractions: Innovating to impress

The past few years have seen the rise of the so-called ‘experience economy’, in which increasing numbers of people choose to spend their money on doing things rather than buying things. Ian McMurray finds out how that’s impacting the visitor attractions industry

Picture: Ars Electronica ORBIT Exhibition ©

It’s almost as if there’s some sort of conspiracy against the visitor attractions industry. Consumer electronics companies have brought us large screen 4K TVs – now with added HDR. They’ve brought us object-oriented audio. They’ve brought us VR headsets. Meanwhile, Spotify brings us all the music we could ever want to hear – and Netflix and Amazon are bringing us all the movies we could ever want to watch. Why would we ever leave home to go to a museum, a theme park, a visitor centre or any of the other places we used to go?

And yet…  In the UK at least, according to VisitEngland, the visitor attractions market is – largely – holding its own, with admissions in 2018 generally flat. Museums and art galleries saw 6% growth – but heritage centres saw a comparable decline. And, in fact, ALVA – the UK’s Association of Leading Visitor Attractions – reported 9% growth in visitor numbers, despite overseas tourist numbers being down. 

The industry must be doing something right – and one of the things about which it is clear is the role of AV technology. 

Story first
“It is getting harder to amaze people,” admits Peter Cliff, creative director at Holovis, “which is why, for the experience market, the story and guest journey come first, not the latest technology. The technology is a tool to create unforgettable moments, to throw guests back in time or immerse them in alternative worlds.”

Fabian Stumpfl, CEO of AV Stumpfl, agrees. “Unless we are looking at attractions/installations that impress purely based on a bigger-is-better approach, the magic has always been in the way a story is told,” he says. “We as manufacturers aim to provide new and exciting technological tools that will enable our customers to tell even better and more exciting stories. You could compare this to us giving a painter additional colours for their colour palette.”

It is, of course, too easy to think of ‘visitor attractions’ as a single market – but nothing could be further from the truth. To take purely British examples: the London Eye could not be more different from the Tate Modern, nor could Edinburgh Castle be more different from the visitor centre at Stonehenge or the Harry Potter studio tour. Each will have different ways of leveraging AV technology.

Panasonic’s European product manager for projectors, Thomas Vertommen, has an example. “The National Museum of Qatar, which opened earlier this year, is the perfect example of how AV technology has helped museums transform into modern day attractions,” he says. “Set in a spectacular building, the museum tells the story of Qatar and its people using Panasonic technology to deliver an immersive experience. The museum uses a total of 172 media servers to feed 112 Panasonic projectors across seven galleries, and nine different art films.”

Picture: The National Museum of Qatar © Antonio Pagano / RES

Size matters
That’s a lot of projectors and media servers – which illustrates another point: size, as so often, matters, especially when it comes to establishing a clear difference between a visitor attraction and a visitor home.

“The scale of the technology that forms part of a visitor attraction is impossible to achieve within a domestic environment,” notes Ross Magri, managing director of theme park audiovisual engineering company Sarner. “Furthermore, while home users have started to embrace 4K, commercial users are looking at 8K and beyond projection on large surfaces that would be impossible to achieve at home.”

Stumpfl sees things similarly. “High definition and 4K/8K resolution, HDR playback, 10-bit content and so on are growing in importance, “he says. “Almost all major theme parks now think in those terms, whilst by comparison, the broadcast industry in most western countries is lagging years behind, for structural reasons.”

“Museums love the new technological possibilities,” he goes on, “but newly built museums often have the advantage of being able to integrate digital workflows much more easily, whilst more traditional museums may have to invest a lot more initially to build a digital infrastructure before being able to make the most out of new technological trends.”

“It’s important that the right balance is found – and it starts with the story and creative concept”
Leander Werbrouck, Barco

The industry is generally agreed: the best visitor attractions leverage AV technology as a means to an end – not an end in itself.

“It’s important that the right balance is found – and it starts with the story and creative concept,” believes Leander Werbrouck, segment marketing manager, proAV at Barco.  “If that’s well done, then audiences will be engaged, will be surprised – and that will only be amplified by the technology. The advances in 4K and immersive visualisation and more are allowing the artist or creative director to bring their ideas to life in a photorealistic way – which in turn only makes a good story better.”

Early adopters
Matt Barton, CEO of 7thSense Design – who develop advanced media servers for visitor attractions – reinforces Magri’s claim that his industry leads in technology adoption.

“Visitor attractions – notably, high quality theme park rides – were the first places to introduce high-end visual display systems such as fully uncompressed 8K stereoscopic technology to the public,” he claims. “Prior to use in attractions, these technologies were found only in niche, specialist applications such as flight simulation and medical imaging. Some large-scale dark rides pioneered the highest resolution displays viewed from the shortest distances long before 4K or 8K TV was anywhere near the home market.”