How Augmented Reality is Changing The Guest Experience

If creating magic for guests is the underlying mantra for this industry, then few technologies seem to exude “magic” more than augmented reality. But this tool can and should be much more than a flashy bauble for theme parks and other attractions.

Augmented reality (AR) is a little complicated to define, but it is the type of thing you know when you see it. Metaio, a tech firm with offices in Munich and San Francisco, on its website describes AR as connecting “any object to additional digital information … the seamless and easy integration of the virtual into the real world.” In other words, it’s a form of mixed—or accentuated— realism.

Some experts believe AR will dramatically change the way attractions deliver visitor experiences. Chris Stapleton, president of Symiosys Real World Laboratory in Orlando, sees three fundamental advantages to AR: Providing the “ability to tell infinite stories in a finite space.”

Integrating virtuality into physical reality, combining the intensity of physical experiences with a virtual aspect, and essentially “melting the boundaries between the real and virtual worlds.”

Extending experiences beyond the confines of theme parks, and extending the breadth of experiences to other environments, such as malls, schools, and recreational parks.

Stapleton points out, “Different audiences desire different experiences,” and AR allows for more personalized attractions with “different levels of engagement.”

From the perspective of Clark Dodsworth, managing director for San Francisco consulting firm Osage Associates, augmented reality in amusement parks should be viewed as part of a broader trend toward “contextually aware location-based services,” driven by the delivery of personalized information geared to each visitor. These services will generate significant revenue for many sectors, beginning with amusement parks, because “new heightened experiences offered by parks can be readily monetized.”

AR in Rides
A recent example of augmented reality incorporated into an attraction is “hitchhiking ghosts” introduced in April as part of “The Haunted Mansion” dark ride at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando. The experience uses a projection system that takes realistic photos of visitors in the ride vehicle and projects them onto an object that seems like a mirror in front of them (in actuality, a video screen), triggering an animation of the ghosts around them. This has been a standard part of the ride’s finale, but the new AR version allows for greater levels of interaction with visitors; the ghosts can play pranks on visitors, pulling off and swapping their heads. It allows visitors to look into mirrors and see themselves in the characters. In essence, the ghosts come from a fantasy world and intrude in the real space.

Another AR-related dark ride can be found at Futuroscope in Poitiers, France. Called “Les Animaux du Futur,” the attraction allows guests to interact with imaginary animals from three different eras in a futuristic landscape through the use of AR binoculars and sensor bracelets.

‘Discovery’ AR
“Discovery” applications are emerging as a key augmented reality element for attractions. Thinkwell Design in Burbank, California, developed such an experience for the Fernbank Museum of Natural History’s “NatureQuest” exhibit in Georgia, which debuted in March. The experience allows visitors to use a binocular-like device to track animals across space, employing real-time video images from cameras that pop up on the viewscreen. It provides information on animal habitats and more.

Nature exploration was also at the heart of the AR experience Metaio developed for the Sydney Aquarium as part of its “Future Is Wild” multimedia project. Metaio Project Marketing Manager Lisa Murphy says a webcam was used to capture visitor photos with the assistance of face-tracking devices. The AR feature allowed visitors to see themselves with scuba outfits virtually swimming with “creatures and animals” underwater.

AR ‘Treasure Hunts’
Nicholas Bapst, product marketing manager for Total Immersion in Suresnes, France, says another key augmented reality application is attraction treasure hunts. These can be activated via smartphones using real-life scenery from the parks as the background.

The “Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure” at Walt Disney World’s Epcot incorporates AR elements and was developed because of its appeal for the entire family, says Jonathan Ackley, senior director and interactive show producer for Walt Disney Imagineering. The attraction equips visitors with “Kimmunicator” mobile devices and then sends them out to play the game across seven different countries at Epcot’s World Showcase. For example, visitors assume the role of a secret agent and pursue a criminal to the Eiffel Tower, Ackley says. Players point an “old-fashioned camera” at the tower, activating a scanner that triggers a raygun blast that ricochets across the tower and hits the evil character.

In another adventure, visitors take pictures of an innocuous poster in the Norway pavilion. The Kimmunicator scans the image and reveals a hidden stolen masterpiece underneath. According to Ackley, the “Kim Possible” attraction is popular with guests, some spending several hours a day playing the game.

Mobile AR
Mobile augmented reality has made some inroads in parks and seems well positioned to become a leading platform for this technology in this industry. Dodsworth contends smartphones “will serve as the baseline AR information and entertainment platform in amusement parks, delivering greater engagement with the licensed characters of each park—the way strolling costume characters now do, only with more knowledge of each visitor.” Likewise, “apps for amusement parks will prepare visitors for attractions, and fill in gaps between experiences,” he says.

One of the key driving factors for AR in amusement parks is the increasing “buying power of millenials,” whose life is centered around mobile platforms, says Michael McDermott, vice president of sales, marketing, and product management at Resort Technology Partners, a Colorado-based firm that specializes in ticketing and point-of-sale software. Millennials use mobile devices for engagement and sharing experiences, he notes.

One of the most obvious applications of mobile AR relating to parks is wayfinding, which involves “capturing real estate for entertainment value,” says Stapleton. Last year, Resort Technology Partners (RTP) launched Realparx, an AR prototype for the iPhone 3GS and other mobile devices that can serve as a travel guide for leisure facilities. The platform allows users to find their way around attractions, geo-tag locations of interest, and share photos taken during trips in those facilities. RTP developed an AR app for MGM in Las Vegas that shows visitors works of art in a resort, complemented by information on particular artists in that gallery. The app also allows visitors to book activities, make reservations, and participate in social media.

Potential AR Drawbacks/Challenges
Though augmented reality is certainly exciting, attractions should not overemphasize this technology, says Chris Durmick, creative director at Thinkwell; the use should be organic, accessible, and improve the park experience. For these experiences to succeed, they must be based on content and storytelling, he stresses. AR is primarily a tool in a toolbox, not an end product. AR attractions cannot simply be a gimmick, says Durmick’s colleague, Thinkwell Creative Director Dave Cobb.

Jon Snoddy, vice president of research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering, says Disney’s approach to AR isn’t about technology, but rather a focus on “creating new experiences around our characters and stories” and “making them as realistic and personal as possible.”

From a mobile application perspective, one of the potential challenges is making the AR experience compelling enough for people to want to engage with others using mobile devices, Durmick says. On the other hand, he says it’s important guests don’t get so lost in their handheld devices that they lose connection with the world around them. He believes the goal of amusement parks with augmented reality should be to turn it into a social tool, making it more interactive with the environment.

Ultimately, though, Durmick sees endless possibilities for mobile AR in amusement parks, including multiplayer games, educational content, and perks for repeat visitors. User-created experiences employing AR will likely become a more important part of parks in the future, he says, as visitors “take ownership of experiences inside parks.” In fact, one of the key goals of AR in attractions should be to “alter the entire content experience by allowing fans to create apps,” contends Durmick.

AR is infinitely adaptable, evolving along with the technology around it. “Voice interaction and natural gestural technology, such as [the Xbox] Kinect, will become the typical methods of interaction,” Dodsworth predicts. Gestural AR experiences developed by such companies as Total Immersion and Snibbe Interactive are already evident today in amusement parks and other leisure facilities, he points out.

Total Immersion’s Nicolas Bapst sees a major trend toward applying AR within live shows, integrating customers into the performances. These experiences are particularly compelling because they offer an option to upgrade or enhance 3-D theaters, turning them into almost live venues where guests interact with the show.

Bapst says it’s now possible to film guests at the outset of a screening and then incorporate them into the movie. At Europa-Park, for example, Total Immersion (in conjunction with Emotion Media Factory and the park’s in-house creative team) transpose guests’ faces onto those of giants in the new “Brothers Grimm” 3-D theater show.

Bapst says it’s also possible to insert a real-life performer to play a role inside a 3-D movie in real time, allowing him to interact with virtual 3-D objects. “It’s like a PowerPoint presentation where the performer is inside a 3-D movie and controls everything,” he says.

Michael Mascioni is a freelance writer on digital media and conducts market research within that area of expertise. He formerly was a senior analyst in the broadband entertainment group at Strategy Analytics.

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