VR & AR technologies and amusement parks

VR & AR technologies and amusement parks

14 September 2019 Off By Facto Edizioni

/ by Valerio Mazzoli /

What contribution can new technologies offer to the experience lived by amusement park visitors?

Valerio Mazzoli, theme park & attraction designer

Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology we have been hearing much about for quite some time. It has applications in many fields, but especially in the entertainment industry, where it is developing to great success. The term, Virtual Reality, was coined in 1989 by scientist Jaron Lamier, but the idea of a simulated reality began to be developed in the mid 1950s, thanks to the work and experiments of American film director Morton Heiling, who invented a system that could realistically immerse the viewer in what was being projected on the movie screen. 

I met Morton at the end of the 1970s, when I was working for Walt Disney Imagineering in Los Angeles, and we became friends. In the same period he presented his Sensorama creation to Disney: it was a special booth with a stereoscopic color display, an opening where you would put your face, a chair with several degrees of freedom and handlebars. It offered the sensation to be driving a motorcycle, with images flowing in 3 dimensions, a ventilation system to simulate speed, stereo sound and a system to emit scents, to have an effect also on the sense of smell. I tried it and I can confirm that it offered an extraordinary sensation. But the machine did not encounter a great success; probably it was too complex for those times.

 Sensorama by Morton Heiling. Released in 1962, it is one of the earliest known VR systems. Credit: Minecraftpsyco

VR has progressed immensely, and obviously technological evolution never stops. In the world of theme parks, waterparks and amusement parks, this technology is used in several ways. Most commonly it is used to renovate rides that are a little bit passé – be it roller coasters, dark rides, other rides, water slides and so on – by adding new emotions. But this kind of old ride makeover doesn’t raise much interest, because those who love pure thrills will look for them on new generation roller coasters (and the market is continuously offering more complex and thrilling examples of those). This detracts in no way from VR, which by now has its own niche with a wide range of attractions that have been developed especially for high-level entertainment. In a small or mid-size space people can live great adventures in first person, not as a simple visitor, but as the main character, in free-play areas, race simulators, hyperspace travels, and so on. The video quality is incredible and special effects are high level.

However, all this can never take the place of the pleasure experienced during a day in a theme park, living real-life emotions, marveling at the wonder of attractions that immerse us in fantasy environments, historical reconstructions or science fiction settings, enjoying the feeling that only realistic reconstructions can give. Let us not forget that at Disney, the mother of all theme parks, they never exaggerate with these technologies, which instead are only used in targeted attractions, where VR is a component of the ride or where the ride is especially and exclusively dedicated to VR. 

Augmented Reality (often known as AR) is an innovative and even more complex technology. A smartphone is enough to open a portal on the reality we see and to enter alternative worlds and universes. How does it work, and how can it be applied to theme parks and entertainment? Contrary to VR – which is an artificial simulation of reality, generated by a computer, and isolates us from the reality around us – AR is a technology that extends computer-generated enhancements and artifices to the existing reality, so that you can interact with the real world. In a theme park context, this can mean that, in the middle of Main Street, we could see a dinosaur walking towards us, perfectly integrated in the real environment – obviously we would see it with our smartphone; or we could go inside an apparel store and see how various clothes in various colors fit on us, without trying them on, thanks to cutting-edge mirrors – and especially for children, seeing themselves in the mirror dressed in their favorite characters’ clothes, which they are not wearing in real life, becomes magic.

AR has endless applications; they just have to download the app, and the magic world of a theme park will open unknown portals to our ever more exacting and knowledgeable visitors. As in all things, evolution always follows an exact and exacting path. This is especially true for the entertainment industry, which is ever more targeted and complex, attentive to innovative technologies and to the needs to an ever more knowledgeable and well-informed audience.

Taken from Games&Parks Industry September 2019, page 124

Valerio Mazzoli /  theme park & attraction designer / info@valeriomazzoli.com