Hacking the Future of Theme Park Entertainment, This Weekend at Universal Orlando

March 26, 2015, 4:57 PM · This weekend, about 300 software developers and other creative professionals will gather at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at the Universal Orlando Resort for NBCUniversal's latest "Hackathon." The participants will be challenged to develop new applications that can lead to improvements in the guest experience in Universal's theme parks in Orlando and Los Angeles.

"Hackathon is a fantastic way to engage innovators -- to engage them to innovate in some specific areas," said Sanjay Macwan, Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer of NBCUniversal Media Labs. The Hackathon gets underway at 9am this Saturday, with the 24-hour competition beginning at noon. Sunday afternoon, teams will present their proposed solutions to a panel of judges drawn from executives in NBCUniversal's business units.

Photo from a previous NBCUniversal Hackathon, courtesy NBCUniversal

Participants will develop potential solutions to six challenges, with the best solution in each challenge awarded $1,500. The best overall solution will be named the Grand Prize winner and claim a $10,000 award.

But getting insight into challenges facing the theme park industry isn't the only reason for the Hackathon, Macwan said.

"First, we have set up challenges, and we're looking for great ideas to solve those challenges. Second, this is a fantastic forum to recruit some talent, and we have recruited good talent from our previous Hackathons, so we expect to recruit some great talent from this one, as well. Our HR team will be on site, talking with interested innovators and explaining our various businesses, theme parks primarily."

The four theme park challenges will be (descriptions via NBCUniversal):

Marketing Challenge - We’re Here, Come and Experience!
Universal Parks compete in marketplaces like Orlando and Los Angeles that are crowded with things to do, see and experience. Many visitors to these cities come and go without exploring the many entertainment, attractions and immersive experiences we offer at our theme parks and resort destinations. We challenge you to leverage mobile, geo-location, and IOT technologies to attract consumers who are visiting Orlando and Los Angeles to experience our Parks and Resorts.

Technology Challenge - Enhanced Entertainment Experience for The Visually Impaired
At Universal Orlando Resort we provide services for guests with special needs to deliver a positive vacation experience. One of our recent additions to our portfolio of products to deliver a unique guest experience is our Universal Orlando Mobile App downloadable from the iTunes Store or Google Play. We challenge you to design creative ways to enhance the in-park experience of visually impaired guests through the use of native capabilities of an iOS or Android mobile platform plus any complementary technologies that could be deployed at attractions (i.e. beacons) or available in the park (GPS, Wi-Fi network). These capabilities may include enhancing existing functionality available within the Universal Orlando Mobile App, or introducing new capabilities that can range from informative, engaging, and fun to transactional features.

Creative Challenge - More Time for Story: Changing or Eliminating the Standard Queuing Experience
Many guests will stand in a queue upwards of 30 minutes prior to experiencing an attraction, for multiple attractions per day. We challenge you to develop a solution to queue guests such that they are not confined to one space, yet are still immersed in the story of what they will experience. Could guests be virtually interacting with characters from the attraction while they wait? Focus on the system behind the story, allowing for modifications between seasons or as interests change.

Entertainment Challenge - Revolutionary Entertainment: The VR, AR, ACR, 360, RFID, Beacon Mashup
Technology is revolutionizing how we experience entertainment. Storylines, characters, video/audio blurbs and more help tell the story of areas of the park that guests visit, and the ability to make these experiences interactive, immersive and shared creates unlimited possibilities. We challenge you to leverage technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, beacons, geofencing, audio watermarking and RFID tagging to create compelling content for guests, delivered in totally unique interactive and immersive ways. Using existing in-park locations, this technology could allow, for example, a guest to “step into” the various themed exteriors around the park and explore the worlds inside, or engage other patrons in a shared gaming experience, or unlock clues to hidden treasures. It’s all up to you.

In addition, the Hackathon will include challenges focused on developing products for Telemundo and GolfNow, two other NBCUniversal business units based in Florida.

So when might theme park fans see the results of the work started at the Hackathon? It depends, but might not take too long, Macwan said.

"A really cool new innovative idea that happens to be an experience on a mobile app for the guest as they come into the theme park -- those things are relatively easy to develop on a short time frame, compared to something that involves serious hardware, firmware, and engineering that might add to an attraction, which obviously would have a longer time cycle."

I asked Macwan about the Entertainment Challenge, which seemed especially rich for creative opportunities to expand the nature of theme park attractions. He said that Universal's already at work in this area, and looking to expand its efforts via the Hackathon.

"We are working with the parks technology team on a number of ideas related to this technology platform and we believe there is a rich opportunity to do a lot more with this, which is why we opened up this challenge," he said. "Virtual reality is a very exciting technology, especially in the theme park space. We believe that we can use that technology in a very creative way to enrich the guest experience when they are in an attraction. Similarly, the Beacon technology, the automatic content recognition (ACR) technology."

And Macwan offered some hints about what might soon be coming from Universal in this space.

"In fact, we just finished a project that we are now testing using ACR, and my team and parks technology team believe that we can do a lot more with that," he said. "That's really the reason why we're opening this up. So, the short answer is that we're already working on all this technology, we have a number of different concepts that are already being worked on, or that are in testing, and at the same time, we believe that there is a really great opportunity to get additional ideas and additional concepts on this platform from other people from outside the company."

Macwan said that NBCUniversal is planning future Hackathons, next in London, then cycling back to New York, Los Angeles, and Orlando, as well as potentially to other communities where NBCUniversal has businesses. To learn more about the Hackathon, or to sign up to participate, visit nbcuhackathon.com.

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