What's the next big thing in theme park ride technology?

October 7, 2016, 11:33 AM · New technology gives theme parks new ways to tell their stories. From tubular steel roller coasters allowing Arrow and Disney to send riders sliding down the Matterhorn, to flight simulators allowing Disney to send people on tours of the Star Wars universe, to factory robot arms allowing Universal to make enchanted benches fly through the wizarding world, theme parks have found wonderful new ways to entertain fans by embracing new ride tech.

So what's the next new development that will revolutionize theme park attractions? Based upon what we've seen in the past couple of years, you might think it's virtual reality. Six Flags has been adding VR to roller coasters at many of its theme parks, while Universal and other companies have been adding upcharge VR experiences to their Halloween events.

In my Orange County Register column this week, I suggest that VR might not be the next big thing in the industry... but it might represent a step toward that next big thing, instead. Here's the big problem with VR: Virtual reality robs theme parks of their greatest strength in the entertainment business — the creation of intricately decorated, immersively themed physical spaces that can't be experienced anywhere else. When all visitors see is a VR screen, theme parks lose the value of the physical environments they've spent so much money to create.

But what if parks could put together the best of both worlds... and show VR animation in a way that allowed people to keep seeing all that wonderfully themed physical space in the park around them? That's augmented reality, and that might be the next big thing in theme parks.

To employ AR in theme parks, though, tech developers and creative designers need to learn some lessons from VR and the way guests react to it. More than anything else, we would need AR headsets that are just as inexpensive and even easier to use than today's VR headsets. If parks and tech companies could develop augmented reality glasses that are as easy to make, distribute, and use as today's 3D glasses, then parks could unlock a new dimension in themed storytelling.

Imagine Universal's planned Nintendo lands with the power of augmented reality. That would provide an experience that would be true to the look, feel and functionality of Nintendo's video games, within a practical environment that no screen ever could recreate. The blend of the virtual and the practical would give theme parks an advantage over any in-home VR entertainment alternative, and the scope of practical detail in a theme park would make it the preferred venue for any AR experience.

But to get to AR on a large scale in theme parks, we must endure some of the frustrations of learning about mass implementations of VR first. That's why I don't get too upset about slow load times for VR roller coasters or the added cost of a VR monster maze. Theme parks and the technology partners are learning from these experiences, and what they could be able to develop after learning those lessons might turn out to be the most amazing things we've seen in theme parks yet.

Read Robert's column:

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Replies (14)

October 7, 2016 at 11:57 AM · In Disneyquest they have the Aladdin ride that is vr. It's outdated, but still lots of fun. I loved it
October 7, 2016 at 12:18 PM · Read your article - interesting stuff! The current VR attractions don't appeal to me, for all the reasons you mentioned (upcharges, increased load times, and the appeal of a physical ride over a virtual one). I'd like to see a prototype or two of AR and see how it goes.
October 7, 2016 at 12:49 PM · The customizable theme park attraction has not yet appeared. Test Track doesn't quite go far enough. Randomized attractions doesn't quite go far enough. Each Star Tours ride seems almost the same. The future could be interactive gaming. I imagine some scenarios using mobile devices and large screens if someone will hire me to design it. There's limited potential for AR and VR. People can already use their mobile smartphones with VR glasses for an inexpensive solution. It works!!! Oculus will be cheaper in a few years. I tried it out at the Microsoft Store. Pretty amazing. Sometimes home entertainment is faster than a theme park in getting it to the consumer.
October 7, 2016 at 1:42 PM · I think that theme parks using augmented reality would be a really good idea. How cool would it be if universal made a transformers stunt show but have the transformers as the augmented reality and then the actors and special effects on stage.
October 7, 2016 at 1:53 PM · what about sitting on a front porch swing and rocking back and fort watching a movie about sites of around the world with poorly added CGI they could call it Soaring Around the World.
October 7, 2016 at 3:01 PM · I think you're right about VR being a limited time thing and AR becoming the next successful innovation. In fact, I'd be shocked if it isn't used in some way in Universal's Nintendo Land. The problem is always going to be that it needs to be convincing to be worthwhile, and that is one of the problems that virtual attractions tend to have. As good as Transformers may be, I've never thought it felt real, while something like Pirates of the Caribbean does give that feeling. If a virtual attraction can be both something that can't be experienced elsewhere and something that feels real, it could be the greatest attraction ever built. Otherwise, it will likely be very popular, but ultimately become dated and cheesy. There's a reason many Disney attractions can often last 40-50 years but some Universal attractions struggle to survive two decades, and it isn't just the IP.
October 7, 2016 at 4:18 PM · When they create a holodeck, then I'll be interested.
October 7, 2016 at 7:27 PM · What's the point in going to WDW to strap on a clunky, ridiculous-looking headset to 'enhance' the experience? I've had the good fortune to ride Haunted Mansion at least 100 times and I'm not bored yet. Could we just slap an Imagineer to save time and money? Go watch HBO's updated WestWorld to see where this silliness leads.
October 7, 2016 at 8:10 PM · Technology doesn't always have to involve visual effects. Technological advances can mean more realistic/lifelike AAs, richer physical environments, and quicker interaction with the ride vehicles. In other words, keeping the classic theme park experiences, but enhancing them.
Of course, you can also have a seamless mix of visual and physical effects, like the amazing new Pirates ride in Shanghai. Personally, I don't believe any one tech represents "the future" of theme parks. I think lots of different technologies, coupled with artistic craftsmanship and old-fashioned showmanship, will drive the creation of future attractions.

October 8, 2016 at 7:31 AM · VR, AR - to me, it does not make any difference. Both do not add to, but take away from the experience - not interested *at all*, sorry.
October 8, 2016 at 11:22 AM · The main problem with AAs is that they don't have the full range of motion of, say, an actor on a video screen. They can't jump or even walk. If Disney or someone else - Garner Holt - can achieve this, you don't need screens. But of course, this has been what they've been trying to achieve since the first Lincoln figure. Screens or projections could still be used in a limited way to show background action, but it should be complementary to the figures.
October 8, 2016 at 7:27 PM · I'm huge into AR but I don't care to see it overused at theme parks. It's like pinball vs. video games. I love video games but they will never match the physical excitement of real pinball.

October 8, 2016 at 7:30 PM · The upcharge experience at Universal Orlando was brought up in the article. This actually is a case for the use of VR in a park. The entire experience of the Repository is extremely detailed and immersive. It is actually interactive theater with VR and escape the room components. I have never been more immersed in a story as I was in the experience. The VR is coupled whit practical effects to give it that extra push. While still basic, it allowed for room scale VR with no wires.
October 13, 2016 at 6:27 PM · Knott's has Augmented Reality in one of their skeleton key rooms,getting fairly good reviews.

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