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Making Thrill Rides Profitable is a Machine Design Challenge

Feb. 19, 2020
And those thrill rides also must be fun.

Designing a thrill ride for an amusement park is a multi-faceted challenge. One part of that challenge is making the ride “legally addictive.” The managers in charge of the parks know that “Repeat visitation is the key to theme park business,” as Duncan Dickson, associate professor for the Rosen College of Hospitality Management says. “When you’re trying to generate turn-style clicks and 60% of the visitors have been there before, you have to create a desire to come back.”

One way to get them to stand in line to ride it again is by exploring innovation. Combining innovation with immersive qualities may be the key to spiking repeat business on the midway. Immersion makes the customers part of the story in the same way they might experience playing a game with virtual reality gear. Immersive rides conjure up multi-sensory experiences. The most successful theme parks already add acoustic, visual and olfactory effects with high fidelity on some rides. Motion provides an additional dimension with high speeds and tight turns and that are typically beyond the norm. It provides much of the “feel” or, in most cases, the thrill. Motion provides the rider with a way to safely experience a seemingly dangerous situation. Turning the rider’s fears into thrills hopefully keeps them coming back.

Outside the entertainment industry, motion simulators give commercial and military pilots the real feel of flying airplanes and helicopters. There are also high-fidelity motion simulators for teaching construction and farm workers to drive heavy equipment. There are even high-fidelity virtual reality eye surgery simulators that let medical professionals practice by performing thousands of virtual surgeries before ever operating on a real patient.

High-fidelity motion simulation is the foundation for immersive environments. For example, here’s how high-tech motion control works for flight simulators: Pilots strap themselves into a seat installed in the cockpit section of a simulator. The “cockpit” is a realistic recreation of the plane’s cockpit, complete with ejection seat (unarmed, of course), controls, dials, switches and lighting.

Surrounding the cockpit is a spherical multi-screen display, much like a smaller version of an IMAX theater. The pilot’s controls (stick, throttle and rudder pedals) are hooked to a computer that generates the graphics on the inside of the dome which replicates the view out the cockpit of the plane. The view provides strong visual cues of the aircraft’s movements and attitude.

Linear actuators supporting the simulated cockpit push or pull (usually in all three dimensions) to recreate accelerations in a way that mirror takeoff, climbs, descents and turns, as well as landings. The actuators underpinning these simulators recreate many of the effects of flying even though the simulator never moves higher than the stroke length of the actuators.

Imagine a patron sitting in a motion-controlled seat in a theater watching a superhero battle crime. The camera angle is shot from behind and just above the heroine’s shoulder. As the heroine leaps from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of a villain, the patron literally feels like he, too, is leaping along with his favorite character. The motion control and orientation enhance what the audience sees.

One of the benefits of current 4D theater technology is that once you have it in place, it typically lasts between 20 to 30 years with proper maintenance. This allows lets parks generate a long stream of profits from a capital investment.

One new and exciting development is combining gaming engines with these theater systems. This lets 4D theater owners’ “re-theme” the theater relatively quickly and inexpensively. With gaming engines, developers can more easily create new, high-fidelity graphic content within a synthetic environment.

The developers then ensure the visual, motion and any other cues are choreographed automatically with the video. This eliminates the need to synchronize the cues necessary for giving the audience a realistic immersive experience. In fact, this breakthrough in adding gaming engines in with 4D theater technology should significantly reduce the cost and cycle time of re-theming amusement rides. This would let park operators be more nimble and frequently develop new experiences to capitalize on trends, and, ultimately, enhance a park’s bottom line.

Traditionally, motion cueing for entertainment purposes has relied on rotary and linear motion. Both create a level of thrill ranging from freefall to the effects of disorientation, albeit in a safe manner. The feelings these motion cues let riders connect with something and someplace they wouldn’t often, or ever, experience outside a park.

As mentioned earlier, inspiring patrons and boosting theme park attendance takes a constant push for reinvestment and innovation. If you attract 20 million visitors per year, how do you get more the next year? Theme park attendance rose from 2017 to 2018, according to reports from Dickson. He expects healthy economy and favorable earnings for some park operators to have contributed to another uptick in attendance for the past year.

“High capacity is an important part of the product,” notes Dickson. “It’s always something [park operators] have to take a look at.”

Perhaps park attendance number could be increased by opening themed “lands” and rides that cater to millennials, since they’re such a large demographic. But here’s another strategy: Ever higher levels of motion simulation sophistication could be paired with the particularly intriguing element called haptics, inspiring visitors and getting them to come back.

Haptics comes from the Greek word “haptikos,” and means a sense of touch. If you tap an app on your mobile device or set your phone on vibrate, the vibration or sensation you feel is a form of haptics. Some park operators will invest in haptics as they look for new opportunities.

Here are a few that could become reality when combined with high-performance motion controls: Think of a ride where you enter the home of your favorite superhero. As the door opens, your hero greets you, smiles, says your name and shakes your hand; you feel the warmth, strength, and pulse of the hand.

Or you step into a themed land where you play the role of a surgeon. You experience what it’s like to perform surgery, including what it feels (and looks) like to carry out a medical procedure. An attraction like that just might inspire someone to become a doctor or, better yet, an engineer. Either way, it’s bound to help theme parks cash in on fun through innovative machine design.

Tobe Ehmann is the Simulation & Test business development manager for the Americas at Moog Inc.

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