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Into the Further: Virtual + Reality

10 Jun

captain-picard-full-of-win-500x381“Dude, how did you score those tickets?!”

I held the phone in disbelief.

I had heard about Into the Further 4D, a traveling, pop-up, virtual reality experience promoting the upcoming horror flick, Insidious: Chapter 3. That’s just a bunch of adjectives that you don’t usually see in the same sentence describing the same event, so I wanted in.

It was going to be in LA for a brief three days in May, and here’s the thing, the tickets were free, if you could figure out how to get them. After trying some broken promo codes, I had basically given up, until my friend called to save the day. He never really answered my question. It didn’t matter. We were going.

We showed up at a parking lot on the edges of Downtown LA just before noon on a Sunday, pretty much the most unhaunted time and setting to experience anything.

insidious_trailers_resize

Conveniently located next to Urgent Care

There were a couple of connected trailers that looked similar to the ones at last year’s Purge: Breakout escape room event. Blumhouse Productions is behind both events as well as 2013’s Purge: Fear The Night immersive theater production. Based on their track record, they are establishing a reputation for producing events that mashup horror with experiences not typically associated with horror. When they roll into town, you can pretty much expect that it will not be your run-of-the-mill haunted house.

NOTE: This event is gone, and it’s probably never coming back, and you’ll probably never get to see it, so spoilers will follow. make the world_front

I’ve been lurking on the periphery of the virtual reality scene since the first time I tried Oculus Rift at the 2013 NeuroGaming Conference and Expo. As an interactive experience designer, the lure of the latest and greatest technologies is a perpetual temptation and the siren song of VR can seem irresistible.

The amazing part about VR is how it can make the world around you totally disappear. The challenging part about VR, especially in terms of location-based entertainment, is how it can make the world around you totally disappear. It’s an uphill battle to provide guests with a form of entertainment that can essentially be experienced in their living room. Unless you replace the living room.

insidious_trailers_entry_resizeBack to the parking lot. We had reservations for a specific time window, but VR is generally not a high-throughput venture, and to maximize the horror, we were told that we would walk through alone. So we waited. And anticipated. And postulated. What on earth was going on inside that trailer?

The facade of the trailer was designed to look like a front door, and walking through it brought me inside the house of Elise, the paranormal investigator/medium from the first two Insidious movies. I waited as another inner door swallowed guests one at a time, and eventually me.

I entered a short, dark, narrow hallway and was accosted by an assortment of pops, air blasts, loud noises, etc., designed to put you on edge. I turned the corner and a ghoulish figure burst out, screamed at me that I had to help her, and directed me down a longer hallway toward a numbered door.

ins2The tiny chamber was cramped, dimly lit, and filled with all kinds of bric-a-brac that evoked the home-gone-wrong feel of the films. A monitor turned on and played a short video introducing the upcoming VR experience. A previously unseen door opened and another ghoulish and relatively sedate character beckoned me forward and into a chair facing a familiar red door. Seconds later, I was in the Rift, heading into the Further. Or so I thought.

The first thing I saw in VR was the same door that existed in reality. It opened and I “moved” through it and into Elise’s sitting room. She was waiting and warned me of some of the bad things that were afoot. Then things started to get real spooky including a few good scares that took full advantage of the immersive quality of the experience. There were some 4D effects including seat rumblings, and at one point, (I’m guessing) the assistant lightly brushed my arm in time with something wispy floating by. When things were about to get crazy, it faded away, and I was back, looking at the real door and being guided toward the exit.

The whole experience only lasted a few minutes, but it felt like something significant had been achieved. Haunted houses, 4D, and VR are nothing new to me, but combining all of them felt like a breakthrough. Even if it was basically a highly sophisticated movie trailer, this modest whole was definitely larger than the sum of its parts. I was satisfied with what I had seen, and curious about where it could go.  But before I launched headlong into the future, I found myself momentarily thinking about the past.

train_1I recalled a story I heard in film school. About 120 years ago, a couple of brothers were trying to figure out something cool to do with their Cinématographe — one of the first devices to resemble a motion picture camera. One of the first pieces that they screened was a short clip of a train arriving at a station, evocatively titled, “Arrival of a Train.”

The apocrypha would have us believe that some of those audience members from two centuries ago ran in terror from the theater because they thought the train would burst through the screen. I remember thinking, “That can’t possibly be true.” These were sophisticated Europeans with elevated tastes, and this was after all a shot of a train arriving at a station. Nevertheless, although it’s hard to imagine standing in their shoes in that darkened room, I wanted to believe that the truth of their reaction probably landed somewhere between the abject terror of the legend, but far from mute indifference.

kerzeA more fruitful daydream is that everybody in that room knew that they had just seen something that they’d never seen before, and that they felt like they could see that much further into what this new, crazy thing could be. And each of those early viewers might have got something out of it, talked about it with their friends who hadn’t seen it, forgotten it, or got hooked at the gills. Except they didn’t have blogs back then.

VR is out of the living room. Reality just got that much more virtual. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Story Room: Saving the World is Thirsty Work

26 May

“Are you ready to save the f–king world?” he asked. To be honest, it was a bit more than I had in mind after a day at work, but I exchanged looks with my companions and said, “Sure!” After all, what could possibly go wrong?

We were about to enter Story Room, a production of Two Bit Circus. I’m not actually quite sure what this group really is. I’ve seen them referred to as an entertainment company, a think tank, and in more pedestrian press, an agency. However, I had a great time at their STEAM Carnival last autumn, so for the purposes of this blog, I’m OK with thinking about them as a group that likes to make fun experiences. I think they’d be OK with that too.

hqdefaultSo, back to saving the world. In the real world, we were at the Brewery Arts Complex, an artist colony housed in a former brewery that is off the beaten path in an industrial part of Los Angeles. It’s an easy place to get lost in and quite mysterious in its own right. Certainly worth saving.

We were welcomed inside an anteroom and provided with a smattering of backstory. It involved aliens. It sounded important. And then a door opened, we entered, it closed behind us, and we were inside the story!

Half the fun of Story Room is not having a clear idea of what to expect, and I don’t intend to spoil that for you. The website describes it as a “unique multiplayer experience that combines problem solving with character twists to create a new form of live entertainment.” Clear as mud, but intriguing as hell.

journey-escape(4)However, if you’ve read their website, you’re probably wondering, is this an escape room attraction? If you haven’t experienced one, escape rooms are pretty much what they sound like: you’re placed in a locked room and have to figure out how to get out, usually within a fixed time limit. And there’s no guarantee that you will. Getting out usually requires solving a number of puzzles based on objects in your environment, while possibly fending off antagonistic or distracting elements. I had a tremendous time at last year’s Purge: Breakout, but I haven’t felt drawn to seek out similar experiences.

Although an escape room can be elegant and complex in the design of its puzzles, the underlying narrative can sometimes feel limited. The context for your situation ultimately boils down to being trapped and needing to escape. Although there is a binary, win/lose aspect to it that appeals to my competitive side, it tends to conflict with my desire to just be entertained.

Story Room shares many of the game mechanics and sensibilities of an escape room, but the narrative framework substitutes progress for escape. It’s a subtle nuance, and therein lies all the difference.

In Story Room, as we solved the puzzles, we learned more about our situation. Rooms started to feel more like scenes, and the puzzles themselves felt increasingly like a connected, rational part of the underlying story. On one hand, it’s a different means to a similar end, but it places the focus on the journey, not the destination.

As a practical illustration: we did OK with the puzzles, but we were occasionally assisted via a mechanism that was integrated with the story. Sure, my ego would have been more gratified if we had performed better, but I found myself less focused on winning or losing and far more interested in what would happen next.
In the final room, we had to choose between two objectives to pursue. Either one would have constituted “success,” but we decided based on what we had learned about the story in the previous rooms and how we personally felt it should resolve.

In short, this show lived up to its name. We were in the story! In fact, we discovered afterward that had we done better in one of the previous rooms, we may have learned something that could have influenced our decision in the final room.

magnacovblankeThe website boldly namechecks the Choose Your Own Adventure book series from the 80s & 90s. This type of branching narrative is a holy grail of sorts for experience designers in location-based entertainment, but can be operationally difficult to execute. It seems that on some level, even if we didn’t experience all the possible outcomes, they pulled it off.

The puzzles were excellently designed and thoughtfully crafted to require multiple participants to solve them. In similar attractions, multiple players allow you to simply “throw more bodies at the problem” by being able to more rapidly find hidden objects. In Story Room, multiple players are critical because many of the puzzles consist of discrete tasks that need to be performed in parallel. In the final room, we each had distinct roles to play to reach our objective.

iwantmoreWe were in there slightly over an hour, but time flies, as the saying goes. Understanding that like any production, they are limited by real resources such as budget and space, my main feedback for future productions would be to create more “scenes” even if each is shorter. Reflecting on how this show redraws the line between storytelling and problem-solving, I would love to see them take it even further and incorporate more branching, more rooms, and maybe even some live performers. In other words, more of everything that worked so well.

As you could probably guess, saving the world is thirsty work, so we were delighted to discover that the Brewery just happened to have a gastropub on the premises. Tasty food. Cold beer. Good times. Highly recommended.

If you’re in LA, and this show is still happening, I would recommend checking it out. And if you’re not in LA, why not? It’s real nice here.

Never Be Bored Again

20 Feb

rarelyLook around you. Where are you reading this right now? Chances are, you’re minutes away from an immersive, interactive experience that is waiting for you to discover it. Curious?

First, some background. I’m one of those people who has a hard time doing nothing. That sense of peace that comes from “getting away from it all” wears off for me after about five minutes, and I find myself looking for something stimulating. Not surprisingly, my young children tend to feel the same way. It’s something of a curse, but on a recent trip to the Central Sierras, a wonderland of natural beauty, I was determined to turn it into an opportunity. There just had to be something to do up here that would be entertaining for all of us, right?

screen-shot-2014-02-02-at-15-02-05I asked the Internet, and found a tourist-oriented website for the tiny village we were in, and scanned through the usual list of activities. Fishing: please no. Snowmobiling: need snow for that. Hiking: with kids, it ends up being “carrying.” Prospects seemed dismal until I came across “Geocaching.” That rang a bell — something to do with GPS and hiding stuff, but I realized that I really had no idea how one actually did it.

cacheiskingSkeptically, I installed a free app, waited for it to locate me, and discovered that there were DOZENS of caches within a few miles of my current location (in the middle of nowhere) including one that was 163 FEET away (we were in a local playground at this point.) I tromped off alone in a trance into the adjacent woods like a very slow, poorly-trained bloodhound, climbing over rocks, crossing brooks, crashing through brambles, trying to close the distance between me and whatever lay at the marker on my map. Soon, the other grown-ups got involved, and the kids buzzed around us discovering the fantastic natural playground surrounding them. Looking back, I guess my biggest misconception about geocaching was that it was something that you had to “get into.” However, without really trying, we had effortlessly and unexpectedly landed in the middle of an adventure!

product1We didn’t find what we were looking for, but we were undeterred, so for our second try, we chose a cache that seemed a bit easier. Each cache is ranked for difficulty and terrain, and contains a description and optional hints that guide you to the hidden location. We made our way to an unnoteworthy cluster of trees on a street corner that we would have otherwise driven past without giving a second look, however now it was imbued with mystery and potential. We descended upon it like a shoal of piranhas, discovered a camouflage canister hanging from a branch, and eagerly grabbed it, unscrewed the lid. The kids thrilled at the mysterious trove of miscellaneous knick-knacks within while we examined with curiosity the little notepad filled with messages from those who came before us. As we left our own impromptu scrawl for those who would in turn follow in our footsteps, we unwittingly jumped into the slipstream of a previously unknown world that was hidden in plain sight.

Now we were hooked and consulted the app for our next find. It was another easy one, embedded in a jumble of rocks that anchored the sign for a wilderness trail. Except now, the world was transformed; a rusted chain buried in the rocks became a  guardian rattlesnake and the unassuming container was a treasure chest of mystery and possibility. We were so engrossed in our adventure that we almost didn’t notice the car pull up behind us.

Hunger-games-gamemakersThe gentleman who stepped out introduced himself as papahog46, and told us that this was his cache. He just happened to be driving by, and he knew exactly what we were up to. I chatted with him a bit, and he said that he had recently come back from the Caribbean where he had left a few caches, and that he has also left a few in various places in Europe. The app allows you to log your finds, and leave a brief message, and he commented that many of the thank you notes he received were in other languages. After he left us to our meanderings, it occurred to me we had been having fun that he had made; transient explorers of a new world he created. We had been hanging out with the Game Maker!

mugglesI finally started to realize that this thing was big. I used the app to see what was around my house: dozens, including one a block away. The neighborhood around my work: lousy with caches, including four in the park where I often eat lunch. A random place where I stopped for lunch on the way to San Diego: loads. I realized that geocaching is nothing short of a global phenomenon that has created a parallel universe bound together by a community that borders on a secret society. It has its own lingo, which I picked up on from reading the entries in the logbooks — kind of like a written secret handshake. In fact, geocachers have appropriated the word Muggle from the Harry Potter universe to designate a person who is not playing, a shorthand that happens to be pretty much spot-on.

POD_dandelionBecause there are no formal rules except a common-sense code of conduct that requires you to be a good citizen, it didn’t take long to figure out that caches needn’t be limited to dime-store trinkets and logbooks. Caches could be designed like any other experience and could include a history lesson, or a series of related puzzles, or an elaborate story, or all of them at the same time. I realized that when I entered this world, I felt the same thrill of discovery and ignition of imagination that I get from the best immersive experiences. Except instead of traveling for hours and waiting in line and most likely seeing something that I’ve probably seen before, I could do this anytime, anywhere. Best of all, with an inkling of inclination and a jab of imagination, I could create my own world within the world. Perhaps even one that you’ll stumble into someday.

The Most Fun I Ever Had Being Murdered

22 Jul

I died in tmeme3he Purge last week. OK, that came out weird, let me explain.

The Purge is a film that came out last year that generally, and not incorrectly, gets lumped into the horror genre. However, it’s actually a political science thought experiment wrapped in a veneer of science fiction dystopia that dials up the suspense until it implodes into horror. The general conceit is that in the year 2022, a new political party has “fixed” America; there is 1% unemployment and almost no crime. The catch: all crime, including murder, is actually legal during a 12-hour period called the Purge that occurs once per year. Despite its macrocosmic context, the movie had a minimalistic feel that focused on the experiences of a single family in a discrete location and the ethical dilemmas posed by this practice. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but there was something oddly compelling and surprisingly thought-provoking about it. I knew there had to be more to the story.

When I heard that there would be a sequel being released this summer, I knew I would see it at some point. However, when I heard that they were promoting it through The Purge: Breakout, a pop-up haunted attraction that was touring the country, I dropped everything to get a ticket. A haunted attraction in July? Talk about Christmas coming early!

928930cc-09e0-41e7-8d3f-751858ff0972The typical haunted attraction tends to be a fairly linear affair. You start at the beginning and keep moving until you get to the end, trying to absorb or avoid (depending on your preference) as many scares as you can along the way. In contrast, Breakout is billed as “An Immersive Escape Experience.” Groups of up to six guests are locked into the attraction at one time and given thirty minutes to try to figure out how to get out by deciphering clues and solving puzzles that are embedded in the surroundings. The concept of an Escape Room attraction is not new, and did not originate as a horror-themed show, but as some designers have discovered, they really are two great tastes that taste great together.

Welcome to the Hotel California

I found a friend who agreed that this sounded like an excellent way to spend an evening, and we headed out to the location, a parking lot on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles where a few trailers decked out in full Purge regalia awaited us. As we watched the sun go down, I started to feel.

It wasn’t quite the stomach-churning dread of a haunted house. It was more of a light, but increasing anxiety that I would totally choke on the puzzles. I immediately reflected that I was grateful to be feeling anything! It occurred to me that going to the movies or even certain live events just wasn’t doing anything for me recently, and that one of the reasons why I keep coming back to haunted attractions is because they stir something that lies dormant for too long of a stretch.

Not for the claustrophobic

Before entering, we had about five minutes to get to know our three fellow participants with whom we would be trapped, and indulged in the futility of concocting a strategy for getting out. I was nominated as some kind of leader. Anxiety level rises. One of the hosts came out and gave us the setup: we’re locked in some weirdo’s basement on Purge Night, which begins in 30 minutes. We need to escape or he kills us. Not necessarily true to the sophisticated moral complexities of the movie, but I wasn’t complaining. We were characters in the story, and it was about to begin! We were provided with some straightforward rules: don’t break or take anything, don’t try to use a light, if you trigger one of the emergency buttons (you are locked in, after all) then it’s immediate game over, no refunds, no questions. Oh, and there was one more thing, only about 1% of everybody who’s played the game has escaped. And you thought Vegas was rough.

Once the door locked behind us, the panic began. . . immediately. Any remnant of any strategy that we thought would have been useful dissipated in the first 15 seconds. In true basement style, it’s not very well-lit, which is a problem when your success hinges on finding objects in your environment. In addition to miscellaneous klaxons, sound effects, and the sound of your blood pumping in your ears, every five minutes there were very loud, periodic reminders that the Purge would be starting in 25, 20, 15, etc., minutes. Needless to say, when all five of us were huddled in a very small room and stuck on a puzzle, these reminders were anything but calming.

We solved a bunch of puzzles. We tried our hardest. We celebrated our successes. But in the end, we died. Murdered to be exact. Time ran out, and for us, it just wasn’t enough. If we had five more minutes! If we had only done such-and-such! Did we remember to look behind that one thing? We wallowed in the coulda-woulda-shouldas for a minute or two, but the general consensus from all of us was, “That was SUPER FUN!”

Totally Occupied The Purge

It was an exceptionally produced show. I love puzzles, and I felt that they were well-tested to be achievable but challenging (obviously, since we died!) The makeshift trailer setup was not at all reflective of the excellent production design and technical sophistication that kept our attention for thirty action-packed minutes in such a small amount of space. It was 100% adrenaline from beginning to end and when it was all over, I wanted more. However, part of what makes this type of show special is that it’s really something you do once and only once.

The coolest part of the show turned out to be something I least expected — us! A common feature of many immersive experiences is to get you out of your chair and into the action. However, this often takes the form of occupying the same space as the actors while they go about their business. The better-written productions allow for some latitude and improvisation, but there is still a script, and you’re still essentially watching, or in some cases being guided/goaded through some simple participation. Breakout was different — we were the cast. The story consisted entirely of what we did. There was one non-player cast member, but I think she was there to make sure that we didn’t go completely off the rails. And man, did we kill it! Before we got killed, that is.

I was in awe at how naturally we worked together as a team, despite the fact that we barely knew each other. People’s strengths immediately surfaced — the codebreakers, the searchers, the observers, the scouts — without any explicit coordination. Almost all of the puzzles required some form of cooperation, but it somehow happened in a seamless way. When it was all over with, we felt like old friends, and made plans to get together for future events once October rolls around. It was magical.

We are a culture that is screamingly desperate for personal connection. We are undoubtedly the most well-connected, lonely people that the planet has ever hosted. Breakout showed that when you put people together and give them a story and some purpose, you just might end up with something unforgettable. We need to be creating more experiences like this.

The Source of Magic at IOA’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter

14 Jan

Singing into the wind. Bailing out the Titanic with a teacup. That is the sense of futility I feel when it comes to sharing something insightful that hasn’t already been said about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The entire production is an unqualified success from the Butterbeer to Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans; from the Forbidden Journey to Filch’s Emporium. It’s a feast for the senses worthy of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, and cannot fail to delight even the most studious and persnickety of fans.

As much as I gaped, marveled, delighted, and thrilled at everything I was experiencing, there was one detail, which I keep coming back to that crystallizes the strong sensibilities at work here. After having made my way through Hogsmeade a few times, I kept noticing a building with a modest line outside of it. I’m sure with a bit of investigation, or perusing the park map, or asking a cast member, I could have figured out what it was, but I did none of these things, and decided to just allow myself to be surprised. About every ten minutes or so, the doors to the adjoining building would open, about 30 guests would be allowed in, and the doors would close again. Curiosity piqued.

When it was my turn to enter, I found myself in a dark room with walls lined from floor to very tall ceilings with shelves crammed with narrow, rectangular boxes. As I soon discovered, I was in Ollivander’s Wand Shop. A young guest was selected, and the rest of the audience was entertained with ten minutes of immersive theatre. The guest is placed into the position of a young wizard choosing a wand (or being chosen by a wand) and experiencing the necessary trial and error that ensues during the selection process. As we observe, wand/wizard mismatches can have chaotic consequences, and the show is punctuated by tasteful special effects that occur throughout the room. Before long, wand and wizard are well-met, and the guests are ushered into the “real” Ollivander’s where they sell real items in exchange for real money.

So why is it that in a land that features one of the most technologically sophisticated attractions on the planet, an exquisitely themed restaurant complete with a bar that sells real alcohol, and an infinity of detailed exteriors and interiors, I was so taken by this bit at Ollivander’s? The answer is simple. The decision to showcase this particular component of the Harry Potter mythology demonstrates a true respect and understanding for the material and why it resonates with our culture.

Imagine the blank sheet of paper. Now imagine the task of selecting from among the thousands of pages and dozens of hours that comprise the seven, often massive, volumes and eight epic films of the Harry Potter series. At the very least, it’s an awesome undertaking to distill that into a handful of experiences to unify in a themed environment.  However, at the heart of all those pages and frames and at the soul of that phenomenon is the universe of answers suggested by a simple articulation and the question it raises, “The world is a magical place, but what if I could learn to control it?” It’s no accident that Harry Potter takes place in modern-day England and not on another planet, or in the distant past, or a parallel universe. The allure of Harry Potter is the not-so-childlike hope that maybe this could be real. As we live vicariously through the young heroes (and villains) of the story, their entry point into this world that we desire is Ollivander’s. More so than Platform 9 3/4, Ollivander’s is where desire meets destiny, and the realization of one’s dream becomes personal. Selecting this vignette shows tremendous insight and sensitivity to what really matters in this epic story.

However, the execution is equally stunning. It’s a very low-profile attraction, and it’s easy to miss. You can easily enter the real store through an alternate entrance and be none the wiser of what’s happening in the adjoining room. This deliberate understatement in an environment of overload is a very tasteful design decision, and makes the experience feel even more special. Granted, it is somewhat of a holy grail to deliver guests a personalized, intimate experience in theme parks, but the sheer numbers of guests often make this an impractical goal, and tends to be at odds with another hallmark of theme park design: consistency. This makes the choice to use the modality of immersive theatre even more daring. Attractions have been breaking the 4th wall for generations as a technique to kickstart an immersive experience. From the Ghost Host and the talking skull to Indy and Evac, we have been personally invited to enter the story instead of just watch from afar. However, beloved as those characters are, they’re still a step removed from us, no matter how amazing the technology gets. Quite literally bringing Ollivander’s to life creates an impact that is not soon forgotten even if you are not the chosen one (and chances are, at my age, it’s gonna have to be a pretty slow day.)

I don’t mean to suggest that the techniques used at Ollivander’s are unique in the theme park world. The hundreds of cast members at any major park provide a unique and constant presence in myriad interactions that is easily taken for granted, but in fact lies at the core of seamless immersive experiences. However, there is nevertheless a harmony of theme, execution, and restraint at Ollivander’s that is uniquely transcendent, noteworthy, and inspiring. Pure magic.

Test Track 2.0 = Attractions 2.0

7 Jan

I’m just going to come right out and say it. I’m really just not into cars that much. Sure, I went through my pre-adolescent fixations with Hot Wheels and The Blue Flame, but as I got older, I grew to see a car as just another option that could get me from point A to point G. That said, I’m not completely immune to their charms; I could probably recite a full traffic school curriculum on account of an inexplicable magnetism for speeding tickets. However, even in a lottery fantasy scenario, a fancy car would still rate pretty low on the list.

Maybe it’s just real cars that I don’t like

Finding myself at Epcot, the day before IAAPA (which is another story entirely,) I surveyed my options and approached Test Track with an academic indifference, knowing that I would ultimately try to experience everything the park had to offer. I understood that the show had been redesigned within the past year, but I had not experienced its previous incarnation, so I really had no idea what to expect.

The first thing that got my attention was that the queue temporarily deposits you into a room filled with touchscreen kiosks. I picked up an RFID card, tagged into the kiosk, and found myself designing a car by balancing four fundamental characteristics: Capability, Efficiency, Responsiveness, and Power. OK, design is a bit of an exaggeration; from a technical standpoint, it’s more of a sophisticated menu system that allows you to select from a number of pre-designed models based on your personal preferences. Still, this type of interactivity was a first for me in a queue.

Sammy approves of Test Track

Before boarding the ride itself, I tagged my RFID card and “uploaded” my designed vehicle into the ride vehicle. The narrative of the ride is that you are testing your vehicle on a specialized track. Each phase of the ride tests a different characteristic, and features a monitor that ranks the uploaded vehicles, which makes the experience feel very personalized in an unexpected way. The ride itself was beautifully designed with a streamlined aesthetic that felt convincingly contemporary and even a bit futuristic, which is no small feat in the context of the dynamic technological wonderland of daily life. The Power test is essentially a speed trial that hits a speed of 65 MPH, making Test Track one of the fastest rides in the Disney universe. As the vehicle approached the unloading area, I thought the ride had a little bit of everything including high-speed thrills, and I felt pleasantly surprised, wondering what I would ride next. Little did I suspect that the experience was far from over.

Not a popular option in the 9-13 demographic

As I exited the vehicle, the first thing I noticed was that the younger riders, especially the boys, were FREAKING OUT! In a good way! Kids were tugging at their parents, begging to ride again before their feet had even hit the platform, and by the look on the parents’ faces, I could tell that this was not the first such request of the day. Boys were swaggering about how their car dominated the Power test (although low marks on the Efficiency test were conveniently ignored.) There was a buzz of infectious and uplifting energy that felt very special. Test Track is not a superlative thrill ride, doesn’t feature any fictional characters, and is not necessarily an icon of themed design, but these young riders showed a level of pride, ownership, and excitement that would be a high point in any designer’s career. I sought the exit so that I could get back in line and check it out again, but that turned out to be not as easy as I would have expected.

Play at your own risk

The first post-show area features a giant screen where I tagged my RFID card and saw my vehicle’s aggregate score compared to those of the other riders around me, along with a Daily Best. I noted with some disappointment that I was about 15 points shy of the Daily Best. The irrationally competitive side of me that mercilessly crushes anonymous opponents in in-flight, seat-embedded trivia games wanted the most Efficient, Capable, Powerful, Responsive car in all of Epcot on that November day. It had to be buried somewhere in that design kiosk and I was going to find it! I continued toward the exit with renewed intent.

And entered another room with touchscreen kiosks that I almost blew right past, but it was early in the day and I couldn’t resist those screens. At these kiosks, I designed a commercial by mashing up a narrator, music style, setting, and vehicle attribute into a short animation featuring my car, which I emailed straight from the kiosk. Mine was a cowboy talking about how powerful my car was while jumping around on the moon with a disco soundtrack. It was so much fun, I did it twice before heading toward the exit.

And found myself in yet another area with even more kiosks that allowed me to customize the look and performance of my car to a much greater degree than the queue kiosks. I fell into another rabbit hole doing this for a while, uploaded my design to my card, and brought it to another interface where I uploaded it to a virtual simulator and drove it around a video track. At this point, I started to realize that there was a possibility that I might spend all day at Test Track and I hadn’t even set foot inside the World Showcase yet.

Weird

I segued into another area that was essentially a giant showroom for Chevrolet, the sponsor of the ride. I spent the least amount of time here since, you know, I’m not a car guy. However, I couldn’t help noticing that people were actually stopping to take pictures in front of the cars and check them out. Personal preferences aside, GM is a perfectly capable industry leader when it comes to making automobiles. However, GM cars do not have the fantasy appeal of  Ferrari or Porsche or Lamborghini, but at this point in the experience, I was starting to feel pretty good about Chevy. Corporate sponsorship of attractions goes all the way back to Walt, but I cannot remember a more symbiotic and positive example. Finally, after all this, the exit through retail felt gentle and inoffensive instead of the harsh return to semi-reality that it can sometimes be.

Leaked concept art for Test Track 3.0

To my surprise, not only did I like Test Track, but I loved it, and my enthusiasm extended above and beyond the ride itself. While many attractions provide a “best-case scenario” approach to the decidedly mundane and obligatory aspects of waiting in line and exiting, Test Track engages and involves you at every turn. From an experience design standpoint, there is not a single wasted opportunity to entertain and delight the guest. In fact, the ride itself is less of an inflection point in a humdrum routine, and feels like one of the many components of the overall experience, albeit one that is markedly visceral.

In the past year, I had the privilege of experiencing some of the most outstanding attractions in the themed entertainment world, including mind-blowing experiences at Universal Studios Hollywood, Islands of Adventure, and Cars Land at DCA. While those parks feature unforgettable, world-class, game-changing achievements, there is something about Test Track that announces the true future potential of experience design. I am a strong believer in the potential of interactive technology to take immersive experiences to a new level, but as designers, we must always be mindful of not letting the tail wag the dog. In my opinion, Test Track not only strikes a harmonious balance between technological innovation and thoughtful storytelling, but does so in a bold and fearless fashion that has truly raised the bar for the industry.

I never did figure out how to design the best car of the day, but my happy memory of the experience made me start counting the days until my own kids will be old enough to ride it with me and take a crack at it.

Fried Cheese & Coke: Branded Experiences and Iconic Retrospectives

6 Nov

I lived in Prague during a period when email was still a novelty, mobile phones were seen in Tom Cruise movies as devices used for making phone calls, and internet cafes actually had computers in them. A popular means for distributing information was known as a “newspaper,” and a few were published in English for the benefit of the expat community. One of these featured a column called, “Easy Targets,” which was an unannotated list of people, institutions, concepts, etc. that would be recognizable to a contemporary reader. And that was it. Further commentary was neither provided nor required. A similar list published today might include, “Congress, Miley Cyrus, Facebook status, gluten-free beer, you get the idea.” One fateful afternoon, I picked up said newspaper and immediately sought out the Easy Targets, and at the top of the list was, “Smažený Syr.” For me, this was and is the absolute soul of wit. There is so much depth and commentary packed into those two words that it can still bring a smile to my face today. Let me explain.

I’m ready for my close-up

Smažený syr is Czech for fried cheese. In the fight for daily survival, which occurs at the intersection of 30-cent beer, a national/institutional disdain for last call, and an ambiguous notion of employment, sustenance is a fickle ally. At certain single-digit hours, one’s options are typically limited to: 1) hot-dog 2) sleep or 3) smažený syr. Smažený syr was notoriously and reliably available at a kiosk outside of one of Prague’s train stations, day & night, rain or shine. Many expats have had their lives temporarily saved (and ultimately shortened) by making this pilgrimage. Moreover, smažený syr often found its way onto the menu at almost every local restaurant, often masquerading as a main course, sharing the stage with a sidekick of french fries. The most common description of what it feels like about half hour after eating this is, “I think I just swallowed a hockey puck.” It’s a rite of passage. It’s a way of life. It’s wrong. It’s an easy target.

You can't make this stuff up

You can’t make this stuff up

So when I tried to wrap my head around the idea that there could be an attraction in Atlanta dedicated to Coca-Cola, my first thought was smažený syr. It’s not a terrific stretch to prejudicially pigeonhole the World of Coca-Cola as a temple to American capitalism, providing dubious educational value and celebrating a product that is bad for you. Now, that’s an Easy Target. Seriously, Coca-Cola makes smažený syr look like a health fad. I had to check it out.

Figure 3

A shadow passes across the land

The attraction chronicles the impact that Coca-Cola has had on world culture for the last 100+ years. After a guided introduction followed by a screening of a surprisingly psychedelic animated short (i.e., commercial), guests are left to explore the rest of the attraction on their own. Setting aside for the moment the photo-op with the company’s polar bear mascot and the 4D theatrical feature, WOCC resembles a traditional museum with a number of exhibits focused on corporate artifacts culled from various times and places. Love it or hate it, Coca-Cola has some of the most recognizable, inventive, and iconic branding of any product sold anywhere, and the various exhibits make it clear that they haven’t rested on their laurels at any point in their efforts to get us to keep buying it. What’s even more remarkable is that as a product, Coke has remained relatively unchanged, which makes it somewhat of an outlier in the fast-paced world of global corporate commercial one-upmanship. In fact, this nuance lies at the heart of WOCC’s best feature: Vault of the Secret Formula.

Last known whereabouts: Atlanta

Last known whereabouts: Atlanta

The Vault immediately appealed to me, and it was the first exhibit that I visited. The theming begins as soon as you enter the exhibit through the larger-than-life vault door that looks like it was lifted from the set of Goldfinger. Next, you are visually scanned and cleared for security in a waiting area before entering the actual space. The first thing you notice as you enter is that it smells like Coke; it sounds weird, but it’s very subtle and it works. The exhibit proceeds to relate the history of the Coca-Cola company from the perspective of the secret formula. You learn how the formula was developed/invented by a pharmacist, and how it made its way through successive entrepreneurs, visionaries, and businessmen whose primary objective was to safeguard the secret. The formula is transformed into a character that enhances the fortunes of everyone who possesses it, and for the last 100 years, it has literally been kept inside of a vault with extremely limited access.

The exhibit is filled with interactive features including a steampunk device that allows you to try to replicate the secret formula by manipulating some primary flavor characteristics, and a motion-controlled interactive game in which you attempt to successfully transport the formula back to the vault before it falls into the wrong hands. Throughout, there are cleverly immersive ways of revealing additional information including whispered rumors from overhead and drawers containing information that you can peruse. In essence, they have taken the history of a corporation and turned it into a riveting adventure. Moreover, in this telling, the history of Coca-Cola is made out to be nothing less than the realization of the American dream. The exhibit ends with a 360 degree movie projection which is reasonably impressive, and in a surprising twist, the screens slide apart to reveal the star of the show: the actual vault.

A proud day for Coke marketing execs

A proud day for Coke marketing execs

I exited the exhibit a bit surprised at how roped in I got to the experience. I feel that on the basis of its creative execution, the Vault is an unqualified success. However, in the context of the idea that a museum about Coke is a classic “Easy Target,” it seems all the more impressive. After this experience, I was able to set aside my sense that the Polar Bear photo-op was kind of creepy, and that the 4D theater experience felt out of place, and that the other exhibits, while interesting, felt a little self-congratulatory. On the other hand, the Vault works because it’s not just another attempt to make you believe that drinking Coke makes you a better, happier citizen of the world. What lingered for me was the journey I felt that I had taken, and it had everything to do with the effort that was made to transform this material into a story, and to involve me in its telling. Personally, I didn’t come home and fill my refrigerator with Coke and hang framed pictures of John Pemberton in my office. However, I felt that it was well worth my time to visit WOCC, and it provided yet another opportunity to learn/re-learn/remember something that I will carry forward into my own practice: a good story and an earnest effort to creatively involve your audience in it can make ANYTHING compelling.

Now, if they had only served fried cheese in the Tasting Room.

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