michael naimark




IAAPA Convention, Nov '92, Dallas

Michael Naimark


(Vestibular Cowboys Meet VR Yahoos, All Go for a Ride)

The 74th annual International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) convention is the largest forum of its kind in the world, with over 1,000 exhibitors occupying all exhibit halls at the massive Dallas Convention Center. This is an industry of theme parks, travelling shows, county fairs, board walks, and game arcades, hence the types of exhibits ranged from miniature golf, ferris wheels, tattoos, and popcorn machines to multi-user video games and simulator rides. It becomes immediately clear touring the floor that the main attractions in this industry are rides and games.

Here are some of the exhibit categories:

Batting, Pitching Machines/Cages Coin-operated Equipment

Games and Devices - Arcade Games and Devices - Midway Go-Kart Equipment

Miniature Golf Equipment

Participatory Play Equipment

People Moving Equipment

Remote and Radio Controlled Amusement Devices

Rides - Dark

Rides - Kiddie

Rides - Major

Simulation Equipment

Waterpark/Waterslide Equipment

Got the idea? Of particular interest was the mixing of the big film format companies (IMAX, Iwerks, Omni, and Showscan) and interactive computer graphics/VR companies (Evans and Sutherland, Simgraphics, W Industries) with the motion platform folks. On the one hand, adding motion is expensive. On the other hand, it's a thrill. Isn't that what it's all about?

Some examples and gossip:

* The Mirage Simulator ("The Ultimate Reality") finally made its premiere semi-publicly. Mirage is an immersive flight simulator game with a cinerama-style 3 screen seamless panoramic image. A unique infinity-focus concave mirror assembly was invented for the display, as well as the rear screen for the three Esprit video projectors required. It really feels like you're looking out a window. No motion platform, though it was heavily debated. Mirage was jointly produced by Rediffusion Simulation (now owned by Hughes), using an Evans and Sutherland flight simulator computer, and Lucasfilm's "Rebel Arts" division (now dead). This is a very expensive 2 person experience.

* Evans and Sutherland ("Extra Reality") have realized that their years in the flight simulator business may payoff in theme parks. They are advertising themselves as both a supplier and collaborator.

* E&S have a deal with Iwerks Entertainment for "Virtual Adventures - Vacations for the Mind." Iwerks has been pushing the "870" film format (70mm film run vertically, 8 perforations per frame) in both flat and dome screen specialty theaters, some which have motion platforms. "Virtual Adventures" involves a single user "virtual vehicle."

* Iwerks was also showing its realtime animation system called "Vactor Performer." They exhibited an animated Mario Brother, which was controlled by a human performer with (many) sensors attached to his face. He was in a separate room with a live video feed of the audience in front of the Mario character display. Hence the cartoon "Mario" (with an Italian accent) could snipe at passers by and get them into a conversation. This was really very funny. Vactor Performer was produced by SimGraphics.

* A very impressive single-user simulator ride was shown by Magic Edge, Inc., in Mountain View. It is the shape of a small X-15 jet and is on a scissors-like mount. Though it wasn't moving at the convention, the specs say "1/2 second of weightlessness, up to 4 Gs of force, up to 5 feet of vertical motion, and 360 degree full barrel rolls (!)" Equally impressive, it's driven by a Silicon Graphics IRIS 4D Reality Engine, another first.

* IMAX Corporation (now sporting the slogan "Virtual Reality for the Masses") showed a simple but impressive personal audio enhancement to their wireless flicker goggles which they currently use in their 3D "Solido" format. They call these Imax PSE (Personal Sound Environment). The transducers look like the "front-firing" kind in sports walkmen, but are built in the goggles about 3 inches in front of each ear. They work surprisingly well. Also, the PSEs are intended to augment IMAX's already impressive six-channel amplified sound system.

* The most ambitious interactive/motion system is called Chameleon ("About as Real as it Gets"), which boom out two or more single user pods at least 25 feet from the center, then spin them around up to 18 RPM, enough to feel serious sustained G-forces. These pods are entirely closed, and have cockpits or dashboards inside, with a display of a realtime graphics computer. Not for sissies.

* A personal favorite was a mechanical surfboard. This is a mechanically hardwired system that simply repeats a complex, intense rolling motion, only the speed is controllable. I tried it. On the one hand, it's difficult. On the other hand, it feels intuitively obvious that after several hours, anyone can master it.

The IAAPA Convention is a convincing exhibition of vestibular thrills. I was left with two speculations about the future. First, consider taking a classic thrill ride like a roller coaster and creating a linear immersive visual show in sync with the ride itself, possibly via goggles, so rather than seeing the theme park, parking lot, and skyline, the rider is in a "VR movie," where the ride does nothing more than provide the motion. (Consider making a visual to go with "The Edge" . . .) Also, the idea of personal-size motion platforms is attractive, something like the surfboard but programmable. Perhaps the health and fitness world, which already uses expensive specialized mechanical systems, will be the first to explore media-rich versions. I have a <20 minute videotape of all-of-the-above, and much more.