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The Virtual Arena

Mixed Reality Revolution: Out-of-Home!

Theme parks are now starting to embrace AR tech.

With the latest news of a major ‘AR-powered’ theme park attractions, this news underlines the investment this sector is making in these types of experiences in the attraction scene. Kevin Williams gives a brief overview of the deployment that has led to these latest announcements concerning Super Nintendo World.

Super Nintendo World

The use of Mixed Reality (MR), in both augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) presentations, as well as the use of projection mapping and immersive display technology has seen increased investment for application in theme park, and attractions deployment. These developments have been leading steadily towards more advanced deployment, while consumer applications seem to have advanced little since Pokémon Go!  

The use of MR in attractions has been broken into two key areas of utilisation so far. The first being “Props” – systems that interact with elements of the venue. And secondly “Viewers” – allowing guests to view unique elements / surroundings and have interactive experiences.

One of the well know uses of interactive props has been seen at “Wizarding World of Harry Potter”. The Universal theme park land has incorporated ‘Interactive Wands’, guests able to acquire special RFID enabled wands that when waved at particular areas of the land, their interaction can trigger physical show set elements.

Harry Potter Dragon Alley
Guests in Diagon Alley trying out the spell-casting skills with their interactive wand. (Source: Orlando Informer)

A concept that can also be traced back to the Great Wolf Lodge venues in North America, that incorporated the MagiQuest experience, with unique tracked wands correct movement unlocking digital and physical puzzles, competing with digital characters located throughout the experience.

Most recently we have seen the wireless interactive prop married to dark ride, with the ‘Smurf Ride’ at Comics Station in Belgium. The dark ride experience has riders wielding magic wands with their movements interacting with the ride experience while collecting points.  

AlterFace Projects
Guests using their magical wand to interact with the attraction. (Source: AlterFace Projects)

Walt Disney has a long track record of experimenting with the use of location-specific interactive elements. Both in the queue line, and special “scavenger hunt” style experiences, at various resorts. One of the trailblazers of this was the ‘Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure’ – that utilized a smart device acting as the “prop”, used to supply information and help crack puzzles to collect rewards. The system was ahead of its time in comparison to what would be seen later with the Pokémon Go smartphone app.

Recently a new smartphone app allows guests to interact with unique elements of the queue line and other show sets, collecting special points and badges through cracking puzzles. This was deployed at the ‘Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge’ land in Orlando and California, distributed through the Play Disney, Star Wars: Datapad, on the park app. 

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge
Unlocking the secrets at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge via their Datapad app (Source: Walt Disney)

Building off much of these approaches, and some six years of development, one of the most ambitious AR projects is to be launched, looking at a new generation of audience.

Universal Studios Japan is about to throw open its doors to the new land called Super Nintendo World. Developed in partnership with Nintendo, a loving imagining, physically re-creating the video game world. Scheduled now for a February 2021 opening the venue has embraced a strong interactive element, with guests able to gather coins, badges and find secrets through the space, via their wearable “Power Up Band” prop that also links into a paired smartphone app.

Nintendo Power Up Band
The Nintendo Power Up Band paired with the smartphone app to collect coins (Source: NintendoObserver)

But it has been the recent leaks that have generated much excitement, regarding the deployment of new MR technology throughout the park, offering a high level of guest engagement. Recently the veil was lifted on one of the two major attraction of the venue. Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge has guests competing while on a tracked dark ride attraction. Buttons used in the ride vehicle, synced to physical and virtual effects of the attraction – elements seen by the player through special AR headsets, worn throughout the ride.

Mario Kart AR Headset
The unique AR headset that will be used on Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge (Source: Universal Studios)

This will be the first dedicated use of AR headsets in a theme park attraction, building off advancements in visual displays and optics. The manufacturers of the headsets to be used on this attraction is still secret. The players will be able to compete with groups of riders on other tracks riding in competition, virtually launching Koopa shells and collecting coins. A new level of gamification being added to a dark ride attraction.

Mario Kart: Koopers Challenge
The interactive ride vehicle used on Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge (Source: Universal Studios)

Another less publicised AR component of the venue is the use of “AR Viewers” – digital binoculars mounted round the land that superimpose animated effects and characters onto the real-world visuals. Using these viewers, the guests will also be able to interact with the digital characters using mounted buttons, continuing their hunt for coins, badges, and secrets.  Super Nintendo World is not just planned for Japan, with Universal Studio properties such as Orlando and California getting their own version eventually. What is being described as one of the “most interactive theme parks ever!

AR Viewer Universal Studios
Artist interpretation of the ‘AR Viewers’ being deployed, taken from the Universal Studios patent filings (Source Theme Park Stop)

Wider interest in MR deployment, especially AR headsets is expected to see consumer resurgence beyond current smartphone applications. With both Apple and Facebook rumoured to be about to launch ground-breaking consumer AR systems in a matter of months – while the Nreal Light headset saw much fanfare for its launch this year. The commercial design and training sectors have benefited from the launches of the Microsoft Hololens 2, as well as the launch of the Lynx-R1.

The out-of-home entertainment sector will benefit from the advancements achieved from AR consumer development, as was seen from consumer VR. And we can expect to hear announcements of other theme park developers launching their own new AR-based attractions to stay competitive.

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