Rapidly-advancing technologies have served as the driving force behind the evolution of the themed entertainment industry, leading to more and more experiences that expand everyone’s creativity.
This formula for success usually has multiple ingredients. All elements of the system and final guest experience need to be considered. Take our CircuMotion® Theater attraction, for example. The experience starts in the queue line, introducing riders to the story and characters. When guests enter a circular ride platform surrounded by a large dome screen, they are immediately asking themselves a question: “How does this work?” As the ride starts, guests experience movement that flings them into the action, characters and story elements swirling around every angle. All of these components, both technical and narrative, form the experience as a whole, with the actual ride component only playing a part of the overall story.
When designing these products, we methodically strategize and envision various scenarios for the end-user experience. What is always at the top of our minds is how we can go beyond the expectations of the guests. This process is almost never the same, but over the years, our team has developed and implemented our own methodology that enables us to create a unique and exciting experience. I’ll walk through a version of this process using our work on the Becoming Jane: The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall exhibition at National Geographic Museum.
While a specific need isn’t always what dictates bringing a new product into existence, it can be a great starting point. The desire to experiment with a new product or leverage a new technology is enough of a need. Whether it’s an idea that fits a client's vision or something we’ve envisioned ourselves, there is a moment of creation, a simple idea that forms a foundation on which to build.
Our team was part of an early beta-tester program for the original Microsoft HoloLens, a landmark AR headset that opened the floodgates for new wearable AR products. Our early hands-on experience with that device inspired us to begin thinking about how we could apply this type of AR technology to location-based experiences.
Before we decided to develop our own augmented reality headset, we had to ask ourselves many questions, as we do for all products we develop. Firstly, are there existing products that can convey every emotional, technical, and operational specification we require for repeated use in a special venue? This answer usually turns out to be “no” or at best, “somewhat”. It’s extremely rare that the perfect commercial or consumer product exists that meets all of our requirements.
After identifying the need and a potential method to achieve our goals, our focus turned to research. Research is a critical step to be able to validate the viability, affordability, and uniqueness of the product, which will ultimately justify whether we continue with development. During these phases, we welcome ideas from all Falcon’s team members; from designers, project managers, and content creators. It is one of the main reasons why our final product can deliver on all fronts. It has been through phases of ideation and is born from ideas that are generated from multiple voices. Different immersive media technologies must often be married in entirely new ways to achieve the desired goal. Our research and development team was keen to dig into new methodologies and technologies.
Our first step was to break down the potential product into a kit-of-parts so that we could focus our research on each individual aspect. We needed to find the best way to present AR content to the viewer, and then figure out how the AR content could be tracked and interacted with in the real world.
To properly pull off augmented reality, we had to learn how light interacts with different materials and how to direct that light to be appropriately perceived by the human eyes on the other end. A matter of millimeters makes the difference between a sharp, clear image and a fuzzy, headache-inducing offset. We heavily researched the optics system and ran many tests with different approaches and materials.
Other key components we needed to research were how the headset would be tracked and how it would understand where the guest is looking. The hardware, meaning the headset, needed to work together with the software to accomplish this. We explored various tracking techniques so the content could appear to be grounded in the real world. In our early tests, we found that higher frame rates were key to minimizing latency, thus helping this cause.
After a lot of testing and experimenting with various components, we were able to narrow down the appropriate hardware, technology, and system requirements needed to begin development on the headset.
A product like this does not simply come into existence. A series of steps must be taken after developing an action plan. This development phase can be the longest and most challenging part of the process, requiring many iterations of prototypes. This is also the most important step in the process to create a successful product that will perform in a themed experience, especially one with high foot traffic.
Our AR headset, which we named Falcon’s Vision®, needed to be lightweight so that guests could hold it up, but it had to be sturdy enough to protect the delicate computer components inside, if it was dropped or mishandled.
We used our own 3D printers to deliver multiple prototypes during the early development phase. This allowed us to rapidly iterate and implement small changes with each new version, improving the headset week by week. Additionally, 3D printing gave us the luxury to experiment. Within a very short time frame, we would know if an idea improved the product.
For Becoming Jane, we merged our Falcon’s Vision® product that was already in development with new ideas and designs to devise a custom solution for our client, National Geographic Museum.
Our Falcon’s Vision® augmented reality headset allows guests to search for and discover chimpanzees in the wild. Using the headset as binoculars, they peer into a forest backdrop to trigger one of several distinct chimpanzee behaviors that Jane discovered during her years researching the chimps in Gombe. We knew augmented reality would be the best way to connect audiences to this emotionally powerful experience and help them imagine what it could have been like for Jane all those years ago.
A great product is nearly useless if its applications aren’t fully realized. In our case, we knew the hardware was very capable and reliable, but for the AR experience to be complete, we needed to deliver realistic-looking chimpanzees that could run in real-time with fully tracked movement in a real space. In order to achieve this, we developed the software simultaneously with the hardware so that the design of each could inform the other.
Our media team developed the chimpanzee assets and animations, and our interactive team combined the AR headset and game development technologies to achieve the final look of the content.
Finally, we had to integrate everything onsite at the venue. Over the course of a few days, we rigorously tested the product under the various “show” conditions. During this process, we were able to make our final software adjustments to improve stability and the overall guest experience.
Even after the exhibition had opened and our product was in the hands of actual guests, our work on Falcon’s Vision® wasn’t done. This is only the first iteration. We’ll be paying close attention to the data and feedback so we can improve upon it in the future.
This has been a quick peek into our methodology for developing new products. With our talented designers and developers tapping into every resource available, I have no doubt we will continue delivering unparalleled immersive media experiences that utilize our world-class, game-changing products.