Hailed as “the year of virtual reality”, companies invested a whopping US$3.5bn (€3.1bn, £2.7bn) in technology globally in 2016. According to research by Goldman Sachs, virtual reality (VR) startups alone experienced a 347 per cent increase in funding compared with the previous year.
Meanwhile, Deloitte also estimated that 2016 was the first “billion-dollar year” for VR, with consumer sales on hardware reaching US$700m (£547m, €644m) and a further US$300m (£234m, €276m) being spent on content. Deloitte identified VR as one of six major digital technology trends for consumer-facing businesses.
It was also a year in which VR and its varieties – augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) – truly entered the public’s awareness, thanks to the unprecedented success of Pokémon Go.
ONE STEP AHEAD
Virtual reality is likely to become ever more widespread and popular, putting visitor attractions operators under increased pressure to keep ahead of the curve when updating their offering.
“At-home” entertainment providers have already upped the stakes with their VR offering in the past two years, and a high-level of VR is now available at home through the likes of Oculus Rift, Sony Playstation, HTC and Samsung.
The Global VR & AR Industry Report by RnRMarketResearch forecasts that by 2020, the VR sector will be worth US$30bn (£22.7bn, €26.7bn) and the AR market an even greater US$90.8bn (£68.9bn, €80.9bn). It’s likely that large technology companies will even begin muscling in on a sector so far dominated by smaller, pioneering tech companies.
“Large companies will gradually build the perfect VR ecosystem,” the report suggests. “PC VR products, primarily games and movies, will be targeted at expert players and game enthusiasts. Mobile VR products will gradually move into business fields like education and tourism. As the number of content development teams increases, the scope of VR will broaden.”
There’s already plenty of evidence – Japanese tech giant Sony has filed a patent for a new kind of AR technology, while other behemoths such as Google and Microsoft have launched into the market with their Tango and HoloLens products. Apple has also been considering its line of attack; reports suggest that CEO Tim Cook is serious about AR development in the near future.
SERVING THE VISITOR
As well as its use in rides and exhibitions, VR can be used to enhance the overall experience of a visitor attraction. Crowd management, ticketing, queuing, retail and F&B operations are all areas where VR – and especially AR and MR – can offer innovative (and potentially fun) solutions. In fact, recent research suggests that attractions overlooking this trend might be doing themselves – and their visitors – a disservice.
The latest edition of the Global Theme Park Barometer survey, published by Omnico Group in November 2016, shows that a majority of consumers in leading economies such as the UK, USA and China expect VR and MR to play a big part in the theme park experience over the next three years. It also showed that consumers are very aware of the technology available.
“With so much innovation in the home, it is hardly surprising that visitors now expect theme parks and attractions to adopt cutting-edge technology to provide enhanced experiences and levels of service,” says Mel Taylor, CEO of Omnico.
“VR and other types of technology will not only provide new forms of entertainment, they will assist visitors with finding their way around and help with queue reduction and crowd management.”
ADOPT A ROBOT
Another technology gaining popularity among attractions operators is robotics. Robotic arm technology is already being used at theme parks, driven by companies such as Kuka, Dynamic Attractions and RoboCoaster.
In fact, this trio worked together to create perhaps the most high-profile robotic arm ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, at three Universal Studios in the USA and Japan.
In the museums and science centre sector, animatronics have long been used to bring exhibits such as dinosaurs to life.
As the technology develops, there are signs that attractions are keen to adopt the use of robots in numerous innovative ways. In 2016, the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London featured a garden pavilion fabricated entirely by robots, while Tate Britain installed four robots in its galleries during closing hours. The Tate robots can be steered remotely over the internet by people at home to view pieces of art at night.
The use of robotics might not be limited to ride technology and exhibits for long. Service robots are expected to surpass the industrial robot market in the not-too-distant future, which could have interesting implications for an industry heavily reliant on seasonal staff.
According to figures from market research and strategy consulting firm Global Market Insights, the service robotics market is estimated to be worth US$21bn (£16bn, €19bn) by 2022, with an annual growth rate of 17.8 per cent from 2015 to 2022.
Service robots could offer interesting opportunities for customer care, security, hospitality and information services throughout the attractions industry.
DRONES FLYING HIGH
Drone technology has made giant leaps in the past decade – and is increasingly being deployed at attractions. Theme park giant Disney made headlines recently when it filed patents for a new type of drone for its famous end-of-the-day shows. A 10-second teaser, aired by Disney, showed a Christmas tree seemingly formed out of stars, with what looks to be drone technology creating pictures in the night sky.
Hot on Disney’s heels, rival park operator Universal also filed a patent for a new drone covering “special effects techniques”, including water, scent cannons, compressed air blasts, steam blasts and theatrical smoke.
Drones are also being used to great effect in marketing. In the UK, Merlin Entertainments teamed up with drone footage specialist Elevate and Leor Video Productions to shoot “never before seen” footage of its Thorpe Park theme park. The video, showing many of its park rides in action from all angles, went viral and resulted in numerous media outlets including it in their news broadcasts.
The biggest obstacles currently posed against widespread commercial use of drones are regulatory, mainly for security and safety concerns. In the USA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently limits commercial drones to a select few industries and applications, such as aerial surveying in the mining, agricultural, oil and gas sectors. Similar regulations exist in the EU and UK.
As the reliability and safety of drones improve, through the introduction of technologies like geo-fencing and collision avoidance, it’s likely that regulators will become more comfortable with larger numbers of drones taking to the skies – and above visitors at attractions.
As technologies advance, predictions of what lies ahead are increasingly exciting.
Atari founder and Modal VR co-founder Nolan Bushnell predicts that in the next decade, wetware (computer technology enabling the brain to link to artificial systems) will be commonplace in society. Nolan foresees that wetware will be able to create messages through chemical and electrical influences, with human brain cells acting as computer systems.
“In 10 years I think it’s going to be normal for people to have some kind of a brain implant,” Bushnell explains. “You’ll be able to augment your memory, communicate with each other and do other things like that. This will be done by combining wetware, not just hardware.”