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Motion-based Simulators: Faking Out The Competition

Where traffic is the name of the game, capsules and theater rides move to the fast lane.

Twenty years ago, retail and adventure were as far apart as a North American city and a South American rainforest. However, thanks to commercial development of motion-based simulators, adventure is as close as the nearest shopping center.

From air combat and whitewater rafting to futuristic and prehistoric travel, simulation rides are breaking into retail through themed restaurants and entertainment zones. They are produced to appeal to a broad spectrum of consumers. Furthermore, according to simulator manufacturers, the software used to create the adventures can be rotated frequently to ensure repeat business.

Attractive tenants Once used exclusively for aviation and naval training, motion-based simulators combine movable seating, audio and film/high-definition video to simulate a real-time, sensory experience. According to Vito Sanzone, vice president of marketing for Burbank, Calif.-based iWERKS Entertainment, shopping center owners "almost never" purchase simulators, but they are leasing space to entertainment-based tenants that incorporate the rides as part of their offerings.

"We sell the simulators to individuals that lease space -- usually a temporary tenant -- in a shopping center," explains Don Wenzinger, national sales manager for Doron Precision Systems Inc., Binghamton, N.Y. "Or a family entertainment center will develop a good-sized location in a shopping center, and they'll put one of our simulators in that location."

"The mall is interested in leasing space, not running attractions," notes Sanzone. "But malls have been favorable toward operators that bring in [simulator-type] attractions."

"Simulation on its own is not necessarily a great fit [for shopping centers]," he adds. "But it's proven to be an anchor or main attraction at several entertainment sites. When you group [attractions] together and create an entertainment zone, the results more often than not are very positive."

To illustrate the recent growth of simulators in shopping center settings, Sanzone notes that iWERKS, as well as Culver City, Calif.-based Showscan Entertainment, has contracted with United Artists' Starport for several attractions. Similarly, Regal Cinemas' Funscape concept has brought iWERKS and Showscan on board, in addition to Lakewood, N.J.-based Max-Flight Corp. Sanzone also reports that Dave & Buster's has installed iWERKS simulators in Ontario, Calif.; Bethesda, Md.; and Philadelphia.

"Simulation attractions in and of themselves are not destination-type attractions," says Russell Chesley, vice president of worldwide marketing and sales for Showscan. "They're impulse purchases, and they create part of the overall experience at any given venue.

"In a retail setting, their advantage is certainly as part of a greater entertainment center," he adds. "It makes sense for simulators to be part of a mix."

Flights and fantasy Ranging from two-seat capsules to 300-seat theaters, simulators target a public that has become increasingly value-oriented, media-savvy and difficult to engage, says Chris Chaddock, sales director for Sussex, England-based Camber Entertainment. "Gone are the days when you could just entertain kids with a [simulated] downhill skiing trip or a ride on the back of a motorcycle," he says. "They can do that in real life.

"This is real escapism," he continues. "You can go back in time; you can go forward in time; you can go to another planet; and you can do surreal things [combining video and music]."

"Typically, these are adventures that you might not try because they're risky in real life, but in a simulated environment, they're safe," adds Chesley.

The visual component of simulation -- generated through film, video or computer animation -- can make the difference between an attraction that flies and one that crashes and burns, says Sanzone. "If the ride doesn't have [high-quality] software, it's just as good as meaningless," he notes.

"People don't come to see the seat or the screen or the theater or how pretty the ticket box is. They come to see the software," Sanzone says. "If it's a subject that is interesting to them, they will reward that by paying $5 for a ticket; if they're not interested, you've got trouble."

The motion bases, measured in degrees of freedom (DOF), move the rider in sync with the visual image. A ride with three degrees of freedom moves the rider in a roll (side to side), pitch (backwards and forwards) and heave (up and down), explains Chaddock. Six degrees of freedom add surge, sway and yaw to the motion menu.

Although motion adds an extra sensory dimension to the simulation rides, Chaddock, like Sanzone, emphasizes the importance of the software. "There is a lot of what they call DOF envy in the business," he says. "[Manufacturers say], 'Our machine's got six DOF, and yours has only three.' It's [garbage], because the people who ride the machine would never know, as long as you've got a good piece of software."

Broad-based appeal Because of the variety of experiences offered in simulators -- the rides span sports, action and adventure -- manufacturers report that audiences range from young children to seniors. "We have a pretty wide range [of customers]," says Wenzinger.

"We think it's important -- particularly in the shopping center and family-entertainment environment -- to target the family," he explains. "We don't want to scare off the parents and grandparents if they want to ride with their children or grandchildren."

"Our core audience is about 12-years-old to about 30-years-old," says Chesley. "We can attract people well into adulthood, but, typically, it's a teenager and young adult experience."

Frank McClintic, president and chief executive officer for MaxFlight, adds that audience makeup is determined in part by the cost and nature of the experience. "Teenagers are one of our largest segments," he says, "but [the rides] are not inexpensive, and we've found through testing that the people who are going on our simulators and who have the deepest pockets are in the 20- to 30-year-old range."

The cost and duration of the rides (typically $5 to $10 for a 10-minute experience) prevent a "hangout" atmos-phere from overtaking the simulator settings, says Chesley. "You buy a ticket; you gather in line; you watch a pre-show; you enter; you have a very intense, short-lived experience that really pumps the adrenaline; and then it's over and you leave," he explains. "There really isn't an opportunity to hang out at a simulation experience."

Theoretically, the broad appeal of simulation rides means that shopping centers can customize their offerings to target consumers, says Chaddock. "You can tune the experience to accommodate the different demographics of people who are there during different times of the day," he notes.

"For example, during the daytime, when kids are in school, there might be older people [at the shopping center], so you need gentler rides with perhaps National Geographical flights around the Grand Canyon," he explains. "During the school leaving hours, you want rides that appeal to younger kids, and then on the weekend, you probably want to aim for that teen group again."

Although Wenzinger suggests that software can be rotated weekly to build repeat business, few entertainment centers adhere to that frequency, says Sanzone. "Some of the major theme parks take one [film] every year, but malls, because they have recurring attendance, usually change out every quarter," he notes. "They'll sign a lease for eight films or six films over the next year and then change them out as necessary to drive new interest and new business."

Capsules vs. theaters As shopping center owners continue to clamor for entertainment-based tenants, simulator manufacturers anticipate a growing market for their products. "The shopping center market is a primary market because we know that some of the big developers will not build a shopping mall without an element of entertainment attached to it or inside it," says Chaddock.

In addition to new construction, simulator manufacturers are optimistic about the opportunity for retrofits. "A lot of centers have small entertainment components -- maybe a small arcade -- that they're upgrading to more of a family entertainment center," says Wenzinger, noting that future simulator sales are likely to grow as shopping centers make these types of renovations.

Because motion-based simulators have typically been associated with theme parks such as Universal Studios or Six Flags Great Adventure, large-scale settings such as regional or superregional malls would appear to be the logical destinations for many of these rides. In fact, manufacturers hope to break into almost all types of shopping centers.

"I think a simulation experience can work in almost any retail setting, as long as a significant number of people come there on a regular basis," says Chesley. Sanzone agrees, adding that strip centers may be the only exception. "I don't think strip centers are going to have the critical mass you need to drive any entertainment center or single attraction," he notes.

Once the decision to add a simulator is made, the choice between capsules and theaters will be based upon traffic, says Chesley. "The line between capsules and larger theaters is almost entirely one of projected attendance," he says. "If the center projects adequate attendance, a theater makes sense; if they're not projecting that kind of attendance, then a capsule makes sense."

What is "adequate attendance?" According to Sanzone, simulation theaters work best in malls that generate at least 5 million visitors per year. "Under that, you're getting into iffy territory," he says.

"My general advice is to [install] the smallest theater that makes sense," adds Chesley. "It's always better to be full and have lines -- a lot of queuing can create a lot of excitement and interest -- than it is to have an empty theater."

According to McClintic, capsules are less expensive than theaters and carry with them a far lower usage rate to reach profitability. However, notes Wenzinger, capsules can be limited by per-unit seating. "You can add more capsules if you need," he says, "but theaters are much more flexible in number of seating."

"The nice thing about capsules is that they are fairly portable," says Chesley. "They really can be put in a lot of different settings. They can be used in kind of a kiosk setting; they can be used in an arcade or adjacent to an arcade; and they can be used in conjunction with other entertainment-type experiences such as a cinema."

In fact, McClintic envisions simulator centers, in which tenants set up groups of simulators to create a club environment. "You'll see them as stand-alone centers where [an operator] opens up and puts 10 units in a mall," he predicts.

In addition to offering individual game play, the simulator centers could organize events in which teams compete against one another, McClintic says. For example, with flight simulators, capsules could be divided into squadrons that battle each other. With networking capabilities, he adds, "you can put a squadron of people in New York up against a squadron of people in Chicago."

'Where the bang is' The relationship between entertainment and retail is destined to be a long one, notes Sanzone. "I think the mall industry has learned its lesson in that inaction will almost drive you out of business," he says. "They know that entertainment, including cinemas and high-tech offerings such as [simulators], is where the bang is right now."

Additionally, the synergy between simulators and shopping centers is not fully tapped, says Chesley. "There are a growing number -- but it's still a small number -- of companies that understand how to operate entertainment in a retail setting," he notes. "I would say that, so far, the people who have had the most experience and best understanding [of the role simulators can play in a shopping center] are the cinema exhibitors.

"They seem to have the quickest understanding of operating a broader scale entertainment concept," he explains. "They also can achieve some economies of scale because of the ability to cross over management and concessions."

"Wherever you put a cinema in a mall, traffic seems to migrate to that end of the mall," notes McClintic. "[Simulators] sort of fit at that end of the mall; we're just one more piece of the [entertainment] puzzle."

Showscan Entertainment Culver City, Calif. Product type: 12-seat capsule Motion base: proprietary and third-party; six DOF Software: proprietary Library: 15 titles Sample titles: Alien Encounter, Whitewater Rafting Initial capital outlay: under $300,000

Product type: 18-seat theater Motion base: proprietary and third-party; six DOF Software: proprietary Library: 27 titles Sample titles: Cosmic Pinball, Dracula's Haunted Castle, Night Race Initial capital outlay: $350,000 to $550,000

Product type: 16- to 300-seat theater Motion base: proprietary and third-party; six DOF Software: proprietary Library: 27 titles Sample titles: Street Luge, Dynamite Train Initial capital outlay: $600,000 to $1,000,000

Doron Precision Systems Inc. Binghamton, N.Y. Product type: 12- to 30-seat capsule Motion base: proprietary; three and four DOF Software: proprietary and third-party Library: 36 titles. Sample titles: Volcano Mine Ride, Glacier Run, Time Gate To Egypt Initial capital outlay: starts at $185,000

Product type: 12- to 120-seat theater Motion base: proprietary; three and four DOF Software: proprietary and third-party Library: 17 titles Sample titles: see above Initial capital outlay: starts at $400,000

iWERKS Entertainment Burbank, Calif. Product type: 24- to 96-seat theater Motion base: proprietary; four degrees of freedom (DOF) Software: proprietary Library: 31 titles Sample titles: Fly With The Blue Angels, Canyon Rapids Initial capital outlay: not available

Product type: 18- to 100-seat theater Motion base: proprietary; three DOF Software: proprietary Library: 31 titles Sample titles: Aliens: Ride At The Speed Of Fright, Dino Island Initial capital outlay: not available

Product type: 16- to 100-seat theater Motion base: proprietary; six DOF Software: proprietary Library: 31 titles Sample titles: RoboCop: The Ride, Tank Slayer Initial capital outlay: not available

Product type: 16-seat theater Motion base: proprietary; three DOF Software: proprietary Library: 31 titles Sample titles: Race With Mario, Supersonic Flight Initial capital outlay: not available

Camber Entertainment Sussex, England division of Camber Corp., Huntsville, Ala. Product type: two-seat, coin-operated capsule Motion base: proprietary; three DOF Software: third-party films; three rides standard Library: 50 titles, sport/adventure/live action Sample titles: not available Initial capital outlay: $75,000

Product type: 14- to 20-seat capsule Motion base: proprietary; three DOF Software: third-party Library: 50 titles, sport/adventure/live action Sample titles: not available Initial capital outlay: $300,000

Product type: seven to 112-seat theater Motion base: proprietary; six DOF Software: third-party Library: 50 titles, sport/adventure/live action Sample titles: not available Initial capital outlay: not available

MaxFlight Corp. Lakewood, N.J. Product type: two-seat capsule Motion base: proprietary; DOF not available Software: proprietary Library: Single ride/roller coaster. Rider programs track with on-site computer to configure track. Initial capital outlay: $120,000

Product type: single-seat capsule Motion base: third-party; DOF not available Software: proprietary Library: Single ride/flight simulation. Initial capital outlay: $85,000

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