Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Theme Parks are High-Tech Fantasylands


Theme parks have always been hotbeds of leading-edge technology. I remember growing up in southern California, not far from Disneyland, and marveling at the technology that we would see whenever we would go there.
Beyond the roller coasters, two that I remember from years ago include the videophone (now commonplace, but seemingly space age for decades) and the flying saucers, essentially bumper cars that floated magically on a cushion of air.
During the February school break, I had the pleasure of going with my family to the resorts in Orlando, Florida, for a few days.
Of course, the theme parks never disappoint, and Disney was at the top of the heap in terms of WOW! technology, two of which I will describe here.
First, Disney has changed the way one gains park entrance. Instead of relying on just tickets and/or magnetic stripes, they are using biometrics. Essentially, the first time you go through the turnstile, you have to register your Disney ticket card that has an RFID (radio-frequency ID) chip in it and put your index finger on a small glowing pad.
On subsequent days and at different parks, you simply wave your card over the RFID reader, then place your index finger on the pad, a green light glows and you're in the park.
Of course, all of the machines and readers have a very space-agey look and an appropriate amount of glowing to make them quite cool.
I did notice that both my wife and I had to register using our fingers, as did our 15-year-old daughter, but not my 8-year-old son. Clearly, there are some regulations about ages of children and what biometrics are allowed to be recorded.
I sometimes wonder why these technologies are enabled. I didn't see that they necessarily sped up getting into the parks, but I can imagine that they prevent people from giving their park passes to others.
All in all, the new ticketing system worked well. There were plenty of Disney people around helping those who had difficulties and to answer questions, but the lines moved smoothly.
Second, I was very impressed with some of the live-action video technology we saw at the Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo attractions. What looked like a digitally animated cartoon was, in fact, live action. Each show was customized with the characters on the screen interacting with people in the audience, using their names, describing their outfits.
Clearly, there was someone who was talking while the animation was being created in real time. I understand how it works, but haven't yet figured out how it would be done.
But that is one of the reasons why I like to go to theme parks. I like to see the new technologies. For my kids, they just want to get splashed on a roller coaster. Works for us all.
Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 3 April 2013.

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