Borg Yesterday: New Star Trek Thrill Ride in Las Vegas


As Las Vegas moves from dependence on families to a hip, younger crowd, the opportunities for themed entertainment are changing once again. Where better to turn than to the universally recognized Star Trek franchise…again? While Star Trek: The Experience has been luring Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike into the Las Vegas Hilton since 1998, it was time for something new, exciting, and maybe even a little scary.

Now it's the Starfleet's mortal enemy, the Borg, that get into the act with Star Trek: Borg Invasion 4D (also at the Hilton). “Originally, there were two identical attractions,” confides Electrosonic's Chris Conte who consulted with Paramount on the new audiovisual and control system design for the Borg 4D attraction. Electrosonic was responsible for designing and installing all video and control systems, while the engineering staff at Star Trek: The Experience renovated and installed the audio system.

The installation took place in the Star Trek: The Experience space. “We re-purposed a portion of the existing attraction, so there were physical restrictions that required a thoughtful approach to the design,” explains Paramount Parks vice president of production David Thornton. “We wanted to differentiate the new experience from the old, so we almost exactly reversed the scale in each beat of the show: transition corridors that had been large were reduced; shuttlecraft that had been tight were enlarged. Our guests hold us to the highest standards of authenticity, so that's always a major space planning and design driver. We really want to deliver an authentic and coherent experience for the fan, while not excluding those who might not be exactly students of Star Trek.”

Encounters with the Borg are dangerous; that's one of the reasons that the Borg was chosen for the new attraction. “This time, we're telling a vastly different story, one that's less safe, more immersive, and required that we touch all the senses,” Thornton explains. “In 4D, the images are overwhelming, the sound compelling, and we're able to physically reach out and touch the guest.”

Key to the economics of the project was the reuse of gear from Star Trek: The Experience, and one of the first logical places that the technology design team looked for reliable gear was the audio system. The speakers, some of which have new drivers installed, have been in service since 1998 are primarily from JBL and EAW. They range in size from small point sources (EAW UB 12s) to large 6' multi-cluster boxes. They were a prime candidate for Borg 4D, as were the Crown amplifiers and Peavy media matrix system, which controls the audio routing and signal processing.

Although the Peavy Media Matrix was retrofitted, the show control system is brand new. “The original attraction used a Triad control system that's outdated today,” explains Conte. Instead of the Triad system, the attraction uses the Ethernet-based Electrosonic ESCAN Show Control. “Essentially, all the audio and video devices in the attraction are tied into an audiovisual network that was installed. All of the control commands, special effects triggers, and so on are communicated through network control.” The previous system relied heavily on copper cable; a network control system does not. “The new system has radically reduced the cable infrastructure in the building; it's really the wave of the future for all control systems.”

Something Goes Terribly Wrong

The action in Borg 4-D starts in a 15' corridor where patrons are electronically “scanned” (via lighting and sound effects), and a pre-produced video of their body images is shown on a 42" Zenith plasma display as they board the “space station” Copernicus. From there, “Starfleet officers” take them to the Orientation Chamber where the focus is a 6' high × 8' wide Stewart rear projection screen at the front of the room. “All of the video on site is brand new,” Conte explains. “Originally, we used Pioneer laser disc players; that technology's now obsolete. Instead, we are now using hard disk-based video players.” An Electro-sonic MS9200 HD Player was used, which is essentially an HD MPEG-2 video player.

The Starfleet officers chat in real time with the doctor on the view screen; the doctor is, of course, pre-recorded MPEG-2 video projected onto the RP screen using a Sanyo HD projector. It's here where the doctor explains the results of the body scans: some patrons have DNA that is genetically resistant to the Borg assimilation, which is a highly desirable trait indeed. “Then, like all classic theme park attractions, we're going along and then something goes terribly wrong,” Conte comments.

The Copernicus is suddenly under attack by the Borg, and the view screen image changes from that of the doctor to the Borg ship, which is now battling the Copernicus. “We return fire and hit the Borg cube. There's no significant damage and the cube fires. The orientation chamber is plunged into darkness,” reports Rock Hall, chairman of the special effects firm Technifex.

Patrons feel the shots from the Borg cube, thanks to the audio system and a few special effects tricks. “There's a very dynamic surround sound system with tremendous sub bass in the orientation room,” Hall says, “but more importantly, we provided Guitammer ButtKicker 2 low frequency drivers that vibrate the floor. Every time there's a big explosion on the ship, you feel it through your feet. ButtKickers are amazingly flexible. You can actually decrease or increase the amplitude and control the vibration in the floor.”

Once the Borg have taken over the station, the Starfleet officers lead the guests to safety amid smoke and flickering red alert lights. Guests make their way into the Grand Corridor, a large hallway that's approximately 30' wide and 130' long, which is just a short distance to the cargo vessel where guests will make their escape. The corridor is hazy, since there has been a battle to keep the station out of Borg control. “We used a Le Maitre water-based hazer and a Le Maitre variable speed fan,” reports Hall. “For many years, haze was done with an oil base or an oil cracker, and the long-term effects of breathing that kind of atmosphere isn't good. It's not a problem for the guests if it's oil based, but there are actors in there every day, and you've got to be concerned about their health.”

The action continues as patrons make their way down the Grand Corridor; at one point, they see the Borg laser beams above their heads and hear their approaching footsteps in the overhead catwalk. “In this space, there are a couple of EAW SB180 sub bass speakers placed in their original location as well as some side wall JBL Control 1s for the background noise, and more JBL Control 1s as point source speakers overhead that simulate the Borg walking on the catwalk,” Conte explains. “That audio follows you down the Grand Corridor, so you actually hear them walk from one end of the corridor to the other.”

Phasers and Lasers

While the Borg are in the catwalk, patrons can see the red laser beam atop their heads. In the entertainment industry lasers are regulated and are used under very strict circumstances, which was a challenge for Hall and his Technifex team, since the lasers shine down on the guests below. “For you to be able to shine a laser at someone, it has to have a very small wattage, around .5 millwatts,” Hall comments. “One of the problems that we had is that even with a laser pointer, the wattage is too high.” Technifex eventually found an ultra low wattage laser that ran off a 9-V source that fit the bill; there are three of them in the ceiling area of the dark and frightening Grand Corridor. The lasers themselves were put on motorized gimbals then scanned back and forth, giving the illusion that there are actual Borg up in the ceiling.

As guests approach the end of the Grand Corridor, another Borg appears and a shootout ensues. Not just a shootout, a Star Trek shootout using phaser rifles. “We needed to build a phaser rifle to shoot at the Borg,” Hall says. “It needed to have a beam that came out of it that was super, super bright, and it would be illegal for us to use an actual laser.”

Creating a phaser effect for a film is entirely different than creating it for a themed attraction. “We needed something that was dynamic enough that would really make a statement, it needed to be the right color and it had to look like a phaser beam,” explains Hall. The key to his solution was light. Not from a laser, but somewhere else entirely. “We built the rifles with a special light source in them that's actually used by the military; essentially, they're industrial strength flashlights with a xenon arc lamp in them. If you take the optics in front of a lamp with a filament in it, that filament creates a shape that you can only make go so small because of the size of the filament. The arc is a tiny spot of light, so we can put the optics in front of that to narrow it down to a really tight beam, almost simulating a laser.” The beam in the phaser rifle is 1” in diameter and can project 80', just like a real Star Trek phaser.

There's a shootout with the Borg and he is hit squarely in the chest; this time, he's hit using a phaser. “The phaser uses the same kind of beam as the rifle did, but since the phaser is such a tiny little thing, we built the special lensed lighting system into the wall of the nearby turbo lift,” Hall explains. “When the officer holds the phaser up in position, it looks like the light is coming from the phaser, when in reality, it's coming from the wall.”

When the phaser hits the Borg, he adapts. “We used electroluminescent wire, it's used a lot in airports, on the runways,” Hall says. “It may not be super bright, but the light wavelength is such that it can be seen for many, many miles.” The electroluminescent wire, which comes in a variety of colors, is also flexible and battery powered. Technifex simply wove it into the costume breastplate, added some LEDs and created a very realistic effect.

Safe at Last

After the Borg attacks another crewmember, the door leading to the safety of the cargo vessel is finally opened. Guests stream into the cargo vessel, which is actually a highly themed theatre that seats 48. The pedestal seats are modified standard theatre seats, and the modifications are what bring the 4D into the experience because they literally poke guests, create the feeling of acceleration, and even give an “ants in your pants” sensation, all courtesy of the special effects wizards at Technifex. There are also stereo speakers in the headrest, which is also home to a spray system in the seat back, which can, when required, “sneeze” on guests. The theatre rests on a 45,000-pound pneumatic motion floor that's air bag based, that can move 1” in every direction.

Walking into the shuttle bay/theatre, guests see a small 16' wide × 9' high view port that gives them a look into outer space. The shuttle takes off and, instead of an easy ride to safety, the shuttle encounters the Borg cube. “The Borg have a cutting torch; they basically trap your vehicle and cut away the front of the ship with their green cutting torch,” Conte explains. The entire front wall of the shuttle/theatre is stripped away, and soon, space is visible on the 35' wide opening at the front of the vehicle (a 35' wide Stewart 3D projection screen).

“The cool thing about it is that when you walk in, the entire front wall is digital video projection. Guests think it's a fixed front wall — it looks like one big set,” Conte remarks. However, it's not. “It's a highly advanced form of picture in picture, except that the largest part of the picture is actually a digital faux set. This is the advantage of incredibly still digital technology.”

The clear, high resolution and stable image is courtesy of two Christie Digital CP2000 Cinema Series projectors that have a 2048×1080 pixel resolution. Overhead, there's another 3D projection screen, mimicking a space moon-roof, which uses two Sanyo UF15 HD 1600×1200 projectors. “The overhead screen is ancillary, but content on the front screen and the overhead screen match pretty well and they look darn good,” Conte asserts.

The shuttle/theatre is also an audio rich environment. “We designed a traditional left, center, right, surround left, surround right and overhead system in there with lots of subwoofers and ButtKickers,” Conte explains. The Butt-Kickers are new, but the primary system is from the original attraction. The speakers were refurbished by Len Turner's engineering staff and the only thing that was added were new JBL high frequency drivers and horns for the left, center, and right speaker clusters.

DVS HD digital video players are used to play the film “in sync” and “uncompressed” onto the main screen, which takes patrons into the Borg Cube. “Uncompressed video is the best picture possible,” Conte notes. “The image overhead is played on two Electrosonic MS9200 MPEG-2 (compressed) HD video player. The film itself features Reality Vision 3D animation and features the first digital 3D hand held Steadicam shot.” Firms involved in the groundbreaking 3D film include Threshold Digital Research Labs, Pace Technologies, and IBM Media and Entertainment. “For the first time, we've taken advantage of the all-digital production capabilities available today. There's no better looking 3D anywhere,” asserts Thornton.

The show can be seen multiple times a day at the Hilton; critics and fans are giving it rave reviews. No word on what the Borg thinks, however.

Production Staff for Star Trek: Borg Invasion 4D

Project Coordinator:
Janet de Palva

Show Director:
Robert DeLapp

Attraction Technical Director:
John Erickson

Operations Manager:
Joy Morais

VP, Production, Paramount Parks:
David Thornton

Manager of Engineering:
Len Turner

VP, Construction, Paramount Parks:
Terry Turner

Technical directions and audio, video, and control systems integration:
Chris Conte, Ken Wheatley, and Steve Calver, Electronic Systems Inc.

Electrical engineering:
Ken Lucci, Lucci & Associates

Structural engineering:
Farro Tofighi, Fil Apanany, Martin & Peltyn, Inc.

Design and art direction:
Sevak Petrosian, Nextep Design

Mechanical engineering:
Joseph Incorvaia, Paul Bennett Partnership, Inc.

Construction supervising & theming:
Pete Menshing, Theming Solutions, Inc.

Architectural design:
Richard Youngblood, YWS Architects, Ltd.