Q&A: ITEC President & CEO Bill Coan

Bill Coan started his career with Walt Disney Imagineering and for the past 20 years has been president and CEO of ITEC Entertainment Corp. Coan talked to Live Design on the evolution of immersive experiences and the development of new technologies.

Bill Coan
(Bill Coan)

Live Design: As an entertainment industry veteran, what do you think will be the impact of virtual reality and augmented reality on the future of immersive experiences?

Bill Coan: When I grew up in the theme park business, these terms didn’t exist. It could be argued that augmented reality is what we’ve been doing since Walt Disney parks created dark rides, it is really just stretching people’s senses, and has been going on for years. But the way we create these environments is changing—we are doing work now that is stretching the limits of the technology, we can create whole worlds or a person.

For theme parks and large-scale entertainments, VR is more complicated because it needs more of an in-person experience and wearables for someone to become immersed in a virtual world, rather than changing their perception of the real one. At ITEC, we are working on the gamification of people’s experiences. At Universal Studios in Japan, we are putting people through a real immersive experience on Monster Hunt World where they have a backpack and helmet and wand to participate in the experience. (The attraction opened this year and runs through August, participants can walk around and choose weapons to fight Xr monsters. https://www.usj.co.jp/web/en/us)

LD: Why don’t we have more truly interactive experiences at theme parks?

BC: A premium experience is restricted to maybe 100 or 200 guests an hour. The basics of traditional rides require throughput of waiting members of the public, there has to be a training facilitator of some kind, and currently there is still resistance to providing wearables because of the cost and the hygienics. A lot of theme parks are shying away from VR because no one wants to touch something that someone else has and we are not at the point where guests can bring their own headset yet.

The movement towards having people have their own equipment is going to be integral to the success of large-scale entertainments, but the model for that would have to allow plug and play for many different types of wearables. Despite this, I would be surprised if Metaverse-style theme parks don’t start showing up in the next 24 months.  

LD: What is the future of interactive experiences for large-scale audiences?

BC:  I’m confident the Metaverse will emerge alongside the communal, in-person,  experience. Unfortunately, the VR environment is not as social, but the people who have the assets, Sony, Disney, Universal Studio and so on will want a real-world attraction as well as a pay-for area of the Metaverse so guests can go to both, and perhaps having been to one will want to go to the other.

Just like in gaming, where you level up to additional experiences all the time, theme parks have learned to offer premium, VIP experiences. Charge them at the gate, then charge them for VIP experiences throughout.

If someone loves a ride, for instance, and the developer of its site allows it, they may even be able to manipulate that environment in the Metaverse, so instead of just watching, they are participating. Creating more monsters or weapons, for example. The real fans will buy in.

LD: But will people get on the plane to the park anymore?

BC: Definitely. Theme parks offer a more social experience. For instance, retail is making a come back because people want to be in a social environment. Retail environments are offering unique experiences so people will leave their house to buy the same shoes they can buy online. I think [a digital experience] will drive attendance because once the public has a cool experience at home, they will want to go to the real place.  

LD: What has proven to be a game changer in this field?

BC: I don’t think that tech is leading the way, it is the age group and sophistication on the audience side. They are so used to interacting with entertainment. When we first did the Men In Black attraction for Universal Studios, we put a gun in the riders’ hands and the ride just exploded. People loved it. In the past, theme parks had to have the audience catch up with them when they got out in front of the technology, but now the audiences is ahead of it. Live entertainment was always a spectacle but now that is not enough, the user experience must be enhanced. And these audience members spread the word on social media—good or bad.

Interaction can be simple. We’ve done roller coasters where you can pick the music and the color of the car, and it adds to the personalization of the experience. That will continue to grow in theme parks. AR and VR are colliding, so the overall experience provides a bit of both and includes story telling. We can do this for 200 guests an hour, the challenge is to do it for 2000 an hour.

But these experiences are spreading out to the wider world, we are doing projects today that are introducing things that could only be done theme parks ten years. ago. For example, real estate projects that offer immersive entertainment in communal spaces. That is the future, more applications for this technology outside of theme parks.

LD: New tech is an investment and the industry has had a rough couple of years. Is it worth it?

BC: I say this with total respect for what we do in the US, but Asia and the Middle East are spending more money on this than America. Other cultures are not copying the US, they are creating unique applications for the technology and leading the way. Now, I will say that the audience in Asia is a lot bigger in the major cities than in the US. The sheer numbers of people willing to spend the money on premium attractions is greater.

My advice to clients when we propose these things is to look for ways in which they will be payoff, for example, in increased foot fall in large commercial spaces. The developer needs to see a direct line between the project and return on investment. As designers we don’t want to leave them with just a cool product, we want to give them a sustainable platform that offers a variety of different revenue streams. In the future there will be more pop up shows as a special event but also fixed facilities.

LD: What are some projects of note you are working on?

BC: One of the things we are excited about is the Revenge of the Mummy attraction in Singapore—it is a great mix of design and technology in an immersive environment. This is ride attraction tech in a place that didn’t really have it before we got there.

We have giant mummies coming at you and a whole room that is seems to be set on fire. It is immersive but doesn’t require wearables because we want to see these things work whether you have head gear or not.

LD: What should young people interested in a career in entertainment technology be studying?

BC: If I was talking to someone who was 18 years old, I would say find a theatre program and study the tech – we like guys who have theatre arts in their experience because they will see what’s coming next before anyone else. Ten years ago haptics didn’t really have a commercial application but now it is critical to immersive experiences. No one knows what will be next, but if you have a theatre arts background you will see a hole in the market and jump on it.