Casselberry company hopes to sell sense of touch to theme-parks

Story appeared originally on Orlando Sentinel

Brian Altenbernd leans into his chair, virtual reality goggles affixed to his face.

On his screen, a quiet campground erupts in blue flame, with a fireball coming straight toward him. When it reaches the screen, embedded actuators in his chair’s chest plate pulse, as do others on his seat.

The setup, built by Engineering Acoustics Inc. and shown off by the company’s haptics product manager Altenbern and others at its 6,000-square-foot Casselberry office, is a new effort by the company to compete in the theme park industry.

EAI will show off the technology at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions show in Orlando this week.

“It’s hard to describe haptics with words but the minute they demo it, they almost always get it,” EAI CEO Gary Zets said.

Sharing the appeal of and mechanics behind what’s known as haptic feedback — that is, relayed messages through vibrations or other feedback in devices — does not always come easy for Zets.

Despite his 20-plus years in the field, primarily for defense contractors, he said it can be tough to persuade people who may never have thought about its appeal in their own industries.

But he’s ready to dust off his sales pitch as he tries to sell EAI’s work to the theme park world.

Zets said his company has already landed its technology in a major theme park ride, though he would not say which one.

“We have a shoestring budget, but we have put together a somewhat immersive demo,” Zets said. “But the challenge will be, how do we get people to come to our small booth?”

Zets plans to have employees walk around the 33,00-square-foot trade show floor with a small buzzer, inviting others in attendance to test out haptics.

IAAPA is one of the largest amusement park industry trade shows in the world, last year drawing more than 38,000 registered attendees.

The show often serves as a debut for new rides and experiences for major theme parks, while also providing a venue for new technologies.

“Technology enhancements impact everything from the amount of time someone waits in a queue to how long it takes to be served a meal,” IAAPA Director of Communications Susan Storey said. “Technology also allows for the creation of new experiences and entertainment venues, as well as enhancements to existing or older rides and attractions.”

Haptic-based feedback, at its basic form, has been around for about 10 years and involves interaction that involves the sense of touch.

In technology, it’s often used to intertwine with on-screen movement or video.

The Sony PlayStation 4’s vibrating controllers and the iPhone’s buzzing when a phone call comes in serve as some high-profile examples.

But moving this technology into a market like theme park attractions brings with it a new challenge: creating a sensation that riders don’t notice much

“What you want is for them to not mention it,” said Kyle Reed, associate professor for mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “That means it’s working. If it’s good enough, they will not even talk about it.”

The theme park industry is a long way from where EAI started its work. In the mid-1990s, the company was performing research and development on sonar and underwater acoustics.

A simple thought during that time helped the company start to land work in the defense industry.

“We thought, if we know how to vibrate water, we should know how to do that with skin because the human body is mostly water,” Zets said.

In recent years, greater adoption of powerful mobile phones that have haptic-based feedback has helped EAI’s business. That has led to more experimentation, which helped the company land on amusement parks.

“Expectations have gotten pretty high for these things,” he said of the sensors. He said the growth has been “like going from black and white television to color.”

Engineering Acoustics, Inc.