A Case for Sustainable Theme Parks Beyond COVID-19

Image credit: iStockphoto/exithamster

COVID-19 knocked the world for a loop. Theme parks across the globe shut their gates to otherwise bustling troupes of euphoric people. Rides came to a grinding halt; shows and attractions were suspended. Entertainment spots did their best to reopen cautiously, under controlled capacity, implementing safe distancing measures and manual checks. However, adapting to the pandemic-normal calls for a lot more.

An important takeaway from the plunging amusement park footfalls and dent in profits has been to leverage technology to prepare for a safe and pleasant visitor experience. For a viable solution to keep the fun and fantasy of theme parks through the pandemic and beyond, the alchemy of AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) is just the solution.

AI and IoT tech with ‘Pods’ and UWB tags

I propose a viable solution backed by what is termed the ‘pod’ concept. For purposes of easy classification and safety, a family or a group visiting the theme park would be called a ‘pod.’ As a result, every member of this group would become a ‘pod member.’ This concept of pods and pod members helps with tracking and safe distancing of visitors and prevents intermingling and cross-infection between pods. 

A blend of the pod concept and wearable IoT technology would facilitate perennial tracking of pod members on their geographical location and movement. Of all the technologies that could be implemented for wearables, the most precise is the Ultra-wide Band (UWB), with a high degree of efficacy and the ability to trace any location with a 10 cm accuracy. Compared to other similar technologies, such as the RFID and BLE, UWB is more spatially-aware and best suited for a theme park setting.

Unlike the others, UWB works at exceedingly high frequencies over a wide range in unrestricted settings, making it highly accurate and sensitive to directional and spatial data. It is remarkably adaptable, used for simultaneous data transmission and positioning of multiple users, and could operate on low power for prolonged periods, making it the most sustainable IoT solution.

This provides the setting to reopening theme parks in a significantly safe manner: with a combination of analytics from instantaneous UWB data collection, touch-free voice-enabled sensors and scanners across the park, and CCTV cameras and other devices from all over the venue.  

A safe ride despite COVID-19  

The theme park journey starts with booking tickets. While touch-free fever and mask detection technology would be mandated at all parks’ entry points, UWB-based wearables would significantly improve the entry process. Thermal imaging combined with video analytics and AI techniques would make for a robust system to identify individuals, record their body temperature, and check for masks.

Each pod member would receive a sterilized wearable UWB tag along with the ticket as part of the ticketing process. The voice-enabled contactless ticket vending machine would help prevent cross-contagion and assist visually challenged visitors. Automation would reduce the need for personnel at the entrance and front office, creating a demand for skilled back-end resources to manage dispense, recover, sterilize, recharge the wearables, and maintain the network components.

Not just allowing queue-free entry, the UWB tags would also do away with scanning barcodes while keeping track of visitor traffic in real-time. Data relayed from the tags would be used to determine the wait periods at different rides and attractions. UWB tech would also help purchase and configure storage locker facilities for pods’ personal belongings during their park visit. These tags could also be scanned for touchless locking and unlocking lockers with contactless access crucial in parks with heavy-touch surfaces and high footfall.

Further, a theme park mobile app would allow for an overall pleasant visitor experience, supplementing the park trip with broad-based end-to-end information. The app would relay real-time information on traffic and wait time at all the rides and attractions, with instant analytics drawn from the UWB data. With a recommended itinerary and route provided by the app, pod members can zero-in on the rides most appropriate to them, avoiding extended queues and cliquey groups while also keeping up with safety protocols.

The app would also give synchronic information on crowd levels on a sitemap so that pods could decide the spots to avoid.  If pod members decide to separate and visit different parts of the theme park, combining the UWB tag and the theme park app could assist them with their independent courses. This could be done while keeping track of one another until they are ready to meet again at the end of their mutually exclusive trips around the park.

The UWB tags’ data bolsters the communication between the data points dotting the park and the park app. To protect visitor health and make an enjoyable outing, all theme park experience features need to be connected.

For example, the theme park app could allow pod members to indicate their preferences for products available at various stores within the theme park, prebook their visit and shopping period, and use the wayfinding feature to locate those stores. On the way, the app gathers data from the UWB tags to track and reveal visitor count at the various merchandise stores. If crowd levels were higher than permitted, pod members could postpone their shopping until the crowd disperses. 

Likewise, the app would list real-time information of available seating at cafés and restaurants across the park and allow for food to be pre-ordered. Locations of and crowd levels at washrooms and rest areas could also be checked in advance so that families, particularly those with children, have a trouble-free experience using the amenities.

Safely Back on the Roller Coaster 

My recommendations could be executed in phases, considering that any significant transformation takes time to adopt. The UWB technology might require a considerable initial investment. But with smartphones soon to provide UWB sensors, this solution would be sustainable and cost-effective in the long run.

Inputs from the theme park app tied together with data from video footage from across the park can help personalize the theme park experience over time. It could also meet the needs that are more important to visitor satisfaction, health, and loyalty, reassuring them of safe and minimal-infection enjoyment.

An earlier version of this article was published here.

Vinod Bijlani, a thought leader in data science, AI and IoT, wrote this article. He leads the AI and IoT Practice for HPE. He is primarily a technologist passionate about creating, finding machine learning and AI solutions that will move humanity and the environment forward. He has contributed to the design and implementation of smart city projects and established intelligent public transportation and traffic ecosystems in India, Singapore, and the U.S. He also has over 22 years of experience in creating solutions and is a distinguished inventor with 25 patents in AI and ML technologies. Bijlani envisions a radically safer, healthier, and more sustainable planet with the democratization of AI, Industry 5.0, and 5G technologies.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CDOTrends. Image credit: iStockphoto/exithamster; Illustration: Vinod Bijlani