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March 5, 2004

Vegas Steels For Borg Invasion

By Steve Friess

LAS VEGAS -- Simulated-motion thrill rides are about to boldly go where no simulated-motion thrill rides have gone before.

That is, beyond sticking you into a box and brutishly shaking it while showing footage intended to make you think you're careening over a cliff or crashing into a wall.

In Borg Invasion 4D, a Star Trek: Voyager-themed adventure ride opening March 18 at the Las Vegas Hilton, part of Star Trek: The Experience, the room itself never actually moves. And yet, thanks to both a new approach to filming 3-D footage -- used in the ride's film, the world's first 3-D movie both shot and projected entirely digitally -- and theater chairs loaded with gizmos that poke, prod and contort in innovative ways, viewers are "about to have the most immersive, the most intense simulated experience available anywhere," said David Thornton, vice president of production for Paramount Parks, which owns the ride.

Public relations hype? Sure. But Paramount Parks has plunged untold "tens of millions of dollars" into Borg Invasion to make it so edgy and realistic that small children and the faint of heart are explicitly discouraged from riding.

"There are things you can't do in a traditional film projection, and we're doing them all," Thornton said.

The 15-minute ride's premise is similar to most of the others in this genre: You're part of a crowd on a vessel that somehow gets taken over by evil forces. You go on a perilous adventure aimed at returning to your original location and then get ushered to an exit that lands you into a gift shop. In this case, a Star Trek ship is taken over by Borgs, a humanoid life form bent on assimilating humans via a gruesome surgical conversion.

Yet unlike other such rides, you're not merely staring out the front window of the ship but, rather, at times you see the action as if you personally are the protagonist. In one stretch, in fact, viewers wearing 3-D glasses wind through the tight hallways of the Borg headquarters and feel as though they are about to undergo a surgical procedure that will convert them into Borgs, film director Ty Granaroli said.

The convincing video was made possible by a pair Sony F-900 digital video cameras. They are small and light enough to be affixed to a small rig, which keeps them steady, and then attached to a person who can move through tight spaces. Before this, 3-D films -- which require pairs of cameras in order to film two images that overlay to create the picture's realistic depth -- used 35-mm or 70-mm cameras so large and bulky that they could only record big-picture shots, said George Johnsen, whose Threshold Digital Research Labs provided the technology to make the movie.

Johnsen utilized the same cameras used by director James Cameron for his recently released Titanic-related Imax picture, Ghosts of the Abyss, although Cameron did not attach the rig to a person.

Watching the new 3-D movie will be easier and less disconcerting as well, Thornton said, thanks to the use of a Christie CP 2000H projector, a $500,000 machine that eliminates some of the shaky, flickering qualities that plague other 35-mm projectors. Current 3-D projection often leaves viewers dizzy or tired because the mechanical projector shakes the film and prevents the two images from laying on one another properly at all times, a problem eliminated in the digital world where the images are not physical bits of film but data files that can be placed with greater exactitude.

"3-D has always been a gimmick and passť," Johnsen said. "This makes the images look more like you're there. It's a new camera system that's more like the way the human eyes work together."

The theater's 48 gray-cloth armchairs are similarly complex devices. Each, at a cost of $25,000, has new means of making the viewer feel simulated perceptions, including air bladders that fill up and release against various parts of the back to give the sensation of speeding up or slowing down. It's technology the U.S. military uses now for its simulated training exercises, Thornton said. The seats also have ways of shaking and poking the people sitting in them, and have individual surround-sound speakers.

"If I added up everyone else's motion seats together (in other simulated thrill rides around the nation), they still wouldn't do as much as these do," Thornton said.

That would include the Borg Invasion's sister attraction, Klingon Encounter, a wildly popular, though now more primitive, thrill ride that opened at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1998. That ride has greeted 3 million riders. There are some similarities, including the presence of real actors involved in the plot, and a film that features popular Star Trek characters.

Johnsen said he expects Borg Invasion to open the door to more advanced 3-D and digital technology to be used in major theatrical film releases, too.

"The thing about theme parks is that these attractions have to sit there for five years or more, so it has to be ahead of the technology curve," he said. "It has to be shorter than the average movie but also cooler than the average movie. The things we try in theme parks end up in the theaters in three to five years' time."

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