Shake, Rattle, and Roll 'Em: Theaters Add Motion Simulation

`MOM is waiting for you upstairs," says a sign in Jordan's Furniture in Avon, Mass. But don't expect a motherly embrace.

MOM stands for Motion Odyssey Movie, a 48-seat simulation theater where seats move vigorously as the scene on the four-story screen changes from falling off a skyscraper to a hair-raising drive on the edge of a cliff.

"I closed my eyes several times," during a roller coaster sequence, one viewer says as he loosens his safety belt with a sigh of relief at the end of the show.

"We wanted to do something fun," says the furniture store's co-owner Barry Jordan, explaining the $2.5 million investment.

Since its opening on Mother's Day 1992, more than 400,000 people have visited the theater, Mr. Jordan says. The store charges $3 per child and $4 per adult for viewing the four-minute action thriller. Jordan's Furniture donates most of its ticket revenues to charities. But the publicity from MOM has increased furniture sales by 30 to 50 percent a month over the previous year, Jordan says. Despite a slow economy, "our business is through the roof," he says.

MOM was designed and installed by Omni Films International Inc. of Sarasota, Fla. Omni makes wide-screen systems that project images up to six stories high and wider than a tennis court, as well as three-dimensional images and motion simulators. It also produces and licenses 70 millimeter films. Wide-screen systems are used in amusement and theme parks, planetariums, museums, and science centers worldwide. Omni generated $10.6 million in sales last year, up from $7.5 million in 1991.

Eighty percent of these sales were overseas, many in Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

Wide-screen systems and motion-simulator theaters are popular in these countries because of the lack of theme parks, says Fitz-Edward Otis, Omni's vice president of sales. For every 10 million people, there are 0.3 theme parks in Asia, compared to 0.7 amusement parks in Europe and 1.3 in the United States.

`THE overseas markets have been much more aggressive in accepting this new kind of entertainment," says Roy Aaron, chief executive officer of Showscan Corporation, another producer of large-format films and simulation theaters in Culver City, Calif. In 1987 Showscan installed one of its first simulators in Lotte World in South Korea. The theater attracts 3,000 riders a day.

Meanwhile, Omni is not overlooking the US market, Otis says. Like Jordan's Furniture, some regional shopping malls use simulation theaters to draw customers, he says. Last year the firm installed a motion theater called "Mystery Mine Ride" at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., the largest indoor shopping mall in the country.

Motion theaters "are big-ticket items," says Mr. Aaron, indicating that a 50-seat motion-simulator could cost $1 million. The cost includes hydraulically actuated motion seats, a computer control unit to synchronize seat movements with the film, plus sound and projection systems.

Instead of building a roller coaster in a theme park that costs several million dollars, "we can closely duplicate the experience for less money," Otis says. By charging $3 to $7 for a ticket, a theater operator can recoup its initial investment within 12 to 24 months, Otis adds.

Aaron says the resolution of Showscan's film image is five to six times sharper than High Definition Television. Currently Showscan is working with Sony Corporation to convert its 70 mm film for use in Sony's HDTV system.

The motion simulator is going to change the face of the movie theater in the near future, Aaron says. "The movie theater exhibitors are now showing a lot more interest in simulation to bring people back into their theaters."

In the near future people will be able to have a simulation theater in their own living rooms, Otis predicts. In front of a giant TV screen, they could have a two-seat simulator system that moves with the flow of the the movie.

Omni carries about 35 films in its library. Each three- to five-minute film costs $35,000 to $100,000 a year to lease.

"It is a very good length because it gives the theater operator the opportunity to move audiences through many times an hour," Aaron says. "If it is much longer, it begins to be too intense" for the audience.

But viewers of all ages are enjoying the theater.

"Grandpas and grandmas who have never ridden a roller coaster in their lives ride our motion simulator," Otis says. "They come out of there sweating as if they had been on a real roller coaster."

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