Matthew DuPlessie loves amusement-park rides. But the former Disney and Universal Studios designer has one hesitation about them, and it's a big one.
"In the best of those rides, the show doesn't know that you're there," Mr. DuPlessie says. "The show doesn't care that you're there."
Out to change the theme-park experience is DuPlessie's company 5W!TS, the pioneer of an attraction so novel it doesn't even have a proper name. DuPlessie calls his live-action brainteaser/museum exhibit/haunted house a "walk-through adventure," and the concept will probably revolutionize the industry.
"I want to give the guest control," says the 28-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineer, who went on to get his MBA from Harvard University. "Or, where control is not possible, the illusion of control."
Frustrated by what he calls the "haunted-house model, where you're just shoveling people through," DuPlessie opened his first adventure, the ancient Egypt-themed "Tomb," in Boston in 2004. Unlike traditional rides, guests aren't confined to a train car. Roaming about the highly detailed "set," complete with secret doors and levitating mummies, participants engage in group role play. They're a team of archeologists and must overcome obstacles to escape the crypt alive. For example, a pyramid-stacking puzzle must be solved promptly before a slowly dropping faux-stone ceiling crushes them (or seems to, anyway). How they perform determines the ending of the story.
"This engages people at a higher level," he claims. "Those walls feel like sandstone. How is virtual reality going to compete with that?"
" 'Tomb' is right on the cutting edge," says Beth Robertson, spokesperson for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. Her organization doesn't know of any other ride or exhibit quite like it.
The success of "Tomb" got the attention of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., which tapped DuPlessie's team to design a new attraction twice its size (3,500 sq. ft.) and about 10 times as complicated. Slated to open in May 2007, the tentatively titled "Spy Adventure" will be a kind of "espionage's greatest hits," says Anna Slafer, the museum's director of exhibitions and programs.
Ms. Slafer helped write the "plot" about a black-market arms deal and determine which parts would be interactive. For an hour, groups of four to 15 will navigate seven different areas, trying their hands at safecracking, conducting (and avoiding) surveillance, and formulating questions for a polygraph test.
With the conceptual design phase over, DuPlessie is now handling the schematics phase. "He steps in and makes it real," says Slafer. "Because we're an educational institution, we want people to know what it is like to be a real spy." To work, the attraction must satisfy two criteria: playability and reality. Actual CIA, FBI, and KGB agents advised on the project.
"Is this the future of museums?" Slafer asks. "I personally would like to see museums work in this direction of full engagement, emotionally and physically."
While "Tomb" is suitable for youngsters 8 and up, "Spy Adventure" is no kiddie ride. The target audience is 18 to 34 - not surprisingly, the same demographic catered to by video-game designers. "If you ask most [video game] players, they'd say that they fantasize about being the guy in the game," says DuPlessie, who has other ideas in the works, including a "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"-type adventure. "People don't want a canned experience."
Indeed, the digital age has trained viewers to crave increasingly "real" artificial experiences - made possible by advancing technology. The loss of traditional heroes or rites of passage could explain their appeal. Or perhaps our acceptance of the virtual is simply a reflection of our cut-off, computer-centered, couch-potato lives. That's why, at least for DuPlessie, his walk-through adventures fill a void. They may create an illusion of choices, consequences, and danger, but ultimately they are about real human interaction.
"Unlike a video game or an amusement park ride, this is a social experience," DuPlessie says, plopping down the prototype for his Safe Cracker Challenge. "It's a collaborative effort."
Inside the see-through, mock-up safe are tumblers, a deadbolt, and a digital clock. DuPlessie recruits two young spies, fresh from exiting Tomb, to crack it.
"OK, here's the scenario: The [crime] boss is coming home in five minutes," DuPlessie says to Janusz Sulanowski, 16, and David Howland, 14. "Can you figure it out?"
Tumblers turn. The clock ticks. Tensions rise. "Well, I'm trying to line them up, but I only have 13 seconds," Janusz complains to David. "You try it!"
"This frustrates people to no end, until they figure it out," DuPlessie says. "People don't want it to be easy. They want it to be challenging. Then, solving it is gratifying."
After a few attempts, the boys crack it. The deadbolt clicks open.
Matthew DuPlessie's worlds may be made of acrylic, Styrofoam, and B-movie scripts, but they're real enough to make us believe.