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 The Brancatelli File

joe FUTURE FLIGHT: UNBELIEVABLY
MAGICAL, NECESSARILY BANAL


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 1, 1986 -- Moses Znaimer has seen the future of air travel, and he has bad news: There are middle seats in deep space.

What's more, frequent flyers in 2019 will still be nagged about not leaving their seats until the pilot releases the seat belt sign. They will still be bored by repetitive in-flight safety announcements. And they'll have to contend with an interplanetary bureaucracy sure to make 21st century business travelers nostalgic for the comparatively minor indignities of contemporary air travel.

All these depressing insights--and lots of good, clean futuristic fun--are incorporated into Znaimer's latest creation: a first-of-its-kind participatory entertainment complex called "Tour of the Universe." Built two dozen feet beneath Toronto's 1,800-foot-tall CN Tower, the Tour's attractions include a trek through a disconcertingly realistic "working spaceport" and an especially effective simulated space-shuttle ride.

"I was looking for a new kind of entertainment, a mass vehicle that was more than just a movie," says Znaimer, who founded an independent television station in Toronto, launched Canada's music-TV network, and has worked as an actor, broadcaster, producer and director. "I wanted something that offered the audience a chance to participate and interact with the environment. I tried to create a very elaborate game of make-believe."

Set in the year 2019 and purporting to offer a shuttle ride to Jupiter, Tour of the Universe is indeed an elaborate exercise in make-believe. But Znaimer's multi-media show--he calls it "a living movie"--is no goofy children's ride. And it's not a vacuous, wonders-of-the-future theme park. Instead, Tour takes a refreshingly adult and slightly cynical view of commercial space travel. Frequent flyers will be especially understanding of Znaimer's vision because it has as much to do with bureaucracy and hassles at the spaceport as it does with technology.

"I realized that you're not going to be able to jump out of your Chevy and onto the space shuttle," Znaimer explains. "I figure the future of space travel, just like air travel, is both unbelievably magical and necessarily banal. That's why we've added bits of the commonplace and some futuristic bureaucracy to the fantasy of space flight."

Fantasy and bureaucracy are inseparable during a visit to Tour of the Universe. At the beginning of the Tour, a participant pays US$7 ($4 for children) and is issued a "Tourident" card complete with his name, an identification number and holographic images. After an elevator ride to the lower level of the CN Tower, the Tour participant is promptly confronted by the "SecurityScan" section. To pass through these futuristic security gates, a participant must insert his Tourident into a computerized card reader. The card triggers a synthesized voice that welcomes the traveler by name. It also activates a digital weight scale, an ultra-sonic height scale and a heat-sensitive camera. The camera produces a colorful simulated image of each passenger. That's how they check for concealed weapons in the 21st century.

After passing SecurityScan, a Tour participant walks through the main spaceport concourse, several exhibits and a briefing area before reaching one of nine "Passport/Input" desks. Once again, the Tourident is inserted into a computerized card reader and once again Tour's computers take over.

Participants must answer queries on Customs, health, immigration status and tourist-related matters. Once the responses are relayed to the computer by touch-sensitive screens, the participants are allowed to proceed to the "inoculation" area. These travelers are zapped with compressed air to simulate inoculation against diseases such as cerebral marswort, low grav veinburst and moonticks.

Participants then approach the "Ident/Ticket Exchange" area. This time, the Tourident is eaten by a card reader and a nearby computer spits out a passenger ticket in return. All at once, the 6-page ticket is a cute memento for Tour participants and a snappy aviation in-joke. The ticket identifies "CP Air Interplanetary" as the carrier--the Canadian airline is a Tour sponsor and even designed a special CP Air logo for the simulated shuttle service--and accurately prints out the Tour participant's name, sex, height, weight (in Earth and Jupiter measures), and planet of origin.

Then it spoofs the contemporary passenger coupon. The fine print explains CP Air International isn't liable for space shuttle delays or cancellations, "time displacement," or "loss of life, limb or possessions in the event of crew mutiny." And there are repeated references to the "Ganymede Convention" and the "Tharsis Convention." None of the references make much sense except for geographic accuracy--Ganymede is one of Jupiter's moons and Tharsis is a region of Mars--but it's clear that the Warsaw Convention, whatever that is, has finally been superseded.

After earthbound details are cleared away, Tour participants are free to pass through the "airlocks" and "shuttleways" corridors and into the space shuttle cabin. Tough luck, frequent flyers: it's eight-across seating.

The straight-laced flight attendants make sure everyone's seat harnesses are fastened. There's an intentionally uninspired safety movie. And, by the way, Tour participants are well-advised to check baggage: There's precious little underseat storage and no overhead bins.

The shuttle trip itself is surprisingly short at about eight minutes. But, oh, what a trip. Tour participants in the shuttle cabin feel as if they are taking off. They feel the shuttle turning and hitting turbulence. They experience landing. The tour's shuttle flight successfully simulates every airborne sensation experienced on a contemporary airline, except mediocre food and frequent flyer miles.

And then, of course, there's the view. The shuttle's windscreen is wide and gloriously panoramic. Tour participants watch as the shuttle "departs" from its bay in spaceport. They watch the trip to "Gateway," which Tour literature describes as the world's first "manned, freefall city in space." Then participants watch as the shuttle glides through space toward Jupiter. The sights and sounds are superb.

Besides the familiar feel imparted by the bureaucracy, Tour of the Universe is more sensually fulfilling and realistic than a hokey space ride or a science-fiction movie because of the high level of technology it uses. The simulated shuttle produces all of the sensations of taking off, landing and maneuvering in space because the cabin is actually a converted flight simulator. According to Tour literature, the simulator is capable of six degrees of motion freedom and is able to duplicate the movements of virtually any vehicle in action. It can pitch, roll, heave, yaw and surge with startling realism.

Tour of the Universe is also a cut above the normal space fantasy because the simulator doesn't move its participants in a vacuum. The audio and video portions of the simulated shuttle ride are all first-rate illusions controlled by state-of-the-art computers and electronics.

Znaimer is quick to spread the credit around for the realistic nature of Tour. The simulator is made by Rediffusion Simulation Limited, a British firm that is a major player in the airliner simulation industry. The film processes used in Tour were pioneered by Douglas Trumball, who worked on flicks such as 2001: A Space Odyssey; Star Trek: The Motion Picture; and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Still, it was Znaimer who had the vision. As a pilot, he knew the capacities and entertainment potential of a flight simulator. And as an entertainment entrepreneur, he knew how to match the film techniques and computer controls with the simulator's motion.

"I chose the space theme as the concept to merge all the audio, visual, technical and sensory elements because space is probably the most universal theme of all," he says. "The three or four highest-grossing movies of all times are space flicks. I just thought that if we could match the space theme to some sort of participatory theater experience, we'd have a real winner."

It took four years of concept, design work and construction--and $12 million in venture capital--for Znaimer's project to come into being. There were problems along the way, many of them directly related to the fact that much of Tour of the Universe's 21,000 square feet of space is under Lake Ontario. "I was bailing out Lake Ontario for four months longer than the engineers said I'd have to," Znaimer remembers. There are still problems with Tour of the Universe now. "The computer setups to drive the space-port and the synchronization are complex. They donít stay up and running for weeks at a time," Znaimer admits. "We're still ironing out some of the bugs."

Bugs or no, Tour shows signs of success. A Japanese conglomerate has purchased the franchise to build Tours of the Universe Japan. Walt Disney purchased some of Znaimer's specially converted simulators. And Znaimer plans to make sure Tour of the Universe lives up to its name. Although it only opened last December, Znaimer hopes to expand the Toronto tour facility to include simulated space shuttle trips to Mercury, Mars and the inside of a comet.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1983-2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.