It's a place I'd rather be

23rd December 1994 at 00:00
The same technology that enables the military to play at destroying the world, is now being used by Disney to let you explore a cartoon city from 'Aladdin'. Merlin John climbed aboard the magic carpet.

You're sitting comfortably in the theatre watching a presentation on energy when the voice-over says you will now be going to the primordial rainforest. But as you stifle back the yawn, the seating formation breaks up and the rows reform in train formation to move through the wall and, yes, you are in the land that time forgot, complete with smells, deafening animal calls and animatronic dinosaurs. It can only be Disney.

While the educational content at Disney World can vary many rides, after all, are sponsored by major companies which have their own world views and desire to advertise the technology and audio-visuals are simply stunning.

In the national curriculum what's known as "modelling" a term educationists have trouble explaining in language that ordinary mortals like teachers can understand - appears in Disney World as plain enjoyment. Computer simulations have now come into their own.

You don't have to learn to scuba dive to see the treasures of the deep being there isn't so important if the simulation gives you a strong enough impression along with some accurate information. The technology developed by the military and industry, that can train pilots to fly jumbo jets at their first attempt, has been harnessed for danger-free thrills and spills.

Simulation rides are staple fare at all three major Disney sites in Orlando, Florida Disney-MGM Studios, Magic Kingdom and Epcot and at the other non-Disney parks.

The major showcases for information technology and education, however, are the Innoventions exhibits at Epcot. Here Disney has teamed up with some of the world's major corporations to show the best in leading-edge technology, using sponsorship to lease out space in the same way that a major department store might sublet sections to other retailers. While some of the products are still around the corner, like General Motors' electric car, or ATT's wristwatch telephone, most of what you see are slick implementations of the best technology currently available, using state-of-the-art audio-visuals.

You can race your own twisting, juddering formula-one car alongside your friends, courtesy of an enormous video screen in Sega's Virtual Formula. At the Wonders of Life hall is the Body Wars ride. You can enter a "space ship" and buckle up for miniaturisation before being propelled into a human's blood-stream to help a colleague who is investigating a splinter - from the inside. Besides being an imaginative and informative trip through a human body, it's also a white-knuckle ride, particularly when your craft is being pumped through the heart, bumping you up and down and swaying from side to side. The computer-controlled co-ordination between what happens on the large video screen at the front of your vessel, and the physical rocking and rolling which has you bracing yourself in your seat, makes this as exciting as many fairground rides. The travellers emerge from the craft exhilarated, but without actually having been anywhere strange indeed.

If you can't see how Disney can be educational, and regard Mickey Mouse as an adjective rather than a character, think again. Even a seasoned cynic will be worn down by the sheer scale, imagination and audio-visual excellence of it all. And if you feel guilty after all the self-indulgence, you can always get serious with a visit to the Discovery Center. Epcot's own teachers' centre, its ground floor is packed with educational products, some non-Disney, while the first floor houses reference materials and resource packs in an information centre complete with on-line services and educational CD-Rom workstations. (American certified public and private teachers qualify for unlimited free visits to Epcot.)

But the highlight of Innoventions has to be the Walt Disney Imagineering Labs. So far, virtual reality has been hyped to the hilt, but has only been available in an advanced form for the miltary or large corporations. Some pioneering work has been done for safety and special needs, but nothing has appeared with graphics advanced enough to wow the average computer user. Until now.

Silicon Graphics, manufacturer of high-powered computer workstations, has teamed up with Disney to work on virtual animations. The technology that allows the military to play at destroying the world without spilling a drop of blood now enables real flesh-and-blood humans to explore the Disney cartoon city of Agrabah (from Aladdin) by magic carpet. All right, the carpet is so small you can't climb on to it, and you don't really get off the ground, but inside your helmet complete with screen and speakers you really can fly around Agraba. Holding your magic carpet to navigate (in much the same way as a computer games-player uses a joy stick), you can soar above the city and swoop down into the streets, startling passers-by until you find your quarry the magic lamp.

It's all done with computer-generated wire-frame shapes, based on a polygon the lamp itself is made of 600 polygons which are then "painted" over. It took animators three weeks to create just 20 seconds' worth of the bird, Iago. and 200 times that to create the final attraction which visitors can now see. Eventually the VR Aladdin will be a "ride" in itself, and the techniques developed can then be used to create other virtual worlds. The possibilities are startling imagine exploring a dynamic, "living" human body. Staff at the Imagineering Labs believe that these developments will be happening "within two years".

If getting to Disney World is beyond your means, some of it will be available in your home. For Disney is getting in on the CD-Rom market through a new multimedia unit Disney Interactive. This aims to become a $1 billion business within five years, creating 20 CD-Roms next year (some games, some educational) and 40 the year after.

Maybe the best plan is to create your own fun park. Theme Park, (Bullfrog, from Electronic Arts, Pounds 34.99) is a computer simulation along the lines of Sim City, which allows you to build your own theme park on screen. You can add rides, try them out, even increase the thrills. In virtual space no one can hear you scream.

More information from travel agents and Unijet. Tel: 0444 459191

Walt Disney World, PO Box 10,000, Lake Buena Vista, Florida 32830. Tel: 0101-407 824 4321

Electronic Arts: 0753 549442

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