Worldbuildr founder talks attractions & the metaverse – blooloop

Michael Libby talks attractions & the metaverse, and outlines the benefits of the Worldbuildr Software Suite
Words:  Charlotte Coates
The Worldbuildr Software Suite is a first-of-its-kind virtual production tool for the attractions industry. It was created to allow all stakeholders in any given LBE project to collaborate as its design progresses from concept to creation.
With this tool, designers can work together from any location, anywhere in the world and see their shared attraction take shape together. They can view the progress on any device, from their smartphone to their desktop to their high-end VR headset. It’s not just useful for previsualisation either. The virtual attraction model can also become a self-contained digital guest experience or a connected digital twin for the metaverse.
While attraction designers have already been using game engines for previsualisation, such as Unity and Unreal, for some time, this requires some coding skill. Generally, the previsualisation work is done within the game engine. It is then exported as a static video before being presented to the rest of the stakeholders. Where Worldbuildr differs is its intuitive user interface. This allows the whole team to work on the project together, in real-time, therefore democratising the process of attraction design and development.
Worldbuildr was founded by experience designer Michael Libby, an avid futurist and industry-recognised thought leader for location-based immersive attractions. He spoke to blooloop about the emerging metaverse trend in the attractions industry, the importance of collaboration, and the capabilities of the Worldbuildr solution.
Growing up with Disneyland as his local park, Libby says he always wanted to be an experience designer:
“I went there a lot as a kid and then I started working there as a ride operator, during college. After that, I started working in the industry, for Thinkwell as a creative director and then for Disney as a creative consultant. I saw things trending towards interactivity and gamification – all those buzzwords that were popping up around ten years ago – and I decided to go back to school and get my Master’s in game design and interactive media.
“That’s where I was first exposed to VR and Unreal and Unity, all this new technology.”
“My classmates were interested in video games. I was more interested in taking this information and this technology and bringing it back to the experience economy, to the location-based experience industry. I quickly found that VR specifically was a valuable tool for design and review.
“Two big things happened around the time we were developing Worldbuildr. Firstly, the pandemic, with the associated rise in remote working, and then also Facebook changing its name to Meta. That triggered a lot of interest and investment in the metaverse. We didn’t change anything that we were doing – people just started to understand our product a lot better. They could see what it does and understand the benefits.”
Some of this increased interest in and awareness of the capabilities of Worldbuildr was also due to the company winning the Rise Award at the inaugural blooloop Innovation Awards in 2021, presented with AREA15.
The Innovation Awards were judged by a panel of attractions industry experts across a variety of sectors. This included Meow Wolf founder Vince Kadlubek, Universal Creative’s executive creative director Steve Tatham, and Paul Moreton, group creative director for Merlin Entertainments.
With the Rise Award, AREA15’s goal was to celebrate and showcase the individuals or companies leading the way to innovate new forms of immersive entertainment and to foster ideas disrupting the status quo of location-based entertainment. As well as winning the Rise Award, Worldbuildr also took second place in the digital category. In this category, judges were looking for digital innovations that have the potential to enhance the visitor journey and add storytelling magic.
Speaking about what first inspired him to create Worldbuildr, Libby explains that he was uniquely positioned to both see a problem and to have the tools to develop a solution to that problem. During his time working in experience design, he witnessed costly yet avoidable mistakes occurring:
“The big lesson that I have learned is that hindsight is always 20/20. Sometimes, you get locked into certain design decisions without necessarily understanding how they impact the rest of the project.
“For example, I was working on a particular project that the team had been designing for years. Yet when I got to the construction site, there were issues like ride vehicles clipping the scenic rock work, or problems with the shadow of a ride vehicle being cast onto one of the screens. Little things that end up being incredibly expensive to correct at the last minute.”
“That was the beginning. That was the original purpose of Worldbuildr, to give everybody a way to see the totality of the project at any point in the development process.
“The work that we do is so multidisciplinary and collaborative. So, when I went to a site and I saw things like that happening, I thought, there must be a better way to do this. But for the previous generation, there was no better way. It was just the accepted process that sometimes there were going to be some expensive mistakes that happen in the field.
Game engines and VR have allowed a new world of risk mitigation in pre-production, previsualisation and pre-programming.”
The metaverse is set to be the next big thing in the attractions industry. On the topic of the role it could play in the experience economy, Libby says it has the potential to enhance both the storytelling and the business model.
“Those two things are equally important. We’re already seeing the rise of premium physical location-based experiences. The big players like Disney and Universal are realising that they can charge more for a premium experience. It’s no longer about packing as many people in the park as you can. It’s about getting a certain number of people in there, spending as much money as possible to get the best experience and ROI. It’s becoming a rich person’s hobby.”
However, the metaverse is an opportunity to change that business model:
“It is a way of allowing people who can’t afford to go to the physical location to experience it from the convenience of their own home. A lot of these companies learned from what happened to them during the pandemic. When the front gates close, the revenue drops to zero. There needs to be a way for them to make money without people stepping foot on the premises. So that has also been a big driver of this trend.”
Secondly, from an experiential standpoint, the metaverse also brings huge opportunities in terms of storytelling.
“The interesting thing when people go to these places is that they leave feeling like they have had an individual experience,” says Libby. “Yet the idea that this experience is created for you as an individual is an illusion. That’s not what’s happening, and that actually can’t happen. Because when you go to a theme park, there’s no part of your day where you are the only audience member. So, the experience must be created for groups.
“But that’s fundamentally different in the metaverse where, just by the nature of the medium, suddenly you can have these individual experiences. You don’t have to worry about waiting in a two-hour line to meet this character. You just meet them. I think the storytelling possibilities are incredible.”
“The other interesting thing is this hybrid nature. When I was growing up, being a nerd meant reading comic books in secret in my bedroom. Now it’s like getting an IV pumped into your veins, from the biggest intellectual properties in the world. There’s never been a greater time than now to be a Star Wars fan or a comic book fan!
“People now want this 24/7 relationship with these IPs. That’s what they crave, to always be connected. And with the metaverse, they can enjoy both physical and digital experiences related to their favourite IP.”
Earlier this year, Disney CEO Bob Chapek spoke about the potential of the metaverse in a memo to Disney cast members, saying he believes the metaverse to be: “the next great storytelling frontier and the perfect place to pursue our strategic pillars of Storytelling Excellence, Innovation, and Audience Focus.”
Libby adds:
“Bob Chapek has said that Disney+ might be the launching point for their metaverse experience, for the 90% of people who will never get to a Disney Park. Those people will be able to go to Disney+ and visit the metaverse. When I read that, I was like, ‘I’ve been saying this for years!’
“Now, you have this model where you can go to the physical theme park occasionally, to have that blockbuster experience. But then you can also keep the story going at home in the metaverse. When we talk about the creative possibilities of this, we’re only just scratching the surface at the moment.”
Nobody is going to want to go into VR to experience an inferior version of the same thing that they can do in the real world…You must be able to do things within the metaverse that you can’t do in the real world
However, it’s important to note that the metaverse should not simply be a copy of the physical experience:
“Nobody is going to want to go into VR to experience an inferior version of the same thing that they can do in the real world. So, it must be complementary, but different. You must be able to do things within the metaverse that you can’t do in the real world. That’s the real draw to me, the real deal.”
It’s an exciting time for the attractions industry. Many different revolutionary technologies are emerging and developing, from VR and AR to blockchain and AI. Libby likens it to the Industrial Revolution, saying: “These technologies are going to change everything.”
“For example, I spent about six months this year consulting for Microsoft and working with their AI tools GPT-3 and DALL-E. It’s going to change so much about everything, but specifically, as it relates to our industry, it’s going to change the way that we tell stories. AI storytelling is going to be huge.
“However, what is even more exciting is when these new technologies start to cross-pollinate. For instance, people are using DALL·E and all these image generators now, where you can type in a prompt, and it creates this magnificent image. That’s amazing. But here’s where it gets really exciting; combine that with another new technology and you get unexpected results.”
“That’s a hard thing to do creatively because you need to understand all the different technologies. But when you do it successfully, that’s where the magic is. And that’s always been the case for our industry.
“Look at Star Tours, for instance. That was a combination of projected media and motion-based cabins. So it was using two new technologies that were fairly new at the time, within location-based entertainment. These technologies were both developing and both impressive in their own right, but when they combined the two, that’s when the magic really happened.”
Libby believes that the metaverse will also play a role in the creation of experiences, helping designers and other stakeholders to work more collaboratively. This is where Worldbuildr comes into its own:
“I think Unreal Engine and Unity are great tools for developers, for people who already know how to code. But for the average person, they are far too complicated. Instead, think about something like Roblox, which is a collaborative playground for people to get together in a digital space and build an experience together.”
“If I could sum up Worldbuildr in a succinct way, I would say that we’re trying to be Roblox Pro. We are a professional design tool for experiences, but still with an intuitive user interface. It’s more like playing a video game than using an advanced piece of software, so anyone can do it.
“This idea that anyone can collaborate and build immersive experiences is exciting. It kind of democratises imagineering, in some ways. Right now, a bunch of people can get on Twitter and criticise an attraction that’s been built, but they can’t build one themselves because it costs hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Now those same people can put their money where their mouth is, or rather their mind where their mouth is, and say, ‘Hey, here’s what we can do’, and then instantly invite people to explore it in the virtual space. I think that’s very exciting.”
Elaborating on the capabilities of the Worldbuildr Software Suite, Libby adds:
“For the existing professionals, key benefit of Worldbuildr is if you use our tool for a project, for previsualisation and design, then you can review it together and collaborate. You can view it remotely in VR, you can look at sight lines together and all that stuff.
“It’s also iterative. As the 3D model develops and gets more detailed, you can all review that together. As the media files iterate and you get more polished audio and video, you can review that and see how everything integrates.”
“In addition, when everything is finished, what you’ve created is a fully digital twin of your attraction. That is one of the main selling points of Worldbuildr. If you do previsualisation with any other company or any other software, it’s a sunk cost. You’re saying, ‘Okay, I’m going to spend a little bit of money so that we don’t make those expensive mistakes later. But ultimately, we’re not going to use it for anything’. It’s just sort of a tool that is then discarded. However, with Worldbuildr, it continues to develop, and it becomes a digital twin.”
This has two implications. Firstly, the team can then use that digital twin to control the physical twin.
“So, not only have you done previsualisation, but you’re also now using Worldbuildr as an operating system to control the physical installation. And you’ve already done all the work because you’ve pre-programmed all the functionality in the digital twin. Most people, when they think of an operating system, they think of Microsoft Windows or Mac OS, that kind of thing, with 2D icons and text input fields. But the idea of a 3D operating system is an emerging field of technology called spatial computing. That’s a huge benefit.”
“Secondly, we give you a standalone digital twin, which is ready for the metaverse. Right now, all these existing facilities, amusement parks and museums and other attractions, they’re going to be paying an arm and a leg to create a digital twin of what they already have, so that people can visit them in the metaverse. And that is complicated and expensive. With our process, if you’re starting from scratch, you get that as a by-product, for free. There are no additional costs.”
Looking to the future, Libby says we are entering a new phase of content creation, one which will have an interesting impact on the attractions industry.
“Influencers didn’t exist years ago. Now we have content creators working in their living rooms, putting content out on YouTube and that kind of thing. I think that makes a lot of people a little scared at places like Universal and Disney because for decades they’ve been saying that, at our core, we’re storytellers. They’re used to having full control over the story. But I don’t know if necessarily that’s what people want anymore.”
“People do want to contribute to the story and interact with the story, and so the experience then becomes interactive. It stops being 100% your story when you engage with an audience member and that audience member starts contributing to the story.
“I think we are going to see more audience participation as a result. We’ve already been seeing this in things like the Galactic Starcruiser. And I think that’s exciting. The stories that we are telling are becoming more collaborative, more of an effort between the IP holder and the audience itself.
“With Worldbuildr, we want to be right at the centre of that. We want to be a platform where people can create experiences and then share them with the world.”
Top image: A digital twin of a jungle boat ride developed using the Worldbuildr software
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