a mash-up of mechanisms & talking
We visited Disneyland in California a couple weeks ago and while there I had an interesting moment of cognitive dissonance as we were sailing down the dark, faux-flame-lit waterways of The Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
For one who has never caught a ride on The Pirates of the Caribbean, it goes something like this: a flat-bottomed boat (of a theme-park attraction kind) seating about twenty-five passengers floats, meanders, dips, slides, and bumps along a carefully controlled path. Through increasingly haunting scenes of pirate-themed devastation, the boat descends into the deeps and dark of the ride, eerie sound effects lurking in the shadows and cool artificial winds chilling the air with a palpable atmosphere of creepiness.
The dark looms, then suddenly opens into an animated scene: a sea battle greets the little boat as it drifts into town, passing by a host of robotic characters who chase, fight, argue, barter, hide, and even sing.
It’s meant to be immersive fun, tangibly made real as shadowy mechanisms wrapped in lifelike robot puppets act out the same ten second sequence in perpetuity. If one’s arms were long enough, one could literally reach out and touch it, adding to the reality of the illusion as cool air wafts over your skin, the smell fills your sinuses, and every one of your senses is tickled by the experience.
But then the dissonance appeared.
A whiff of the slightly chlorinated tang of the water. A glimpse of a not-quite-right shadow in the dancing flames illuminating a forever-burning window. And then the voices. I’m not sure what it was about the voices, but they jarred me out of the illusion most abruptly of all. For those who know the ride, there is a moment when the boat passes by a trio of singing pirates, and as carefully as their creators have bestowed upon them independent sound systems of some kind, ensuring that each voice projects almost perfectly from the physical space occupied by the robotic pirate, there was a split second of broken illusion that popped the fantasy. Something was not exactly as my primal savage brain expected it to be, and the rational, willing-to-be-entertained part of me could not overcome it.
Admittedly, the myth is wholly fragile and the act of creating it a work of Animatronic (TM) brilliance, but it left me pondering a question that will surely become more pertinent as we move into realms of virtual realities and further robotic integration with the every day aspects of our lives: Which of our senses is will be difficult to deceive when it comes to creating an immersive illusion?