A few days ago, I attended a preview of a completely different style of entertainment in New York City. Dubbed The Ride, it provides a first-hand look at some of the city’s prominent landmarks in a way that combines a Broadway show with a bus tour, incorporating cutting-edge technology and scripted performances with real-life reactions of people on the street.
The Ride starts in a stationary position, where the audience gets acquainted with the surroundings. The vehicle is gigantic, looming overhead at 13 feet and 6 inches (the tallest it can legally be in the city), built on a standard bus chassis by LDV, a company that specializes in custom-designed commercial specialty rigs. The internal compartment has stadium-style seating that faces out of a glass-lined side wall toward the street, and is lined with traveling lights, video monitors, and surround-sound speakers.
As you travel for a little bit over an hour through the Theater District, the show becomes a blend of host and audience interaction, acted scenes and musical numbers by cast members on the street, tidbits of information about the landmarks outside and a healthy number of stares, points and waves from people that just happen to be passing by. During the course of the show, the audience is immersed in music, mood-lighting and video that gives you the impression that everyone outside has been placed there just for your entertainment.
In designing the technology to make this happen, a number of logistical considerations had to be taken into account. For one, the timing for each show is bound to be subject to variables like traffic conditions and reactions of both the audience and onlookers. Brett Jarvis, technology supervisor for The Ride, said in an interview for Technology in the Arts that they run a mixture of Ableton Live, Isadora, and QLab 2 on Mac Pro towers to maintain an open system that can be cued appropriately to make the show feel continuous for the audience.
The sound system, built with help from Sennheiser, is designed in a way that surrounds the audience completely while being undetectable by people on the street. Since the audience also has to, at times, listen in on the street performers, there is an extensive wireless sound transmission system that can be toggled on and off to minimize radio traffic in the surrounding area. Even the transmission frequency was carefully selected – otherwise, it might have interfered with adjacent systems in the theaters around Broadway.
Sometimes, a mark of smartly-designed technology is an audience’s inability to distinguish it from real life, and it’s certainly the case for The Ride. For tourists who are new to the city, it offers a much more interesting and comprehensive experience than a tour or museum visit, and there are some surprising moments, even for people like me who have been here a while. Plus… anything that can make the busiest, surliest briefcase-toting businessman on the street take a moment to smile and wave has got my vote.