frustration at marvel avengers s.t.a.t.i.o.n.


Location-based Entertainment / Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

When my sister took me to Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N., an interactive exhibition, it seemed like something right up my alley. My impression was that it was a digital-meets-physical experience that required the use of the mobile app to connect with parts of the exhibit.

The tagline for the experience, from the Las Vegas exhibit, reads:

Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. (Scientific Training and Tactical Intelligence Operative Network) is a completely immersive and educational experience that brings visitors into the world of The Avengers.

All ages are welcome to access the official S.T.A.T.I.O.N. headquarters and dive deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with access to exclusive intelligence files, classified studies and experiments that explore the history and scientific origins of The Avengers while training to become an official agent of the S.T.A.T.I.O.N.”

This fell far short of the stellar reviews and my expectations. First of all, we were told that we absolutely needed the app, and if we didn’t have a phone, renting an iPod with the app installed on it was necessary to the experience. Of course, this increased my expectations even more, but the app was simply a collection of videos and additional information, an integrated camera where you could decorate your photos with Avengers icons, and some quizzes that I could just as well have taken online, on my own time. It was not uncommon to run into people staring at their app rather than looking at the displays, everyone focused solely on their phones. The only place the app was really needed was in the final boss battle, a game where you played as an Avenger and swiped to attack the evil robots (more on that later).

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For each area, the app provided a guide that could have easily been displayed in the exhibit itself.

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The app also provided an overload of information that did not connect or interact with the physical exhibit, and that I could have easily gotten online.

The unsuccessful integration of the app into the exhibition, or of the exhibition into the app, was the biggest problem of the experience. Activities in the app and in the exhibition were largely separate, which were missed opportunities for personalisation of a generic experience for everyone. Hands-on activities, like a superhero grip test, were purely for the exhibit, while digital activities, like the quiz to see which Avenger you are most like, were purely for the app. To make the experience “completely immersive” as promised, the creators should have integrated the two components, by showing your grip test scores in the app and comparing them to your fellow exhibit-goers, or by revealing which Avenger you are in a large display that showed you in that Avenger’s costume.

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This hand grip test activity was fairly simple, but popular because it was a hands-on physical interaction.

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However, the designers missed an opportunity to personalise the result and incorporate this into the app.

Overall, the designers were not able to leverage the strengths of each medium to enhance the other. In an exhibition, we are drawn to hands-on activities, of which there were precious few in Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. For every interactive activity such as a Kinect simulation of flying like Iron Man, there were twenty walls of text about the Avengers. This made the “fun” parts of the exhibit crowded with long lines. A strategy to integrate the app would have been to set up virtual queues for the activities, indicating wait times and your place in the queue.

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By far the most popular activity in S.T.A.T.I.O.N., this Iron Man flying simulation put you in a Kinect-style game where you play as Iron Man. Designers could have leveraged the app for crowd control.

Another thing showcases are good at doing is providing cool displays, and for Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N., there were plenty of costumes and artifacts behind glass. The app could have been leveraged to scan codes near these exhibits for information or for unlockable interactive content and games, bringing these static displays to life.

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Finally, apps are great at personalisation, and in an exhibit such as Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N., we want to feel like we belong and are one of the Avengers. Although there was some story about training to be an agent, this was not reinforced through the exhibit and was purely an app activity where you answered several trivia questions. While creating an Avengers profile was cool, the app could have gone further and given you a QR code unique to your progress, which you could scan at various stations in the exhibit to gain points and track your progress with the hands-on tasks and activities in the physical exhibit itself.

If a part of the experience is not essential, remove it.

The app provided more clutter than clarity, and its activities could have easily been on LCD screens throughout the exhibit, which would have been more immersive than holding a phone while trying to look around. Mobile phones do a tricky thing of taking you out of the present environment, ironically reducing the immersion of Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. rather than enhancing it.

The problem of integrating the app and the physical exhibition, while disruptive on the surface, had a much deeper root cause. When I left Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. feeling significantly unimpressed, the question on my mind was why the show had been a disjointed hodgepodge of experiences. What had caused the designers to make these decisions about how to bring a group of visitors through the experience? The root of the problem, I realised, was that there was no clear target audience. Marvel was trying to cater to everyone, which is equivalent to catering to no-one at all.

These are three categories of visitor on which the designers didn’t make a decision:

1. Kids vs. adults
There was a mix of things that kids could do and touch with screens and displays heavy with text that were at the adult level. I would have aimed it at the kids, with more hands-on activities and shorter descriptions. Adults get excited when kids are, and the app could have been used to provide more information and provide another layer of interaction with the exhibits for the adults.

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One of few opportunities to physically interact with the exhibit – place your hand on this screen caused some lighting and sound effects in the Tesseract.

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Unfortunately, most of the displays were giant walls of text, that were overloaded with information and boring for kids.

2. Marvel fans vs. non-Marvel fans
I’m aware of Marvel but wouldn’t consider myself a Marvel fan, so “educational experience” and “scientific origins” to me referred to perhaps the technology behind the special effects in the movies and the science behind how superheroes work. Instead, I was inundated with fake scientific information and extensive fictional biographies of the characters, not what I felt was educational. This was juxtaposed with content for visitors who didn’t know much about Marvel, such as really detailed profiles of each Avenger. If the designers had stripped away much of the fiction and focused on the movies and their creation, rather than trying to immerse us in the world of the Avengers, I think it would have been a stronger exhibit that catered to a wider audience of non-hardcore-Marvel fans.

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There were so many walls of text, aimed at the hardcore Marvel fan, including scientific reports and fictional biographies set in the Marvel universe, not interesting, educational material about the real world.

3. Gamers vs. non-gamers
The final boss battle was the only interactive game using the app on your phone and a large screen. However, despite the technology being advanced, the interaction was trivial, purportedly to aim this experience at people with less tech know-how. All you had to do was swipe up on your phone and the corresponding effect would show up on the screen, conglomerating the many attacks from your fellow players into an indiscriminate blob of explosions. Although it was a fine choice to outfit the exhibit with an easy tech experience, the question is why even include the visitors’ phones and the app at all if you imagine your audience is going to be mostly non-gamers? For gamers, phones and a deep interactive experience using them would have been better, and for non-gamers, the opposite holds true. The designers erred by trying to include everything and everyone. The boss battle would have been just as effective with stationary tablets or devices you picked up on site that were themed to the Avenger you were fighting as.

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I was assigned Thor at the final interaction, and all we had to do was swipe up on our phones to use our weapons.  The corresponding effects on the big screen were a mess of graphics where it was difficult to see what you did.

Interactive exhibitions are tricky, and while Marvel Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N.’s attempt at “completely immersive” missed the mark, Disney appears to be trying new things with Marvel, and slowly incorporating the brand into arguably the most successful location-based entertainment in the world, Disneyland. It will be interesting to witness the evolution of how we can use our phones in a meaningful way to interact with our environment without losing immersion in the environment itself. As long as the incorporation of different media in a single experience plays to their strengths without interfering or providing too much content, and there is a clear target audience for these experiences, the next few years in themed entertainment is going to get more personal, more interactive and hopefully more fun.