July 26, 2004

Amusement Parks

Theme park tracking system lacks user-friendly features

Posted on Mon, Jul. 26, 2004


Theme park tracking system lacks user-friendly features


By Margot Leong and Vikram Mahal

Special to the Mercury News

Anyone who's ever gone to an amusement park with a family or a large group knows how tough it can be to keep track of everyone.

Paramount's Great America in Santa Clara launched a high-tech service this season that should solve that problem -- or so it would seem.

Star Watch -- a tracking system that involves a wrist watch-like device and kiosks scattered throughout the park -- is far from a problem solver. It's a step in the right direction for using Silicon Valley technology to keep people in touch. But it needs so much refining that it was tough for us to get excited about it.

The device charts the journeys of different group members by using a local positioning system operating over radio frequencies. The park is divided into different zones. As a Star Watch user moves through those zones, antennas placed throughout the park transmit data about his or her whereabouts to a central computer.

The problem is that all of the cool things that Star Watch offers -- the ability to track people in your group, even find the nearest restroom or send e-mail and instant messages -- is dependent on finding one of the seven kiosks.

Finding the closest restroom was easier than finding one of the kiosks, which aren't marked on the Great America park map. The stations are very inconspicuous, looking like 4-foot campsite trash cans with touch screens. Also, there are no signs pointing out any of the stations and they have no lighting around them at night.

The e-mail and instant-messaging features at the kiosks were very cool, but Star Watch offers no alert system to notify users when they have a new message. Who wants to keep looking for a kiosk just to see if they have new messages?

And if Great America really wants people to use Star Watch, the rental booths need to be easier to find. It was in an obscure area next to a popcorn stand, not next to the park's entrance. It seems as though it would be really easy to just walk out of Great America with the watch because there are no security measures to make sure that forgetful users -- exhausted after a long day with children or a large group -- return it.

Star Watch rents for $5 per day per watch, which seems a bit high after we learned that the handful of other parks across the country with Star Watch charge customers about $2.50 a day.

Great America and the other parks are smart to offer a tracking system such as Star Watch. The walkie-talkie radios so many families use to stay in touch become a garbled mess when too many people try to talk to each other over the same radio channels.

But Star Watch -- or something like it -- needs more research and more fine-tuning for the future. While the proposed ideas of the Star Watch seem to offer many benefits, the device -- for now -- just doesn't seem very practical.

Margot Leong, a student at Menlo School, and Vikram Mahal, a student at Bellarmine College Preparatory, wrote this story for Mosaic, a high-school journalism workshop sponsored in part by the Mercury News.

MercuryNews.com | 07/26/2004 | Theme park tracking system lacks user-friendly features

Posted by Craig at July 26, 2004 02:43 PM