Fear of flying

Thrill engineer Brendan Walker talks about the psychological, biological and narrative elements that feed kicks.

First Published in

Perhaps only aerophobics truly appreciate the similarities between planes and rollercoasters: Harnessed into ordered forward-facing rows, sentient passengers relinquish control over their fate in traversing a distance in a supposedly foolproof piloted path. Of course, for the majority of people who have come to recognise air flight as merely a form of transport, the primary difference is that rollercoasters thrill. And, just as flight requires aeronautical engineers, thrill has its own engineer – Brendan Walker.
Design Indaba: How did you come to be called a thrill engineer?

Brendan Walker: I was originally trained as an aeronautical engineer, but left my job working at British Aerospace Military Aircraft to study industrial design at the Royal College of Art. Following my studies, I started making large interactive mechanical sculptures for art galleries and museums, but soon became very interested in the way the audience was interacting with what I created and the psychology of what they experienced. I began researching this, which lead to me working in a hybrid space between psychology, sociology and engineering. The best way to describe it is engineering thrill, based on taking psychological concepts and mixing them with engineering concepts to create new installations that people experience.

What is thrill?

For me, thrill is a mix of activities or psychological experiences that create a big adrenaline rush, but also, the experience has to be pleasurable – so there’s definitely dopamine involved too. Besides being in an intense state of delight and bliss, you have to get to that state incredibly quickly, so that it’s a shock to the system. Based on my engineering training I found it quite easy to translate these emotions into a mathematical formula – the Walker Thrill Factor – which states that a greater thrill will be induced, the larger the increase in arousal and pleasure, and the faster you get there.

How do you translate this formula into practice?

The formula helps me reflect on what I’ve created but doesn’t actually help me start creating something. In Taxonomy of Thrill, which I wrote about three years ago, I outline five categories of stimuli that can create a thrilling effect. The most successful thrilling experiences employ two or three of these tactics and I run through them when I start to create a new experience. The factors are:

  • The spectacular. This refers to events that are marvellous, awesome and fantastic. Possibly we wouldn’t have believed these effects possible at the time. Fireworks and visual spectaculars fall into this category.
  • The sensational. This refers to exciting the body’s senses, whether through touch, taste or whatever. These are physical forces, so fairground and theme park rides fall into this category.
  • Power and control. These effects are typical of game playing, such as who’s got the upper ground, who’s winning and can you control other people. There are also aspects of exhibitionism and power plays inherent in bondage and sexual activities.
  • Being valued. Referring to command-ing the respect and admiration of others and yourself, this is a very social category and about whether you can elevate yourself in the eyes of others.
  • Immortality. This factor is about avoiding death and survival – for instance, in a rollercoaster, the designer creates tricks that might make you think that the object coming towards you is too low and will knock your head off, making you perceive mortal danger, but then the ride dips down. When you avoid that obstacle, you are elevated back from fear to a normal or positive state.

What about risk and fear, or does that fall under immortality?

If I had to rewrite this taxonomy now, three years on, I’d probably be tempted to take the Immortality category and wrap it into a category about the ways that we deal with risk, the perceptions of risk and the payoff of putting yourself through an incredibly risky experience. Risk is hinged on fear. For instance, horror films draw people into fear, which is high arousal with a negative feeling of pleasure, even displeasure. A release from that apprehension then creates a thrilling state.

Risk and fear also seem closely related to relinquishing your control?

When you go on a rollercoaster, from the moment you have the harness put on, you are effectually under the control of the original designer. You are passing yourself over into someone else’s hands. When I consult to theme park owners about the psychological aspects of rides, I often emphasise how much more theatrical one can make the harnessing in, because it is a really powerful moment of handing over control to somebody who can play with ideas of fear.

Besides these psychological and engineering aspects, your work is characterised by a strong sense of narrative and scripted experience?

One can script an experience or choreograph an emotional journey without narrative, however the highs and lows can become quite abstract. By attaching an understandable narrative, people then very quickly come to realise and understand what is expected of them, by setting the context. For instance, with a runaway mine train ride, something everybody understands, the falling theme and tumbling down wooden supports are immediately understood as a danger situation. The story helps the audience get from A to B quickly, whereas if you’re playing with more abstract ideas, it’s much more hard work – although it can be rewarding as narratives such as the runaway mine train can become very clichéd. What I like to do is explore new narratives.

Yes, possibly controversially, you seem to have a particular interest in the airplane crash narrative.

I have a big fascination in aircraft because of my training and background. For the engineering problems I face, I often return to this aeronautical background; but also in terms of the psychology and sociology, I go back to my books on passenger behaviour. So I am fascinated with aircraft, but have started playing with new slightly more controversial and edgy themes that probably wouldn’t go down in a traditional theme park because people might consider it distasteful. However, I’m not capitalising on or sensationalising the loss of human lives, but am interested in the emotional dynamics that go on during disasters.

For instance, I created Airforia in a theatre space under the London Bridge. It was based on an air disaster that happened just outside London in 1999, although not a literal translation. The installation included an aircraft cabin elevated in the air by about 5m. Eight people at a time were seated in the cabin and treated to typical in-flight entertainment. Then they were taken one-by-one and lead out of the back of the aircraft into a misty fog with aircraft lights down the bottom. The passengers had to escape the crash by hanging on a T-bar trolley that slid down a Zip-line – also known as a death slide.

The anticipation of going on a rollercoaster and an airplane is quite similar. I mean, you know that you’re more likely to die in a car crash, but you also know that there are crashes and a tiny little voice in you always asks “What if…”

Statistically you are more likely to have an accident putting your trousers on in your own home than you are to have an accident on a rollercoaster, and more likely to have a fatal injury from falling off a donkey than being involved in an air disaster. It’s the perception of risk that is higher than the actual risk, and also the notion of being out of control in an alien environment. Driving a car is a fairly normal activity to most people and you are fairly in control, but in an aircraft or rollercoaster, you have given up your control and it’s an unusual environment. There’s also the self-perpetuating marketing environment of the news and documentaries that continue to portray air crashes as something superbly dangerous and absolutely terrifying.

That marketing environment is exactly what makes your air crash scripted experiences accessible. Is the fear inherent in scripted experiences dependent on the social context and era?

Definitely. The Speedway or Waltzer ride, which is like a merry-go-round with undulating floors, is a good example. Up until the 1920s, the ride was always themed around mythical beasts and other fantastical ideas – themes typically used to scare or excite people back then. The rides were quite successful, but suddenly, from the 1920s, the mythical beasts were replaced with images of modernity, such as fire engines and other more mechanical ideas. The ride itself remained exactly the same. I think that what physically excites us – such as accelerating forces – is through evolution and changes slower over the centuries. However, the themes and story that make the spectacular, do change over generations.

Besides these extraneously applied narratives, there also seem to be narratives that exist within the theme park lore – such as Oblivion, which is known as the world’s first sheer vertical drop rollercoaster. How did you refresh the hype around Oblivion?

Alton Towers created a unique selling point with Oblivion being the world’s first vertical drop rollercoaster. Initially this drew a great audience. However, this drop was the only feature of the ride – everything else was a build-up to or a come-down after. Many riders complained that there was this fantastic drop, but absolutely nothing else. So, what I tried to do at Alton Towers was add a medical monitoring system that transformed riders into the subjects of a public laboratory experiment on human emotions – both for the amusement of spectators, the added excitement from being observed and also for real scientific study. Interestingly we discovered that the level of excitement reached a peak just before getting on the ride and the drop itself never managed to match the anticipation of going on the ride. This anticipation was created by people’s preconceived ideas about the story of the ride.

How do you measure those levels of anticipation?

I have been working with the University of Nottingham to develop equipment based on my original experiments at MIT. We’ve been measuring heart rate, which is a good indicator of arousal, but we also measure Galvanic Skin Response, which is a bit like a lie detector test. The more aroused you get, the more open the pores on your fingers get and the more conductive your fingers are to electricity. These are two very quick ways of measuring arousal, however we also use cameras to monitor facial expressions, which are then decoded manually by a psychologist who works in the area of facial expressions and can instantly recognise different emotional states. There are also scientists, particularly at Cambridge University, who are developing software that can automatically decode these facial expressions, but I’m yet to build that into our system. At the moment we’re working on introducing electrodes to the face. Some will be connected to the muscles on the forehead and record the slightest twitch of muscles moving towards a frown, thus indicating displeasure. Others will be connected to the side of the face and record the slightest twitch toward a smile, indicating pleasure.

What about your current work on rides that can be tailored to unique experiences for individual people?

I’ve started working with a company called Robo Coaster who make rollercoaster-simulators on the end of an incredibly large, industrial robotic arm that can throw you around and simulate the forces that you would feel on a rollercoaster. We’re talking about taking my sensing technology, which can identify the emotions you are experiencing in real-time, and then feeding that back into a ride such as the Robo Coaster arm, which will then be able to tailor the kind of throws and movements in direct response to the emotions people are exhibiting. As a ride designer, the trick will be in knowing what to deliver when a person feels a certain state. So, if a person is currently experiencing x then what feature would be appropriate to make them experience y and, also, is y the best experience for that particular person? I think that to create a system that updates real-time is easy, but what it delivers may be absolute nonsense. Just how I tackle that back portion is going to make the difference between an abstract weird ride and something that is carefully scripted and controlled.

Notions of thrill seeking and going to amusement parks do seem like indulgent activities. Are there other applications for your work?

Theme parks may be indulgent activities, but I think it’s part of contemporary society. The thrill mechanism is a primordial mechanism that has evolved to reward the persistence of life, whether through sex, quenching thirst or avoiding danger. In the modern world, we are now so devoid of actually facing any of these situations – besides sex, which continues to be critical to our survival. In order to “feel truly alive” – which is what a lot of thrill seekers describe their experiences as – we have to go to these fake extremes. So, although it’s indulgent, I think it’s cathartic too.

Other applications do exist, for instance in entertainment, theatre, architecture or designing the experience of products. “Thrill” is an extreme sensation, but if you look at lower levels of pleasure and arousal, it applies to purchasing products, taking them out of the package for the first time and that whole body of work being done around customer experience. Thrill is the pinnacle, but I think that tempering my findings would certainly have direct applications in retail.

The more direct application is in the military. For instance, NASA has been doing experiments on remotely piloted aircraft and fighter jets. However, they have found that pilots no longer have the emotional engagement with the jets as they no longer have the fight-or-flight impulse. The element of thrill inherent in high-risk situations like interacting with the enemy is no longer there because there is no real danger. So there the question is about creating the perception of fear and thrill for someone in the military who is remotely piloting an aircraft or tank. However my work is by no means driven by military applications!

Having rationalised the subject to such a degree, can you still thrill yourself?

I’m very good at not rationalising when I’m in the experience. If I were a true scientist, I’d probably be quite poor, because I do allow myself to get lost in the moment. After all, I’m very interested in the subjective experience – which I then explore scientifically and objectively. I came into all these scientific ways of monitoring and understanding thrill through ethnography, which advocates studying an experience through participatory observation and then, as quickly after it as possible, sitting down and reflecting on what your experience was. That is the way that I primarily like to experience rides or any other type of experience. That said, when I was doing experiments on a ride called Fahrenheit, I was asked to go around the ride seven times. By about the third or fourth time, I started rationalising it because going on it that often, I thought I would become quite scared.

Why would you get more scared by going on the ride more often?

Well, there my fear was becoming sick through motion sickness, thereby losing social reputation and no longer commanding respect! Motion sickness is always a bit of a wild card.