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INNOVATION BRENDAN WALKER ROLLERCOASTER DESIGNER Did you know there’s a thrillseeking gene?” asks Brendan Walker. People with a certain dopamine receptor are more likely to be thrill-seekers, he explains. “I had my DNA tested a while ago and I have it. Which wasn’t very surprising.” Walker, a self-titled ‘thrill engineer,’ has helped create some of the UK’s best-known rollercoasters and theme park rides, such as Wicker Man and Thirteen at Alton Towers. His aerial design practice specializes in “tailored emotional experiences” and enables Walker to pursue his passion: exploring the phenomenon of the thrill. “It’s deeply subjective, of course, but a thrill combines both pleasure – associated with dopamine – and arousal – associated with adrenaline. To elicit that, you need a rapid and large increase in the two together,” Walker says. “Fear can make the journey even more dramatic.” For a rollercoaster, the emotional experience starts as soon as you know it exists – an advert on TV, perhaps. The whole journey plays a part, from buying the tickets to lining up. “The moment the harness clicks into place, when you know there’s no going back – that’s actually the biggest thrill,” says Walker. He knows this because he has monitored and analyzed the emotions and physiological changes of thousands of theme park-goers in a bid to quantify thrill. The Englishman has even refined it into his own formula, the Walker Thrill Factor. He uses this to measure and rate a thrilling experience by tracking a person’s reactions, including heart rate and facial expressions. “That’s my geeky, scientific side,” he chuckles from behind his trademark large glasses in his East London studio. Walker studied engineering and worked for several years at British Aerospace before deciding that aircraft production timelines were too long for his taste. He quit and went to art college before studying industrial design. “I really loved experimenting. I started out making mechanical sculptures in my workshop. It was fascinating to see how audiences reacted, observing their emotions. I began to explore the underlying psychology, and this eventually wound up as a series of public installations at London’s Science Museum, which gave birth to my work as a thrill engineer.” When consulting for theme parks, Walker uses his research to help ride-makers plan factors like speed, g-force and changes in acceleration or ‘jerk.’ He calculates how far a ride needs to drop vertically, in the dark, to create the sensation of thrill – 0.7 seconds, or 2.4 meters. A ride shouldn’t be one pure adrenaline rush, though, he says. “A rollercoaster is like film or music. When should you change the pace, lighten the mood? Alfred Hitchcock was a master at it: giving the viewer a short cathartic release before taking them somewhere darker.” His latest project combines virtual reality with an old-fashioned playground swing. Walker says he can make people believe they are bouncing above rooftops or undulating like a jellyfish. “I’m developing ways to harness the physical forces riders feel, by making them believe they are coming from very different places. Virtual reality is allowing me to be really innovative – and this may be the future for thrill rides beyond rollercoasters.” 60 THE JAGUAR


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