The Architect Of Arghhh!

Innovation28 February 2019


Brendan Walker’s two whippets must have a whale of a time when they go for a walk. Rather than a simple stroll in the park you can imagine this pair of pooches kitted out in jet pack collars and virtual reality goggles (doggles?), as they chase imaginary rabbits at lightning speeds around the streets of East London, with Brendan’s trademark red boiler suit a blur as he’s dragged along behind.

In fact, you get the feeling that most of life’s mundane tasks – making a cup of tea, taking the rubbish out, doing the weekly shop – are filled with a myriad of magical possibilities when seen through Brendan’s black-rimmed glasses. That’s because, as well as being part scientist, part inventor, part academic and part entrepreneur, Brendan is perhaps the world’s only thrill engineer. “For years, I’ve been interested in designing emotional experiences,” says the man with the best job title on the planet. “How do you create a theme park ride that pushes people to think they’re going past the dangerous edge, for example? The concept of ‘thrill’ fuses with engineering by creating an emotional experience that blends elements of artistry, choreography and theatre with objective scientific analysis and mechanical engineering.

”It’s this combination of the physiological and the psychological that led Brendan to devise his Walker Thrill Factor; a formula to actually measure thrill (see p14).

“People talk of being thrilled when there’s a large and rapid increase in both pleasure, which is often associated with the release of dopamine in the brain, and arousal, which is associated with the release of adrenaline and is typified by changes in heart rate, sweat levels and pupil dilation,” says Brendan. “You can quantify thrill with the amount, and rate, of change in both.”

According to Brendan, engineering thrill is about more than just creating a physical sensation you need to get people in the right frame of mind, too. And it is this thinking that has led to him consulting on roller coaster projects the world over to make sure they’re as exciting as possible.

“The single most thrilling part of riding a roller coaster is the second when, buckled in, you realise you are past the point of no return and so have to give yourself to the ride,” he says. “It is the tipping point from all the anticipation, apprehension and excitement to the reality of there being no turning back. For the next three minutes, you have got no other option but to sit tight and get spat out at the other end.” It is this tension that can have the greatest emotional impact. Tests conducted by Brendan found that even the biggest loops, tunnel vision-inducing corkscrews or longest heart-in-the-mouth drops can only produce 80 per cent of the emotional impact that the initial stage of strapping into a ride can have.

Professor Walker picks his top five thrill rides from around the world

Takabisha (Japan)

“Intensity, condensed action, sustained thrills... this ride, made by the same manufacturer as Saw, which you can ride at Thorpe Park in the UK, has got it all.”

Top Thrill Dragster (USA)

“If you want the very best in adrenaline-fuelled, high-acceleration, gut-wrenching action, look no further than this ride that once held five roller coaster world records!”

Megafobia (Wales)

“OK, so it’s not the most extreme, but it’s probably one of the most fun wooden roller coasters in the world. It will definitely leave you howling for more.”

Insanity The Ride (USA)

“A massive arm extends out from the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas. The height and speed make you question your own mortality and, of course, your sanity. Completely exhilarating!”

The Zipper (Worldwide)

“A travelling fairground ride that’s part Ferris wheel, part acrobatics. You can rock your own car and even make it flip over. With the right person it can be the best thing you’ll ever ride.

So how do you become a thrill engineer? Brendan studied aeronautical engineering at Imperial College London followed by design at the Royal College of Art, with a stint at British Aerospace in between. Unhappy with the slow pace of military aircraft development, he decided to create his own design consultancy, Aerial, which gave birth to his collective of engineers, designers, technologists and artists, which he calls the Thrill Laboratory. He combines all this with a role as a professor of creative industries at Middlesex University.

“I used to think designing roller coasters was the lowest common denominator when it came to creating something thrilling,” he admits. “Coasters are often publicised with talk of superlatives – the highest, the fastest, the most loops – so I thought they would be easy to design. But to do that without scaring the bejesus out of people is an art. Designing something that appeals to 90 per cent of people without losing its edge is a lot harder than you might think.”

Take TH13TEEN, the world’s first vertical free-fall drop roller coaster, at Alton Towers. Back in 2010, Park chiefs asked Brendan how far someone would need to drop in free fall, in the dark, to be thrilled. Brendan needed to figure out how long the feeling of fear lasts before instinct kicks in to rationalise what is happening.


“Thrill is the body’s reward mechanism for evading danger, so lots of things that trigger thrill are situations that we perceive as being dangerous,” says Brendan. “When it came to TH13TEEN, the ride needed to produce a split-second sense of dread that made the rider question whether the plunge into total darkness was meant to happen.” To generate this fear – and subsequent thrill – Brendan studied physiological data from other rides as well as crash test data from experiments conducted by the DVLA. “I discovered the necessary free fall was a third of a second, and from there I used basic physics to calculate that the riders needed to experience a drop of a little more than five metres to be scared witless and hence feel thrilled afterwards.”

When you consider that a theme park’s star attraction can cost more than £20 million to design and build, and might have to wow crowds of thrill seekers for 25 years, getting such timings right is essential to creating an experience that can excite the majority of people. That’s why the Formula Rossa ride at Ferrari World in the United Arab Emirates can reach a breakneck 150mph in five seconds, for instance, while the Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in America is a dizzying 456 feet tall (139m).

But what makes the perfect roller coaster? According to Brendan the ride should last about three minutes and have as many different features as possible – twists, turns, loops and drops – packed into it. “Every generation wants to experience thrill, and what our parents perceived as thrilling is no longer novel, risky or exciting. Thrill relies on the unknown, so there is a drive to create something more intense; higher or faster or longer,” says Brendan. “But our ability to assess risk is better than ever, which has led to a fixation with trying to avoid it. And because technology can now improve safety we are faced with fewer real risks in our everyday lives. Ironically, that has increased our perception of risk.

“That means people like me can engineer things that appear to be scary when they’re actually safer than they’ve ever been. That’s when engineering thrill really comes alive.”

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