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"There's an entire city of technology behind it all that people never see."
-Thomas Roberts
Rio vice president

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Visual Basic Powers the Glitz!
feature story -By Kathryn Crawford

By the tens of thousands, computer professionals will swarm over the Comdex trade show this week in Las Vegas, searching for the latest technology solutions and strategies. The place to start is the main Microsoft booth, where visitors can see a real-world, real-time application of bleeding-edge technology. How do you know it really works? Just ask the people who run the entertainment extravaganza at the Rio Suite Hotel and Casino - all with just a touch of a button.

In the darkened control room high above the Las Vegas casino floor, several computer screens blinked quietly. Three technicians hovered over the keyboards as they peered out over a vast expanse of empty ceiling outside the tinted glass walls.

One of the technicians pressed a button and across the football field-sized room, a riverboat etched in lights eased out onto the ceiling, eight musicians aboard loudly jamming to the sounds of a New Orleans Mardi Gras. Suspended from above, a glittering parade of floats followed, gliding along an intricate system of tracks in the ceiling 34 feet above the floor.
Microsoft at COMDEX

  • Bill Gates gives the keynote speech at 7 p.m. Sunday PST. Tune in with Netshow!

  • Read all about Microsoft at COMDEX. Find maps, Microsoft presentations, events, etc.

  • Starting Monday, check Microsoft Developer Network for updates from our wandering scribe Norvin Leach.

  • MSNBC and ZDNET team up for comprehensive coverage throughout the event.

  • Microsoft Windows CE has a major presence at COMDEX. Read the details.

  • "There, I never operated this thing before," said Michael Paulin, technical director of the show at the Rio Suite Hotel and Casino, as the last sequined dancers disappeared at the end of the 12-minute show. He patted the control board in front of him. "The guy that usually sits here is out sick."

    A Mini-Carnival Paulin clearly enjoys bragging about the computer system spread before him. The $25 million show pairs German transit technology with industrial automation, Broadway theater software - and, of course, Las Vegas glitz and glitter. The whole shebang runs on Microsoft Windows 95 and the software applications are programmed with Microsoft Visual Basic.

    "All you've got to do is press a button and the show runs itself," Paulin said. "It is so easy to operate. A normal stage hand can go into this system and change things; before, we'd need some kind of electrical engineer. It's very, very user-friendly."

    The floats, which weigh in at about 22,000 pounds each, operate independently and simultaneously along 1,200 feet of track in the ceiling. The system also controls performers dangling on bungee cords, giant inflatable creatures, and dance acts that rise on elevators out of the floor. And then, of course, there is the wireless communication, the lighting special effects, the hydraulics, and the sound systems to worry about - not to mention the safety of dozens of performers and paying guests dancing on floats suspended 13 feet above the casino floor.

    "This is a whole different application of some concepts of legitimate theater - in a mad scientist sort of way," said Carl Sandahl, production manager for Attraction Management LLC, a Las Vegas-based company that manages the Rio's show. "What we have here is a mini-carnival," he explained during one of the shows as an ornate hot air balloon bobbed past, a performer dangling from a rope ladder and blowing kisses to the crowds.

    The Rio's Masquerade Show in the Sky, which opened in February, took just over a year to build using the expertise of numerous technical, creative, and engineering companies. "We started with a concept and we ended up in technology," said Thomas Roberts, vice president of the casino's development and leasing division. "And this technology is being used in a way that's never been done before."

    A City of Technology The operating interface - the backbone of the project that controls all the other applications - is programmed in Microsoft's Visual Basic. "We were looking for something we could continually enhance," rather than a one-shot deal, said John Hennessey, vice president of Scenic Technologies, an award-winning company based in New Windsor, New York, that engineered and produced all the structural, mechanical, and electrical aspects of the show. "We saw this project as a continuing process."

    Rockwell Software, based in Milwaukee, used Visual Basic and ActiveX controls to program the hardware that controls the show's machinery. Rockwell Software and its parent company, Rockwell International, ordinarily build machines that run beer bottling plants, for instance, or the elevators in the Space Needle in Seattle - not Las Vegas shows.

    "But the entertainment stuff uses the same technology that could be used to produce cheese, it's just the way you apply it," said Jeff Hamilton, director of the component products business unit at Rockwell.

    Despite the advanced technology involved, the end product had to be dependable, hardy, and disarmingly simple. "We needed a system that would run every single day for many years, and that could be run by people who were not necessarily brain surgeons," Rio vice president Roberts said. "We knew we didn't want something so high-tech that we'd need someone from MIT to turn it on and off."

    Back on the casino floor, the interminable clanging and dinging of the slot machines lessened as the Las Vegas gamblers paused to gape at the glittering show overhead. The extravaganza seemed to be the spontaneous result of wild good spirits, rather than of cutting-edge technology. "There's an entire city of technology behind it all that people never see," Roberts said.

    Writer Kathryn Crawford promptly lost $14 in the slot machines during a recent trip to Las Vegas to research this article.
    © 1997 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Terms of Use. Last Updated: November 14, 1997