Local News

The World, Triangle, Head to Portugal for Expo '98

Posted July 14, 1998

— More than 8 million people from around the world are spending their summer vacations at Expo '98. It's the last World's Fair of this century and it's taking place right now in now Portugal. You may not have heard much about it, but the world is getting a chance to know us!

WRAL'sDebra Morganvisited Expo '98, and has the story of the Triangle's influence on the world and what lessons we can bring home.

Expo '98: Saving the Seven SeasThe River Tagus makes for a scenic setting as the world celebrates the water. Putting aside differences in politics, language and culture, the countries and companies here have a common bond -- protecting the oceans. That's the theme of the 1998 Lisbon World Exposition in Lisbon, Portugal.

You can go places here you might never be able to visit in person. And you never feel far from home. More than 130 countries are all within walking distance, each reflecting their own relationship with water.

See and touch the wares from small islands in the South Pacific or look at the pictures and learn the history of larger countries like the United Kingdom and Italy.

Hearing languages from all over the world adds to the atmosphere.

"You can meet the different countries and can see whether you'd like to go visit them or not," says a visitor from New York.

Perhaps that's why the United States Pavilion is so popular. Not only can you see the sights, you can touch and feel ocean creatures used for research.

"When you have a common theme about the oceans between all the different countries it's very good, " says an American Expo worker. "It provides a substantial link between everyone."

The American influence permeates Expo '98. From the music to the food. The world's best barbeque -supposedly- comes from Texas. But some of the locals don't necessarily go for the Texas tradition of riding a mechanical bull.

"The Portuguese people, I don't think, like to ride it. I think they're more into fighting the bull they're riding it," says Cliff Cryer who operates the bull ride.

Another ride from the U.S. has more widespread appeal. The Skycoaster is a cross between hang gliding and bungee jumping! Operators claim it's the safest amusement ride in the world. Skycoaster operator Erick Wanke says the only hangup has been with language differences.

"Luckily a lot of our crew members here come from colleges and they know two and three languages, so there's enough people around here you can muddle your way through everything."

After all, a scream is a scream in any language!

Laughs and smiles are universal, too. So is a love of dance and music. People here enjoy the mesh of technology and history, and share the same concerns for the oceans and our future... all while having fun.

The Triangle's Influence on the World

Wonder what the most popular exhibit at Expo '98 is? Just follow the long lines to the U.S. Pavilion.

"It was an absolutely fantastic show. I've never seen anything like it in my life. Amazing," says Simon Bell, of England.

People from all over the real world want to be amazed by the virtual world. Five thousand visitors a day come inside a $15 million building called "Oceania" to experience the latest in virtual reality.

You start with a ride that shakes and jolts you to make you feel as though you're really moving through a movie. The next room has individual headpieces you look through for a virtual vision.

But the next stop displays technology unlike any other you'll find in the world -- state-of-the-art virtual reality technology that comes straight from the Triangle.

"It's the first time the audience can participate. Think of this as a giant 3-D computer monitor," says North Carolina inventor David Bennett. Bennett combined his knowledge of computers and optics to invent this interactive experience.

In the 180-degree digital theatre, you decide the outcome of the movie with the push of a button. A computer figures out which way the majority wants to go. Bennett says it's never the same trip twice.

"There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different things you can do in this movie and every time you come through this. It's a different experience. We made some breakthroughs several years ago on a new form of optics that creates a very strong sense of three dimensions."

The optics, says Bennett, gives you a strong sense of spatial relationships without wearing any goggles, glasses or helmets.

A Canadian company believed in Bennett's vision and they've been working together on this large-scale project for three years: writing software, building the screen, platforms and sound system. They're already planning more adventures like this around the world.

The interactive virtual dome attracts people of all ages, but Bennett's company developed the vision dome in Morrisville at first to use as a 3-D classroom to excite children about math and science.

"Our first idea was to create a portable system that could be taken around the entire state of North Carolina to show all the kids and all the high schools and try to get them excited."

Now, nearly five years later, the focus is on using the virtual reality invention for theme parks, and on a smaller scale for corporate sales.

Bennett says it's designed for corporate America.

"The greatest use for it today is for a sales device... sort of a dealership of the future."

But people right here and now are buying into this interactive idea.

"There are many exciting things here but we think we have the next generation in a theatre or entertainment experience and that seems to be the response we're getting."

Bennett has already sold smaller vision domes to NASA, British Telecom and Steelcase Office Furniture. He's also testing out video teleconferencing, using the dome for a virtual car test drive, as well as virtual banking. Within two years, his goal is to have 3-D monitors for your computer. A Lesson in Hosting the World

Five hundred years ago, explorerVasco de Gamaset out from Portugal and discovered the sea route to India. Expo '98 celebrates the first coming together of different worlds by sea. And this look back to the past allows Portugual to leave a lasting impression on the future.

It may seem hard to believe, but prime waterfront property now occupied by Expo '98 used to be the site of an oil refinery. A symbolic tower is all that remains of that past. Contaminated soil, industrial buildings and condemned housing have all been replaced.

"It was a very neglected zone, forgotten zone and what we feel we are bringing back to the people.," says Joao Paulo Velez, director of communications for Expo '98. "A part of the town that was completely forgotten."

New roads and walkways, new fiber optic communication lines, fountains, park areas and even 30,000 trees have been added. So have thousands of jobs to handle the nearly 10 million visitors expected during the four and a half months Expo will be open.

"It's a totally different thing, says Mareana Van Uden, a Expo worker from Portugal. "In Portugal things used to be not very organized and this is wonderful because you have a sample of the peoples in the world and it's great because it's a good organization everybody is happy."

It won't be long now before the Triangle hosts a world event of its own -- the 1999 Special Olympics World Summer Games. And just like in Portugal, when events of this magnitude end, they leave behind a lasting impression on the community.

"We come over and take back a lot of the learning from big events like this," says Hill Carrow, with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Carrow came to visit Expo 98 to take back ideas about what works, and what doesn't, in such large-scale events. Lessons the Triangle can use for the Special Olympics.

"It's no doubt going to challenge our translation skills, luckily the Triangle is very well equipped in that area. I think it will be a very eye-opening experience and one that will raise the level of the community and be a nice platform to go off and do other great events."

It cost nearly $2-billion for Portugal to host Expo '98, but leaders say that money, and more, will be pumped back into the economy for generations to come.

"We don't want this to be a desert after 1998 and to avoid this we have made an urban plan which includes different functions," says Velez.

That plan includes a massive, modern transportation center, a new civic center, and arena. Real estate around the site will be used for homes and offices.

The centerpiece of Expo, the Oceanarium, will remain a huge tourist attraction for the future. It's the largest aquarium in Europe. The virtual reality pavilion will remain here for tourists, too.

Perhaps, says Velez, all this is why more than 80% of the people in Lisbon supported being a host for Expo.

"People understood that we were not only doing a celebration for four months and a half but something that will last for the future."

For 9 days next summer, 7,000 athletes will compete in 19 sports in 24 venues around the Triangle.

Expo '98 lasts through September 30th.

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