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Do Tech Right the First Time

Do Tech Right the First Time

This is the second part of a two part article.  The first part discussed the business side of an escape room, posted on EscapeFront.com.  See it here.

There is a wide variety in escape room design, quality, and execution across the country and around the world. While much of the variation is due to market influences, there is also a lot of variabilities just in execution. Escape Room Techs is all about the tech in escape rooms, and we focus on creating safe, reliable, and high-quality escape room experiences through the application of technology and engineering.

We acknowledge there is a large DIY community in the escape room business and in all honesty, I completely relate to the ‘I can build this’ attitude and pride that comes with making something yourself. It is a lot of fun, but it can also be dangerous. Below I’ll focus on ways to mitigate the danger.

As in all engineering projects, yes, if you build an escape room, you are engineering, the solution is always defined in terms of limitations or restrictions.

“Engineering is a series of compromises.”

No one who ever set out to design and build a product ever got exactly what they wanted. Don’t believe me? Simple fact, products, especially consumer, are driven by manufacturing price. There could have been a better material, a better process, or more engineering time, which in fact all cost money, that would have reduced the profitability of the product. And businesses are intended to make money. In fact, many products are designed to fail early, so you’ll buy another one.

In your escape room, you have the same issues. There is no doubt that if you had more money, you’d gold plate that thing. It would be the coolest room ever with every bit of automation, quality, and immersion, it would stand up to drunk college kids, and last forever. Lots of compromises here.

What usually happens is the owner is underfunded, wants to do everything themselves to save money, and ultimately ends up with an inferior product that may or may not make money. Ultimately, this process usually costs more money in either the closing of the ER or having to do it all over again sooner than planned.

So what to do?

The short answer, set your goals (as articulated in part 1 on EscapeFront.com) and plan better. Just as with engineering, starting a business is also full of compromises. This article isn’t about the marketing (which may be the single most important aspect of an escape room), but building your room for the safety of your players.

There are many hazards when it comes to constructing your escape room. You are inviting the general public to experience your room. They should have a fun and safe time. (Side note, fun and safety are more important than a super hard, cryptic, low escape rate room.) The public is a wild card variable. They don’t follow rules, they are destructive, and generally not as sharp as you’d expect them to be, truth be told.

lamp-cord-110v-spliceDo not try to do everything yourself. Don’t do anything you aren't already an expert or proficient in. Yes, there are things you can learn with minimal risk, but it is truly amazing what I’ve personally seen in ER in the room and behind the scenes. Everything from obvious violations from exposed nails and splintering wood to hidden items like lamp cords with a relay spliced into it sitting in a wood box with other low voltage wires, none of them strain relieved (read fire or shock waiting to happen).

Inexperience and ignorance are not excuses. Some infractions will violate your fire insurance, sometimes they can injure a player or worse. You are starting a business, this is no time for experiments or expand your creative skill set.

Rules for Constructing your Escape Room

Construction Quality and Safety

  1. No Glass. Don’t use it at all. There is not any good reason to have glass accessible by players in an escape room. There are always ways to find a plastic substitute, protect it with shielding, or keep it out of reach. When it breaks, and it inevitably will, you will put your players in danger. If there are glass lights above, they are ok as long as they are protected and enclosed. Players can’t reach the ceiling (hopefully). Most modern TVs are plastic screens. Ok, you can use safety glass, but only a few will make this expense.
  2. No exposed power sockets. This is a completely unnecessary hazard that is easily avoided. Either cover them up, so they are inaccessible by players or don’t put them in at all. Most rooms will have a warning about this, while other rooms will actually hide clues in them (just no).
  3. Exposed Nails and fasteners. These show up in a few ways.
    • The prop was poorly constructed, and fasteners are exposed.
    • As the prop has fatigued nails have become exposed.
    • During construction or reconstruction, fasteners become exposed that were not originally.

If you purchase ER props at a garage sale or consignment store, don’t expect them to last long. Players will tear them up. Plan on inspecting, rebuilding, and replacing. You also preemptively build stronger by partially disassembling or adding more nails and glue (for wood at least).

  1. Build things tough. Way tougher than you think, players are animals. In the video, you tell them to search the room. They will toss everything. The ER industry and experience are very new, so most people don’t have a reasonable concept of what is normal or what to expect. Also, ER operators have a wide range of play modes. It one room it may be acceptable to break something while in another (most) it is not.

Electrical Tech

This is where things can get even more dangerous.power-strip-in-attic

    1. Power cords & power strips. It is against NFPA NEC fire code to run extension cords and power strips in permanent installations. For more info, check out fire code NEC 400.8 and this great article.

The scary things I’ve seen in attics. Computer power supplies laying on the ceiling tile plugged into power strips. Lamp cord (white or brown stuff) running 110V from a PicoBoo. Just no. This is where fires start. If you don’t understand how to treat 110V and give it the respect it deserves, you are in gross negligence of endangering your players. Hire a licensed electrician. Not the handyman down the street. A licensed electrician knows the rules because he passed a test to get that license and he isn’t going to risk that for your cheap ass.

    1. Controls. To mitigate much of the above, we and most everyone else opts to use low voltage, 12V or 24V control systems. This does not eliminate the risk of fire, but certainly mitigates it. Please see the article I affectionately refer to as “How To Not Burn Down Your Escape Room.” However, there are still times where 110V, aks mains or line voltages are still used. Be very careful and responsible with this. Seek experts and don’t do it yourself.

Now that the fire risk is mitigated, we need to address the quality and functionality of the games. There are many off the shelf control systems from our products to Fright Props to Automation Direct. Note I did not mention SparkFun and Adafruit. Is your business a hobby? Then by all means use hobby components and cobble away. It’s a business? Then rely on professional products and professional services. I can go on for hours why the hobby stuff is not appropriate for professional use (I have on facebook).

  1. relay-spliced-into-lamp-cord-in-atticEnclosures. One key aspect of making electronics last is protection. Electronics are actually pretty fragile in general but will last for near ever if protected (electrically, mechanically, and environmentally). Electrically means keeping voltages and currents in the range for what they were intended, and actually a little less, like 10%. An output rated for 500mA and 30V should run at 450mA and 24V. That’s why it's rated for 30V, so you have that level of protection. ESD and EMF (refer to blog) will stress devices, protect them. Mechanically can mean things like shock protection, vibration, etc. Environment is one that is frequently overlooked. Dust can collect and cause failures. Metal shavings can fall on to an electronics control board and make it a door stop quickly. All that contamination and grime will affect the performance and life of a printed circuit board (PCB). A metal or plastic wiring box can make a world of difference. And ventilate it if you have a lot going on in there (it should not get warm).
  2. Regulation. There are many external authorities which regulate electrical and general construction. They are referred to as AHJ, Authority Having Jurisdiction. On a national level (US) you have OSHA, NFPA which authors the NEC, and FCC (and from a business level, the FTC). Locally, every state, county, city,or little town can make their own rules that you have to follow. Ignorance is not bliss. Most of these AJH can shut you down in a heartbeat.

The above are the areas DIY really goes wrong.

I’ve personally spent 35 years absorbing detail and nuance of electrical and computer engineering in order to develop quality products. When an individual relies on Facebook and YouTube to get their engineering education, the data is very fragmented and usually enough to make something work, but not necessarily make something safe or reliable. When you are building projects for personal use, it may break or cause you or an inconvenience, or worst burn down your house. When you apply that hobby mentality to your business, worst case is you burn down the strip mall or injure someone.

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Make it last and make it fun. I stated above that it was more important to have a fun and safe room than a hard or complex room. Most of the world still has not heard of ERs. Some of us eat, live, and breath ER which give us a false impression of the industry. Most of your players will be newbies, playing their first few rooms. They want to get in, have fun, a small challenge, a story to talk about, and get out. If you have a lot of rooms, sure, build one or two for enthusiast, but don’t get caught up in the idea you need to build this ultimate cool, hard, hi-tech room.

  1. pretty-wiring-in-enclosureBuild to last. Your ER is going to take a beating. Back to the concept of compromise, you aren't Disney, and you probably don’t have Disney money. Do a high-quality job, but understand you will not be able to do custom 3D molding and CNC work for every prop and use the high-end materials and processes they have access to. You need to handle 1000 people a year, they need to handle 1000 people a day. Find good people to help. For sure, there is a lot of DIY that can be done in a quality manner, if you are that kind of person. Use the thicker wood, double the coats of varnish, use the better glue.
  2. Overrides. This is one of those things, that if done early on is easy, but after you realize how badly you need them, are hard to implement. Two parts of this.
    • Things will break, no matter what you do so it’s a matter of being prepared. When the last group breaks a prop, do you want to have to cancel the next group? With manual overrides, sometimes you can let the players play watch them via the camera system. When they are ‘solving’ the broken puzzle, you can force it solved, and the gameplay will progress.
    • When you have a group that you either need to move along due to either ability or annoyance, this capability is very handy. Remember, it’s about fun, and no one wants to feel dumb playing your game. When you see someone struggling, you can help them out and they can have a good time. This is also handy when you have 2 people playing an 8-person room to even the playing field.

Additionally, these systems also usually offer the ability to monitor the prop status and remote reset. Our controllers support all of this via an Ethernet connection and communicate with most every control room software. More on our room and prop control system concept.

  1. Spares. Anything that is critical to your gameplay, keep a spare. Puzzle pieces get lost or “go missing”, people break things intentionally and accidentally. Keep a big box around of the spare parts of your room. Also knowing some workarounds for big issues ahead of time is handy as well.
  2. Repairs. Nothing is worse for the user experience than going in a room that looks like it’s been run 100 times. Finishes get worn, markings wear, the sliding bookcase leaves tracks. It all ruins the experience for the player. Keep your room looking good and maintained.
  3. Paint and Finishes. As stated above, these are the first to go. Keep extra paint around of all the colors you need. Clean the surfaces and protect with clear coats regularly.
  4. Fun. Make sure your customers are having fun. You are running an entertainment venue. You are in the customer service and good times business. Make it happen!

Have fun in the latest entertainment crazy. While it all looks like a ton of fun (and it is sometimes), it’s a business, and it’s a ton of work. Do it right, don’t take shortcuts, and deliver a solid product.

And when you do need help, contact us or another reputable tech company.

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