Lebanon’s Ride into the Future
By: Leah Caldwell
Published Saturday, June 30, 2012
There are six 7-D theaters in Lebanon, one of which is located in the sunken commercial plaza of Verdun’s Concorde Center. Wedged between the bright facades of Dunkin’ Donuts and Dip ‘n Crunch, the theater resembles an oversized DVD vending machine.
Abdul Rahim Samadi, the purveyor of 7-D in Lebanon, takes me inside the 17 square-meter box. There’s a curved screen at the front of the room and six race-car-like seats with seatbelts in the center. Samadi goes to the computer board located in a corner and types in a cryptic code that appears on the screen. The seats – which are attached to a hydraulic plane – begin to move forward, backward, and sideways. He enters another code, imitation snow bursts from the wall. Other codes release water and bubbles, another signals “ticklers” to protrude and rattle from beneath seats.
“It’s an entire system so that you feel like you’re in the heart of the movie,” he said, explaining that the snow and bubbles represent a few of the promised seven “dimensions.”
In 2011, Samadi, a computer hardware engineer, patented 6-D and 7-D theaters with the Lebanese Ministry of Economy and Trade. Since then, Samadi and others have heralded this surfeit of dimensions as a Lebanese invention, despite the presence of other “7-D” theaters in Romania, Iceland and South Dakota. At a public event in Tripoli, Sheikh Osama Haddad of Dar al-Ifta announced from the stage to an audience of hundreds, “A young Lebanese man, Muslim, from Tripoli, invented a device that has shocked the world. Everyone has heard of 3-D or 4-D, this young man…invented 6-D and 7-D. It’s amazing...Now he just surprised me at this celebration by saying ‘I don’t want money, I want [the blessings] of the Prophet.’”
In person, Samadi presents the inception of 7-D in less grandiose terms. The 29-year-old got the idea after he visited a 4-D theater in Turkey. (The Turkish version only vibrated and didn’t spray water.) Now, Samadi and his crew import machinery from South Korea, order additional spare parts from abroad, and then assemble the equipment in Lebanon. From there, Samadi programs the dozens of Chinese animated movies to coincide with the “dimensions” of the film, like timing a drastic up-tilt of the seats when climbing a mountain or a burst of wind when flying in a plane. The final product is less like a theater and more like a cross between an amusement park ride and a military-grade flight simulator.
If anything sets the 7-D theater apart from the average carnival ride, it’s the element of choice. There are over 60 scenarios in which you can “live the full adventure” and “discover all your senses,” according to the brochure. “The older kids come and ask us, what is the most terrifying thing that you have?” he said. The list is extensive: Bloody Road I, II, and III, as well as Halloween Horror. I chose the cryptically titled “Gulf of Ghost” and watched a Ring-like child repeatedly stab a body and then charge at me with her knife. The experience lasted about six minutes and cost 7,000 Lebanese Lira. The most popular 7-D experience for kids is Rollercoaster, because kids like the sensation of “falling from above to below,” said Samadi.
Outside, a boy, about eight years old and wearing glasses, waited to purchase a ticket for a show. He pointed to a poster on the wall depicting an ominous Mayan-esque temple with bold letters reading: The Mysterious Triangle.
In two months’ time, Samadi plans to go beyond 7-D. “In addition to water falling, there will be the smell of water. When you pass a flower, you’ll smell the flower. Also, if there’s a terrifying person in the film, then a person will appear in front of the people to scare them,” he said. One vendor of theater parts in Guangzhou, China, markets a device that drips hot water to simulate blood and excrement, perhaps showing that there’s no limit to human desire to make simulation as “authentic” as possible.
As “futuristic” as 7-D might sound, Samadi isn’t someone trying to make science fiction a reality; he’s a computer programmer with a business plan. He has just signed a contract to install the 7-D box at four McDonald’s restaurants in Lebanon. And soon, the Lebanese-patented 7-D will make its way to Saudi Arabia, where the word “theater” will be replaced with “simulator” since the country has banned physical cinemas. Samadi points out the two different websites on a brochure: one 7-D Theater, the other 7-D World.
The 7-D theater of today – though impressive from programming and design aspects – is an ersatz version of the seamless simulated and virtual reality technologies of science fiction, despite its claims to “transcend time, space and imagination.” Instead, it seems more akin to one of the many anti-climactic inventions of our failed “science fiction future,” referenced by David Graeber in the March 2012 edition of The Baffler. Graeber asks why many of the creations imagined in science fiction have never materialized and observes that once bold visionary ideas are now just “dead ends of consumer pleasure.”
Consumer packaging aside, there’s also something endlessly fascinating about ventures like 7-D theaters that seem to prematurely take on the ideas of science fictions. For my second 7-D experience, Samadi chose the scenario for me, something involving a fighter jet. The jet takes off and navigates narrow glacier ravines while weaving in and out of an anonymous companion’s jet streams. After being fired upon with glowing laser beams (in-theater correlation being ankle tickling), I take “shelter” inside what seems to be a massive internal combustion engine.
Besides lingering nausea, there was only one moment when, for a split second, the 7-D experience felt like something else besides sitting in a box next to a Dunkin’ Donuts. When I wasn’t completely distracted by the convulsive shaking of the simulator and the non-stop wind in my face, I tried to focus on my new “reality.” Coming out of a glistening ice tunnel, you see the first evidence of man-made structures planted in a boreal valley: non-descript military outposts and industrial installations of gigantic proportions. The expansive vista seemed empty and there were no humans in sight. I had always assumed that I was on earth, but for a second, the realization that the terrain might be alien was a bit unexpected.
When I asked Samadi if he was a fan of science fiction films or literature, his eyes became big and he replied that he is a huge fan of The Matrix. I gestured to the 7-D box from an outdoor table at Dip ‘n Crunch and said that maybe one day a cinema would be able to replicate a Matrix-like experience, where the line between simulation and reality will be blurred entirely. “I hope so,” he said.