Virtual Reality Roller Coasters Are Here (and Everywhere)

The U.K.’s Alton Towers, which opens its Galactica ride this week, is one of more than a dozen amusement parks that are giving old rides new life with VR

Everything is black. I feel my body tilt forward, then lurch into motion. The world around me blinks into being, and I find myself floating through a long metal conduit, which opens beneath me, leaving me dangling over a massive space station inhabited by spiderlike robots. Up ahead, there’s a portal waiting to launch me across the galaxy. A synthetic voice counts down: “Three, two, one....”

I’m through the portal, and to my left a planet explodes. “You’ve just witnessed the birth of a new sun,” explains Eve, my AI tour guide. Before I can think twice about whether that’s even scientifically possible, I’m thrust through another portal, which shoots me over rivers of lava on a volcano planet. And then I’m exiting a third portal, dodging giant icicles on a frozen world that looks a lot like Krypton.

Alarms sound. From Eve’s technobabble, I gather that something’s gone wrong—something about timing, a portal closing. And then, my spacecraft rights itself and lands. I take off my Samsung Gear VR headset as a teenager in a uniform exclaims, “Welcome back, Galactinauts!”

Oh, right. I’m at Alton Towers, a theme park in Staffordshire, England.

The content may be sci-fi, but the physical experience is the real deal. On Galactica, Alton Towers’ newest attraction, which opens on 24 March, riders fly facedown around an 840-meter track, Superman-style, reaching 75 kilometers per hour and 3.5 g’s—more force than an astronaut feels during a rocket launch. In addition to all that, riders strap on virtual-reality goggles meant to transport them right out of the English countryside and into another galaxy.

Galactica isn’t the world’s first virtual reality roller coaster. It’s actually the second, or third…or sixth, depending on whom you ask. This year and next, about 20 VR roller coasters are set to debut across Europe, Asia, and North America. Most of those rides are coming from just two companies: Germany’s VR Coaster and the United Kingdom’s Figment Productions, which designed Galactica.

The point is, virtual reality roller coasters are having a moment, thanks to the availability of decent mobile VR headsets, a tech ecosystem that’s finally matured around virtual reality, and a few engineers who’ve developed a knack for being at the right place at the right time.

Simon Reveley, founder of Figment Productions, sees the arrival of VR roller coasters as another step in the VR industry’s pursuit of presence—that transcendent moment when you lose yourself in an imaginary world and forget you’re wearing a headset.

“If you’re a surfer, the ultimate thing is catching the tube in the middle of a wave,” he tells me. “In every form of entertainment and experience, there’s, like, a holy grail—there’s, like, one thing you want to get. In VR, presence is it.”

For the past 18 months, Reveley’s company, based in Guildford, England, has worked with the theme-park design group Merlin Magic Making to transform Alton Towers’ 14-year-old roller coaster—once called Air—into a trip to an unknown solar system.

“When we first started, we all sat around thinking, ‘What was the one thing we most wanted to do in VR but couldn’t?’ ” says Reveley. “I grew up in the ’80s with Star Wars—so of course it was flying around the galaxy.” A roller coaster, he says, is the perfect way to bring that dream to life.

Yet adding VR to a roller coaster could also be a terrible idea. We’re talking about the marriage of two of the most notoriously nauseating activities on offer. I, in particular, should steer clear: I get sick reading my Kindle in the passenger seat of a car.

Strangely, though, bringing the two together may actually be the solution to the nausea problem. Experts say the most likely culprit for motion sickness in VR is “cue conflict”: the stomach-curdling disconnect you feel when the visual cues you’re getting from the virtual world don’t match the signals from the natural gyroscopes and accelerometers of your body’s vestibular system.

In the old days, it was the headsets that couldn’t keep up with us. Even one-tenth of a second lag between moving your head and seeing the image respond was enough to make you revisit your breakfast. Thanks to faster computers and displays, and techniques like predictive head tracking, that latency has gone down to about 20 milliseconds. But that has left game developers grappling with the equally nauseating flip side of that coin: the problem of sitting stationary as our virtual selves dart around at 65 km/h.

 Stick VR on a roller coaster, says Reveley, and the riders move in sync with what they’re seeing, so the cue-conflict problem disappears—if you design the system right. That means every curve and dive of the real-life coaster needs to match exactly what the riders see—down to a couple of hundredths of a second—or the ride risks becoming a vomit comet.

The key to making this work on Galactica is Vector VR, Figment Productions’ in-house motion-tracking and syncing system. Reveley’s team realized that because a roller coaster follows a set route, a rider’s body has a predictable orientation and acceleration. By attaching an accelerometer and gyroscope to the ride vehicle and sending it around the track, they could create a master path of data around which they could build their virtual environment. During the ride, each passenger’s VR system generates a similar set of data. By comparing that data with that of the master path, the Vector VR system can pinpoint the exact location of the vehicle, allowing the VR headset to render perfectly synchronized content in real time.

To test that concept, the group started off pretty low-tech: They strapped smartphones to their chests and scooted around their studio on wheeled office chairs, attempting to create figure-eight patterns of data.

 Soon, though, Reveley and his team were itching to test the concept on a proper roller coaster. They contacted attractions operator Merlin Entertainments, with which they were already working on several other projects. As it happened, Merlin was just starting to investigate adding VR to the Air coaster at Alton Towers.

Over the past year, Figment, Merlin, and Alton Towers have completely remodeled the roller coaster to support VR. Each seat on Galactica is equipped with a “control pack” that includes an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi controllers. The system communicates positional data to the headset and allows operators to make adjustments to the riders’ experience en route. A large battery under the seat powers both the control pack and the headset. During off hours, the top rail of the track is electrified to supply power to the batteries, effectively turning the roller coaster into, as Reveley calls it, “the world’s largest mobile-phone charger.”

Mostly for efficiency and some very real safety concerns, Alton Towers decided to build the VR elements into the physical ride, embedding the control sensors into the vehicles and tethering the headsets to the safety bars. But because the technology that drives Vector VR is mechanically independent of the coaster, future versions of the system might enable guests to extend their virtual experience beyond the ride. If guests followed a set path—for example, by riding in a preprogrammed vehicle—they could carry the Vector VR control pack in a backpack and have a separate VR experience before and after stepping onto the roller coaster.

Figment’s approach also means that the team can put together a viable product for a theme-park client in very little time. In a matter of a few hours, the team can attach a sensor to a roller coaster, process the data, and quickly have a map of the physical track. Within 24 hours, says Reveley, they’re able to hand their clients a headset and show them a demo of their own coaster in VR.

If VR roller coasters like Galactica are a success, they will represent the coming of age of a concept that first captivated and then flummoxed the theme-park industry more than a decade ago.

One of the more public failures came in 2004, at Germany’s Space Park Bremen. The Galaxie Express roller coaster used LCD screens built into each seat to turn a minute-long loop over the park into a trip through the solar system.

But without the ability to reliably sync in real time, says David Younger, author of the forthcoming book Theme Park Design and the Art of Themed Entertainment, the ride just made passengers queasy. The park shuttered for unrelated business reasons after only nine months.

Similar attempts didn’t fare much better, and it's unclear whether that's because the technology just wasn’t ready—as Figment and its competitor seem to argue—or if there's just something fundamentally underwhelming about replacing reality with media.

“There’s a skepticism toward video within theme-park design,” says Younger. “Guests expect their environment to have a tangibility to it.” He says that designers at Disney and Universal have had to combat a phenomenon they call “media apathy,” or the tendency for guests to tune out images and words when they’re presented in a way that too closely resembles how they’d consume them at home.

Whatever the reason, after Bremen, the entire idea of VR on a coaster “just got dropped completely for over a decade,” says Younger. “It wasn’t until virtual-reality headsets became popular outside the industry that people inside the industry decided to take another look.”

In 2014, Thomas Wagner, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Kaiserslautern in Germany, went looking for a VR project for his virtual design students to cut their teeth on.

Wagner approached coaster manufacturer Mack Rides to see if he could run a few VR experiments at Europa-Park, Mack’s amusement park on Germany’s southwest border. Mack had built the physical roller coaster track for Galaxie Express and was skeptical.

“That was the first thing the marketing guy from Mack told me—that they’d already tried this out [more than a decade ago],” says Wagner.

Still, Mack agreed to give him the computer-aided-design models for two roller coasters at Europa-Park and granted a few of his students access to the rides at night. Soon, Wagner was taking busloads of grad students to Europa-Park for overnight hackathons.

“It was this top-secret thing,” says Wagner. “After the park was closed, we were allowed to ride until midnight, which is, by the way, very cool—riding coasters in the middle of the night. We stayed overnight, and in the early morning, before the park was open, we’d go to the next coaster and do tests there. Then when the park opened up, everyone was spending their day in the theme park for free.”

Needless to say, Wagner quickly became one of the most popular professors on campus.

The students’ VR coaster design started with Oculus Rift headsets tethered to laptops, which in turn had to be bolted to the safety bar in front of each rider. It was a fragile setup; the headsets’ USB connection was tenuous, and the vibrations from the ride risked breaking the computers’ main boards. But Wagner suspected that wireless headsets were just around the corner. Sure enough, the Gear VR was announced late that same year.

Early on, the students had to sync the ride manually: One student would sit at the top of the ride with a laptop, tracking the coaster’s location and speeding up or slowing down the video being fed to the VR headsets by hand. But very quickly the team hit on a better solution: counting the rotations of the coaster’s wheels.

Rather than using motion sensors as Figment does, Wagner’s team attached a “black box” to the ride vehicle that uses either inductive or optical sensors. The sensors count holes on one of the car’s wheels as it rotates to determine the vehicle’s position along the track. That positional data is transmitted 30 times every second to each of the headsets via Bluetooth, varying the timing just slightly from one headset to the next based on the passenger’s seat number.

The result, Wagner says, was thrilling: an honest-to-God feeling of weightlessness provided by the coaster, exaggerated by visuals that told your mind you were in free fall.

Mack Rides was so impressed with an early run that the company immediately moved with Wagner to file a patent and found a new company: VR Coaster.

What started off as a fun academic project quickly became serious business. VR Coaster’s breakout moment came at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions conference in Orlando, Fla., last November, when the team demonstrated their system for hundreds of amusement-park professionals.

Among them was Sam Rhodes, the director of design at Six Flags Entertainment, who had brought along the company’s chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief operating officer, and assorted top decision makers.

Rhodes’s job is to explore emerging technologies for use at all 18 Six Flags theme parks. And he is a full-blown VR nerd. He says his office in Texas is cluttered with Rifts, Cardboards, Vives, and Gear VR headsets. He had already been using the Oculus Rift to design new roller coasters for the park, but he’d been waiting for technology that would allow him to sync VR content to an actual ride.

Rhodes was excited by VR’s potential to manipulate riders’ perceptions—for instance, transforming a 30-meter drop into a 150-meter plunge off a skyscraper. He also wanted to offer riders a choose-your-own adventure and add interactive gaming. Initially the designer had faced some resistance from Six Flags executives about diving all-in on VR. The minute they saw the demo in Orlando, though, the business case was clear.

“We have the opportunity to take a coaster that’s been in our system for several years and give it a completely new life,” Rhodes says, “without having to build a giant multimillion-dollar steel structure.” Six Flags has signed on with VR Coaster to enhance nine rides this season.

It’s a scalable model. Six Flags could potentially customize a single experience for dozens of rides around the country, turning any number of its 135 coasters into virtual canvases of disorientation. Moreover, should consumer VR become ubiquitous, riders could download software and bring their own headsets from home.

So is this the future? Will all roller coasters soon be clothed in VR?

My experience at Alton Towers was certainly shaping up to be everything I’d been promised. The content was beautifully synced; two times around the track in quick succession still resulted in less nausea than I’d had during my cab ride through the rolling Staffordshire Moorlands that morning. The visuals—though still noticeably computer generated—were compelling. And the chill of an early spring day in England actually made a convincing substitute for an ice planet or the cold depths of space.

I would have been thoroughly sold—if only I hadn’t taken the ride one last time. For that last ride, I went around the track without the VR content (the Gear VR wouldn’t fit over the GoPro I was trying to strap to my forehead).

Rather than a tunnel to the stars, I was staring facedown at a pavement littered with dead brown leaves, until…suddenly, I was flying—swooping down into close calls with the ground below, hurtling up into barrel rolls, darting through real trees, and feeling the wind in my hair. My body went limp in exhilarated, childlike joy.

As I stepped off the coaster, I was left with the nagging sense that a coaster as physically thrilling as Galactica might have been more thrilling if it had just been left alone. There’s no question that incredible leaps in graphics, computing power, motion tracking, and syncing have brought VR unbelievably far since its early days. But if it’s presence you’re after, it may turn out to be surprisingly difficult to beat the old-fashioned method. It’s called being present.

This story was corrected on 24 March.

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