Virtual Reality…everyone’s talking about it! Whilst the new tech might be familiar to gamers, it’s just finding its feet in theme parks. We take a look at the early stages of VR on full size coasters…
The majority of people by now will be familiar with the concept of Virtual Reality. The technology, which usually involves the participant wearing a headset (otherwise referred to as goggles) with two small screens inside, one for each eye. The screens, being directly in front of your vision, become your reality. As you move your head, accelerometers within the headset transmit messages to the screens and your field of view changes; exactly as it would in real life. This emerging technology is perhaps best known at the present for its application in gaming – the Kickstarter-funded Oculus Rift is one model of VR headset which has inspired thousands of new games, all designed from the ground up for the experience of Virtual Reality.
The Oculus Rift headset (Oculus Rift)
One avenue which has only just begun to be touched by the explosion of VR though, is that of theme parks – and, more specifically, roller coasters. Europa Park in Rust, Germany was the first to properly implement a Virtual Reality system on a full scale roller coaster. The park carried out early tests with the Oculus Rift headset on Blue Fire (their own large Mack megacoaster) with a film they had developed in-house by their own production company Mack Media. The main technological challenges with the technology in regards to coasters is that the motion you appear to experience within the headset has to match exactly to the real motion that occurs on the ride. Failure to match this perfectly can cause severe motion sickness, as what your eyes see won’t correspond to the physical signals your brain is receiving. The result of the tests were that, in order for the headsets to work, sensors had to be fitted to the wheels, which were then able to track the rotation and work out where exactly on the track the train was at any time. This meant that, if the ride were to stall in real life, it would also “stall” within the VR experience.
After these tests, Europa Park and Mack Media launched their own external company “VR Coaster” – and subsequently semi-permanently implemented the VR technology on one of their other coasters on park, Alpenexpress. The Oculus Rift technology was deemed too expensive for the numbers of headsets required (the headsets are also required to be cleaned between cycles, for hygiene purposes), and therefore the decision was made to go with the slightly lower-spec Samsung Gear VR headsets.
The Mack family ride Alpenexpress with the Samsung Gear VR headsets at Europa Park (Europa Park)
So, what is VR like, you may ask? Well, having sampled Europa Park’s Alpenexpress VR, we can tell you that is undoubtedly a fantastic advancement in theme park technology. Alpenexpress, for those that don’t know Europa Park too well, is a simplistic mine train – the like of which many, many parks across the world will have. Yet, the Mack Media film produced for the ride, in combination with the perfectly synced motion and visuals makes you feel like you are going far faster than the 27mph top speed of the ride, and even inverting at points – one minute heading down a crazy mine shaft, the next soaring over Europa Park like a bird. The fact that you are able to look in any direction at any time makes the entire experience unlike anything else you will have tried before – and the potential that it gives parks to enhance otherwise relatively tame rides is indescribable.
The Alpenexpress VR headsets on-ride (Europa Park)
Which brings us onto the next big project in VR. This time involving the English park Alton Towers – who this year will unveil their VR coaster “Galactica.” Formerly “Air” – this is a complete retheme and refurb of a B&M flyer – a far more ambitious project both logistically and technologically than the Europa Park version. Not least if you imagine someone wearing a headset, and then being tipped onto their front (as the B&M flyers do) – the potential for the headsets falling off alone must be enormous! The Alton Towers ride brings forward a whole new system; the first system of its kind produced by Figment Productions, and it promises far higher quality than the Mack Media “VR Coaster” in every aspect – including the resolution of the screens within the headsets, and the quality of the animation and graphics within the films themselves. The ride is scheduled to be unveiled in its new guise in May 2016 – and rest assured that European Coaster Kings will be at the park to document and report back on exactly how this new model compares to the Europa Park concept.
“Galactica” official concept art (Alton Towers)
All in all, Virtual Reality is no doubt the next big thing in theme parks. And with the “VR Coaster” concept already reporting numerous worldwide projects in the pipeline – it looks as though everyone will get a chance to experience it somewhere in the near future.
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