Reality Check: Six Flags Revolutionizes Coasters with VR

March 25, 2016, 10:15 AM · The idea sounds ridiculous, we know.

Strapping a virtual reality headset to your face while riding a roller coaster? That's just crazy talk. For years, we've been telling people to keep their eyes open and to watch the track when they ride a coaster. That provides the visual cue your brain needs to help your body prepare for the drops, twists, airtime, and turns it will encounter on these high-speed thrill rides.

Yeah, people ride coasters in the dark. Or backwards. For some, not having that visual cue amplifies the thrill. But it's one thing to deny yourself a look at what's coming on the ride ahead. It's something else entirely to replace what you see with an alternate reality.

That's when so many fans who haven't experienced a virtual reality coaster turn green and start looking around for the nearest barf bag. But having ridden Six Flags' The New Revolution this morning, allow me to tell you this:

Forget everything you fear about virtual reality roller coasters. Wearing a VR headset on a roller coaster isn't a nauseating experience.

It's a liberating one.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the world's first steel vertical looping coaster, Six Flags Magic Mountain has transformed Revolution into The New Revolution, installing new trains with more comfortable restraints, repainting the track, and... oh yeah, offering Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus headsets to all riders age 13 and older, at no extra charge.

Wearing the headset completely changes the experience of riding The New Revolution. No longer do you see and feel yourself riding this iconic coaster across a wooded hillside near Magic Mountain's front gate. Now, you're strapped into a single-seat fighter jet, battling aliens in an Independence Day-like dogfight to save the planet.

Nausea? Nope. The VR footage you watch synchs with the action of flying across the coaster's track. You simply feel as if you are experiencing the most life-like video game ever. I've yet to ride on a shaker seat or flight simulator that truly recreates the physical sensation of dropping more than 100 feet, looping through an inversion, and feeling the wind rush by at 55 miles per hour as you fly through one turn after another. You feel all that here, on a real coaster.

And yet... you don't see how far you are above the ground. You don't see the loop or the tunnel coming. You just see the action on the screen in front you, comfortably secured to your face by four padded Velcro straps. And with these new trains, you feel the physical ride much more smoothly than you ever would on any of those "jiggle box" (as my wife calls them) simulator attractions.

If there's a knock to be made on the ride by thrill fans it's that this doesn't really feel like you're riding a roller coaster. While you still feel those same physical sensations, changing the visual experience transforms The New Revolution into a different type of attraction. It's not a roller coaster. It's not a simulator. It's the best of both things β€” the real experience of riding a coaster with the storytelling capabilities of a simulator ride.

Here's the video:

If you've been wondering when the theme park industry would develop a fresh, new type of ride β€” it's here. Many of us have fallen into the habit of always looking to Disney and Universal for industry advances. But after enjoying Six Flags' Theme Park Insider Award-winning Justice League Battle for Metropolis last year, which melded interactive gameplay with a 3D motion-base ride, and experiencing The New Revolution this year, here's a crazy idea β€” the biggest innovator in theme parks today might just be Six Flags.

Update: The New Revolution opens to Six Flags passholders tomorrow and to the rest of the public on April 21.

Replies (37)

March 25, 2016 at 11:41 AM · This has got to be the coolest thing that I have ever seen or heard of. This is truly revolutionary. Think about the re-rideablity factor!!!! They could come up with multiple stories and settings that incorporate the movement of the actual coaster. You could experience a new film with every ride. That would be amazing.
March 25, 2016 at 11:56 AM · Robert you did a great job in this report..

How did you split the Youtube screen to show both you on the coaster and the VR?

March 25, 2016 at 12:01 PM · I think it's awesome tech and would be willing to give it a shot. Very cool of you to report on this Robert!

That said, there are two pretty major downsides I can see on this

One is being handed this headset in July when it's 102 and after about 100,000 people have put it on before me. Just sitting in the seat sometimes behind someone in a wife beater can be wet and disgusting, I can't imagine strapping something on my face totally soaked in sweat and sunscreen will be enjoyable.

And two, not a fan on not being able to see the other riders and what they may attempt to do. If/when one of these comes off it's a pretty serious projectile, but I am referring more to loose items flying out. We know that people ruined the duel aspect of dragons by throwing stuff (and blinded a guy for life), I have to think the temptation for some to spit or throw things would be increased if they think they can get away with it.

I have been splashed before by bugs, spit, vomit, and hope-to-God-it-was-just-water intentionally and unintentionally on night rides where people did stuff like this. I'm not a neat freak, just aware of things bodily fluids can (and do!) transmit.

March 25, 2016 at 12:04 PM · "Nausea? Nope.", for you. For others that suffer from motion sickness this still could be quite a problem. "You simply feel as if you are experiencing the most life-like video game ever." Being a gamer myself, many first person shooters and the like, cause me motion sickness. I will give it a try but I am wary of the possible VR sickness that could be induced.
March 25, 2016 at 12:15 PM · I felt better riding the coaster today than I felt just sitting in a chair and watching the VR video at Magic Mountain last month. Back then, the disconnect between seeing motion on the VR screen and not feeling it in "real life" gave me twinge of green at a couple spots. But today, because I was feeling the motion suggested on the screen, I felt completely comfortable and at ease during the ride. The experience made me wonder if a VR coaster would feel more comfortable than stationary VR - again, because there no longer is that disconnect between what you are seeing and what you are feeling.

As for sanitation, Six Flags has people spraying the units with disinfectant between rides. And they've got hundreds of these headgear sets. We'll know how the experience is in July when we get there, but at least Six Flags appears to have anticipated the problems and objections with the headgear and is trying (at this point) to alleviate them.

March 25, 2016 at 12:18 PM · Brian,

Six Flags recorded the on-ride portion of the video. It created the split screen with the feed from the RPOV camera, mounted on the front of the train, and the feed from the VR app.

March 25, 2016 at 12:55 PM · I'm still not convinced, but am willing to try it out when/if I get a chance. I wish the graphics were more realistic and less cartoon-like, but that issue can be improved as the tech improves. I guess my biggest fear is that companies will cheap out on practical effects in coasters and CGI everything like the movie industry has done. I can see Disney giving these headsets to people on Expedition Everest and simulating a moving Yeti while the real thing just stands there in suspended animation for all time. On the other hand Space Mountain could really be improved with this tech. Or even Rock N Roller Coaster. But there is just something about actually seeing the real scenery that can never be replaced. I mean, how could you replace the views on Millennium Force or Magnum XL-200, or Wild Eagle, or the Beast with some cut rate video game? Ride designers have to be smart as this tech moves forward and only use it where it makes the most sense (like on parking lot coasters).

Anyway, good article, Mr. Niles, thanks for sharing your timely review! Now I can go back to reading all the scathing reviews of Batguy V Stuperdude - critics can be so funny sometimes: "It’s like putting your head in a beehive for two and a half hours" - too funny!

March 25, 2016 at 1:20 PM · Do you have a choice if you want the head set or not?
March 25, 2016 at 1:29 PM · I suppose this will take out the need to put special effects on the coaster itself. Not much tech was advanced for on-ride practical effects. Maybe there's a best of both worlds here. What if they combined the Hogwarts Express train vehicle on a roller coaster track. You experience the full g-forces while seeing a show on your personal cockpit.
March 25, 2016 at 6:53 PM · The headsets are optional for all riders age 13 and up. Kids younger than that may not wear the headset.

And the ride opens tomorrow for Six Flags passholders. No word yet on when it will open to all visitors. *Opens April 21 for everyone else.

March 25, 2016 at 1:46 PM · I was initially skeptical but optimistic about this technology when it was announced. Since then, every single review I've read from every ride it is currently being utilized on has been extremely positive. While I have doubts that this will replace the experience found at a destination theme park, I do think there is the possibility that we will see a lot more VR attractions at regional theme parks if this experiment proves successful. It is not something that is needed everywhere, but for a ride that is simply built in a field or parking lot it would be a significant enhancement. I also really like the way that this gives riders a choice...if you want the VR, you can wear it, and if you'd rather just ride a roller coaster you're free to ride without it.

I will be visiting both USH for Harry Potter and SFMM for New Revolution next week (on the same day, actually). To be 100% honest, while I'm more excited for Harry Potter I'm definitely more curious about the VR.

March 25, 2016 at 1:49 PM · Don't be surprised if Disney uses this technology in their upcoming Star Wars rides.
March 25, 2016 at 2:04 PM · Really excited to try this! I'll be at SFA however VR won't be up and running yet. I'm crossing my fingers for SFNE this year.
March 25, 2016 at 2:13 PM · It sounds fun. I'm still more interested in the operations side of the process. Not so concerned about the cleaning of the devices, but how they get taken off previous riders, taken to a cleaning location, taken to the next set of riders, how training is done to ensure a safe fit, then how long it takes to get the rides into the train, have the devices attached and then dispatch the train. I'm also very curious to know what the steps will be when the time comes, and it will come, when a train needs to be evacuated off a lift or break and people now have additional equipment to deal with. I figure step one in that situation is to take it off and give it to a host or hostess before stepping off of the train.
Gonna be fun to see how this develops and grows.
March 25, 2016 at 2:14 PM · This is the same technology they have just fitted to air at Alton towers. I am going there on Tuesday so if the queue is not too long I may have to ride it to see what it is like. I loved air before so let's see if it enhances or spoils the ride for me, I will let you know after I ride it.
March 25, 2016 at 2:19 PM · Also check out Alton Towers revamp of Air as Galactica, which does the same as this but is open to the public now. Which would make it the first coaster in the world to do this. So isle reviews so far that agrees to Roberts comments that it adds to the ride and doesn't increase motion sickness.
March 25, 2016 at 3:00 PM · TPI'er Ben Mills was at Alton Towers for the debut of Galactica yesterday:

March 25, 2016 at 3:41 PM · Still don't trust SF to properly clean these devices. Heck many hospitals can't even clean surgery tools properly, what makes people so confident that SF can?? Other then that, I'm glad to hear that the reviews have been coming in mostly positive. But there are still many unanswered questions like will these make queue times longer? What happens if somebody tries to deliberately remove one from their head and throw is off the ride, and claim that it "just flew off"? What happens if they freeze during the ride? How do they clean the Velcro straps considering that's a lice heaven?
March 25, 2016 at 4:57 PM · I'd love to try this, but I think I would make it first thing in the morning. I just have too many sanitary concerns.
March 25, 2016 at 7:41 PM · It sounds neat, but I'm wondering how many different scenarios you could come up with on a roller coaster track that has only straight ups and downs and loops. A fighter plane seems a natural, and I guess you can fly through different environments, like an alien world, but other than flying, it seems limited on scenarios. A motion base ON a roller coaster might be the ultimate experience that could adapt to any story line.
March 26, 2016 at 3:46 AM · Temps this week in Valencia, CA (presumably when this review took place) were very comfortable with highs in the 70s and low dew points (low moisture/humidity.) It will be a totally different story in the middle of the summer when it is hot and steamy at many of the Six Flags parks. Doubt it will be very pleasant to strap that thing to your face then ... especially after what is sure to be a very quick cleaning (think of a bowling alley cleaning the rental shoes ... a quick shot of Lysol spray and "Next".)

I'm sure the tech part is impressive. But this just doesn't seem very practical. As Disney found out with FP+. Practical on paper, but just doesn't translate well to a theme park.

Keep in mind, the reviewer got to experience this in a vacuum at a preview event. It should prove to be like watching grass grow when summer lines are long ... now, we don't just have to secure the lapbars, but also a phone to people's faces.

I'll wait for the "real" reviews when this is tested under real theme park conditions.

March 26, 2016 at 6:40 AM · On hiding the Yeti behind vr, I want even better. I want augmented reality storyline that integrates with the physical world. Using it with tech like mid ride launch accelerators and brakes, high quality audio, and animatronics could turn a slower indoor coaster into unbelievable.
March 26, 2016 at 7:47 AM · As Robert noted above, I rode Galactica on Thursday morning. (And again on Thursday afternoon, and again on Friday morning - which should tell you how I felt about it.)

I've been working professionally with VR quite a bit over the last year and, of everything I've experienced, Galactica is one of the best examples of what the medium can do. It's about as far away from a slapped-on gimmick as can be imagined - the designers have started from a place of understanding what makes Air (which has been plussed onto Galactica) work, and built a VR experience from there.

And I'd entirely echo Robert's thoughts about nausea. Air is admittedly a much smoother and more relaxing ride than most coasters to begin with, but VR actively *improves* the experience. I felt no queasiness whatsoever. If anything, well-crafted VR helps your brain process what's happening physically. VR creators have been exploring how to create experiences that work with the viewer being generally static, but a coaster offers freedom from that constraint.

On a more standard theme park note, the thing I'd celebrate most about Galactica is that it does what we've been asking for from theme park attractions for a while - it builds an experience around the joy of discovery rather than resorting to yet another generic fight/battle story. While it deploys a number of sci-fi tropes and a 'and then something goes wrong...' plot point, it does so with real joy - it's all about exploring new frontiers, more The Martian than Star Wars.

March 26, 2016 at 8:31 AM · Oh, one more thought - Galactica whips you from one scenario to another, through the plot device of wormholes. You take in a launch pad, a space station, an icy tundra and a Mars-esque lava pit on your journey.

Interestingly, the one environment that I didn't find myself believing in was the last of those. VR (done well) is generally brilliant at convincing the brain it is experiencing what it is seeing. But it was just a jump too far for me to correlate the visuals of a hot environment with the feeling of rushing through the sky on a cold English morning.

I suppose that's a compromise designers will face when adapting existing rides into VR experiences. It'll be interesting to see whether Merlin can take things to the next level for Ghost Train at Thorpe Park next month, where the entire ride has been custom-built with VR at its heart. (And crucially built indoors, where it'll be much easier to manipulate the environment to fit the story.)

March 26, 2016 at 11:12 AM · I have yet to see the video. I'm already assuming that the VR animation isn't all that spectacular, (and judging by Mr. Rao's post, looks like I might be right) but I'm not gonna care as long as it's passable and perfectly in-synch with with the ride itself.

I also really love the fact that the headsets are optional. If I was a local who gets to visit a Magic Mountain a few times a year, I'd definitely do this on my next visit just to give myself something new to see. However, since I live all the way on the other side of the country from Magic Mountain, and have in fact never been to Magic Mountain before, this being such a landmark coaster, I think when I finally do ride it (whenever that is) I'll do it without a VR helmet to
be able to enjoy the fact that I am physically riding such a revolutionary (no pun intended) coaster. Then I'll make sure I have enough time to reride it later in the day, but this time with the VR helmet.

March 26, 2016 at 11:53 AM · VR Coaster Developer here. What I read quite often recently is that people claiming Galactica to be world's first VR Coaster. As someone who worked hard on world's first VR Coaster I have to protest! Galactica is very far from world's being world's first. If u count every VR Coaster it is number nine. As a Fully dedicated VR Coaster it is second. USJs Kyary Pamju Pamju XR-RIDE is world's first opened the day when Galactica was announced. Just my two cents. Thank you. Regards, Dennis @detowu
March 26, 2016 at 12:41 PM · Thanks Robert !! Really appreciate you providing us with this review. The VR has been available at our home park, SFOG on the Dare Devil Dive coaster since last weekend. Like others, I have concerns about 6 Flags ability to consistently clean and maintain the headsets. But your review has sparked my desire to give this a try sometime in the next few weeks. DDD is a great fit for VR because of its twisted layout and multiple elements. And it is still smooth as silk.
March 26, 2016 at 1:44 PM · I must admit, I've been against the idea since it was announced, but it sounds like I've got to at least give it a chance now. Like James, I just worry that companies are going to use this as a cop out for aesthetics.
March 27, 2016 at 2:00 AM · Disneyland could replace the Autopia cars with bikes and use VR for a Tron Light Cycle ride.
March 27, 2016 at 5:15 AM · @ In response to your statement, "I want augmented reality story line that integrates with the physical world", maybe I am just misunderstanding your comment, but I have to ask, how can designers integrate with the physical world when most of a riders' face is covered by a VR device?
March 27, 2016 at 9:18 AM · James, augmented reality does not cover the riders face. It's more in line with Google Glass, if you remember that. Microsoft is doing amazing things with AR right now and I echo the statements above AR would be vastly superior to VR for a coaster.
March 27, 2016 at 10:18 AM · Re-James Rao.

Simple: design the headsets so that they allow you to physically see the world around you, like any regular headwear, but also give them built-in sprayers to spray hallucinogenic gas in your face! Not only does it solve the problem, but it also guarantees that you'll never know what'll happen!

March 28, 2016 at 3:49 AM · So, the HoloLens ($3,000 for a developer's kit) is what you're talking about - it looks interesting, but seems years if not decades away from use in this fashion. But, yeah, it would be a better solution especially if they can widen the field of view and slim down the bulky headset to something much smaller and more comfortable.

Eventually (long after I'm dead and my ashes have been dumped in PotC) we'll have Star Trek style holo-decks and we won't ever need to leave our homes.

March 28, 2016 at 6:19 PM · Re James Rao

Yes, it is probably a 3 years away from even beginning story boarding an attraction like this and 10-15 from being built, maybe quicker if used as an upgrade for Space Mountain or Rock n Rollercoaster. Rremember the Disney Quest Aladdin VR is 18 years old and the tech is far more advanced now. With all of the companies investing in AR and VR, it's now moving fast.

I want the 7 Dwarves Mine Train to while your swing through the ride watching the story. Or maybe MiB with another layer of amazing story. Or RnR with amazing headset sound while you ride through the LA freeway with crazy traffic by the signs. I'll be here to see it even after a 1 year wait for a Fastpass. But first, a Buzz Light year ride with both real and AR targets or an enhanced Toy Story would be simpler and fun.

March 29, 2016 at 1:10 PM · I have just ridden Galactica at Alton Towers and it is a fantastic ride I went on with my 8 year old daughter who was allowed to wear the headset and she is a convert too. As soon as we got off she wanted to get back on. The headsets are comfortable to wear and are not too bulky even for an 8 year old, and the headsets on Galactica are fastened to the ride restraint at both sides so they cannot fly off even if you remove them half way round, however they are only wiped with a wipe between riders so I am glad I was one of the first rides of the day. The process of fitting and removing the headsets does slow down the loading and unloading of the ride, not sure if this will speed up in time. It is also labour intensive as they had one cast member per row which is double that of normal operation. All in all Galactica is an excellent coaster if not long enough for any story to unfold, but the VR fits well with the ride and if anything removed some of the fear of the coaster as you are busy concentrating on the film and can easily forget you are riding a coaster. This gets a 9.5 out of 10 from both me and my daughter.
March 29, 2016 at 3:50 PM · Just to put my two cents in, I rode the new revolution on Sunday, and it didn't give me any nausea at all. And my girlfriend didn't feel it either, and she feels motion sick on almost every ride we go on and needs a break after each one. It's quite natural feeling! Way to go, six flags!
March 29, 2016 at 11:16 PM · The Dare Devil Dive coaster at SF Over Georgia is using the new VR and it was great. The first time we rode the VR experience, my headset did not work properly as it had my point of view on the screen looking backwards! Another rider on our train had their headset go dark with nothing on the screen. The ride ops gave us an immediate second ride without having to wait in line again with different headsets and it was amazing! Yes, the technology is in its infancy but I expect it will get much better as time passes.

BTW, the wait time was over two hours. I suspect this was due to all the advertising and hype (plus perfect early spring weather) and not so much the VR add-on itself. The process was quick and the line seemed to move like normal.

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