Why VR Improves Roller Coasters - and Roller Coasters Improve VR

March 30, 2016, 8:48 PM · One week after riding The New Revolution at Six Flags Magic Mountain, I'm still thinking about how much I enjoyed my first ride on a virtual reality roller coaster.

As I mentioned in my review of The New Revolution, I was skeptical about whether VR on a coaster would be too extreme. Like many other doubters, I wondered if I'd come off the coaster ready to lose my lunch. But as I rode The New Revolution, I discovered that the addition of virtual reality actually helped make this one of the most comfortable rides I'd ever experienced on a roller coaster.

How could that be? That question has been nagging me for several days, so I'd like to share some of what I've been thinking over that time. First, though, it's important to clarify a few concepts, so that we can start this conversation in the same place. These concepts get conflated in some people's minds, but they're really three distinct ideas that ought to be considered as such. They are: Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Computer Generated Imagery.

Virtual Reality completely obstructs your view of the "real" world with whatever video is shown on the VR screen that strapped across your eyes. Augmented reality does not block your entire view of whatever is around you, but uses clear or partial screens to impose video imagery into whatever you see. Computer Generated Imagery [CGI] is what VR and AR typically uses to create whatever video you see on those screens. CGI has become ubiquitous in movies, displacing the models, animatronics, and matte painting that moviemakers used to employ to create special effects.

The New Revolution, like all of Six Flags' new coasters, uses Virtual Reality, meaning that you won't see any of the views fans are used to seeing on these coasters, unless you decided not to wear the provided VR headsets, of course. No one has developed an Augmented Reality coaster yet, but that's the next step I cannot wait to experience. AR promises the potential of the best of both worlds — the heights and other practical visuals from riding a roller coaster, coupled with CGI storytelling.

But let's get back to the skepticism. I think a large part of that grew from movie fans' frustration with how filmmakers have abused CGI over the years. Take a moment to read this great post, 6 Reasons Modern Movie CGI Looks Surprisingly Crappy, paying special attention to "Lack Of Visual Restraint Makes Gravity Act Like A Cartoon" and "Most Films Forget That A Camera Needs To Physically Exist."

Since almost all VR relies on CGI, the sins of the one are often attributed to the other. It's bad enough to sit in stationary theater and watch CGI from directors who ignore the laws of physics. No one wants to do while riding a moving roller coaster at the same time.

But putting VR on a roller coaster forces creators to obey those laws of physics that they can get away with ignoring in movies. If you are going to synchronize the action on the VR screen with the movement of a roller coaster, you can't start moving and gyrating in unnatural ways. You have to go with the flow of the physical coaster. And that enforces a more natural sequence of motion in the VR, one that removes much of the discomfort that moviegoers feel with poorly-storyboarded CGI.

With the motion on screen in sync with motion of the ride, we also can avoid the physical disconnect that viewers typically feel when they see wildly gyrating POV on the screen while sitting in stationary seats. I think many fans feared that they would be seeing that same, physics-defying CGI in their VR headsets, while riding a coaster whose movements wouldn't — and couldn't — match the crazy action on screen.

That is why so many fans have feared VR coasters, IMHO. But in reality, roller coasters improve VR by forcing directors to behave themselves.

And VR can help improve roller coasters by injecting some fresh excitement into aging mid-range rides whose specs too often leave them in the "no fans land" between family coasters and the latest world-class thrill rides. Smart use of VR can leave fans wanting to ride again and again on coasters that otherwise might quickly lose their appeal. Heck, on a VR coaster, maybe some squeamish riders might even be able to overcome their fear of heights and agree to ride. After all, they'll never see where they are above the ground.

If VR allows parks to justify rebuilding tracks, installing new trains, and otherwise refurbishing coasters to provide the smoother ride that best complements a VR installation, that's great news even for fans who decline to ride with the headsets, too.

So instead of VR and coasters creating the most unholy mash-up since Batman fought Superman (sorry — no, not sorry), VR coasters give fans that business-school cliche — a "win-win."

With The New Revolution, Six Flags has given skeptics reason to believe that VR and coasters can be a great mix. (Some might still doubt whether VR headsets and safety straps can be kept clean over an entire summer, but that's another post.) And as much as I enjoyed The New Revolution, Theme Park Insider Ben Mills reports that Alton Towers' Galactica might be even better (see comments).

If enough fans give VR coasters a try, maybe companies will hire more designers and developers to advance VR storytelling in theme parks, creating new adventures for fans to enjoy. That's a trend that even the most skeptical fans ought to be willing to embrace.


Replies (19)

March 31, 2016 at 5:09 AM ·
March 31, 2016 at 5:09 AM · What if... people are allowed to bring their own headset?

On the night before going to your local Six Flags or Cedar Fair theme park you enter in the App Store, look to the coasters you will be riding in the next day, and, for each coaster, you could have 3 or 4 different options of themes to choose. You could choose a fighter theme, a Superman, a Marvel (no east/west of Mississippi rules would apply here) or even a Star Wars. You would download and pay for it.

The theme park would offer only the physical platform, and would not need to worry with development costs or pay for character licensing.

This could be a real game changer!

March 31, 2016 at 5:10 AM · I personally prefer riding coasters without VR. I didn't try it yet, but I will try it if I get a chance to. But I think, especially on the big rides, having such a thing hanging in your face (I already tried an Oculus Rift, just not on a coaster) is making the whole thing less enjoyable. Also, I think it might result in themeparks becoming lazier in theming. At the moment, VR headsets are unable to create a complete illusion, you will always know it isn't real. That's why I prefer real scenery, even if it doesn't have as many special effects as the CGI movie in the VR headset has. I don't even need that, I just want to enjoy the speed and the thrill of the rollercoasters, and to do that I don't need to strap a screen in front of my face.
March 31, 2016 at 5:23 AM · A Star Tours-like ride design, where the ride vehicle goes along a roller-coaster track, instead of on a gimbal. Augmented with in-vehicle special practical effect.

Instead of video screens you ride the coaster to and stop to watch (a la Gringotts), the screen is a part of the ride vehicle and the movement never stops.

I don't know if it can be done (could you maintain speed and structural integrity of the ride vehicle?), but if it could, there's your next level of roller coaster VR.

March 31, 2016 at 5:54 AM · Still not interested, sorry.
March 31, 2016 at 8:06 AM · Just out of curiosity, how do those headsets physically feel?
March 31, 2016 at 8:48 AM · @Flavio, a remarkable idea! But I cannot imagine that the Samsung phones used in these Gear VR headsets would be typical "off the shelf" units. One can only assume there is hardware also on the coaster side that signals and interacts with the headsets to insure they are indeed synched. It probably also updates the headsets along the track to indicate where in the "action" it should be. Coasters move at different speeds based on their weight load so the headsets need to know that as well. But I agree, I'd rather wear my own VR headset than share one :)
March 31, 2016 at 9:28 AM · Sarah brings up good points. The sync is everything. But looking far into the future, when VR and AR might become as ubiquitous as smartphones are now, perhaps parks might simply off an app that fans can download to sync their personal VR/AR unit with the coaster they want to ride.
March 31, 2016 at 9:38 AM · As for the question about feel, I didn't notice any weight from the headset on the ride. With the straps tightened properly, the headset is very comfortable.
March 31, 2016 at 11:33 AM · Great post Robert. One of the things I loved about Galactica that SF seem not to have embraced as much is the complete immersion in the narrative from start to finish. Right from approaching the queueline (and even in the marketing campaign before you visit) through to leaving the gift shop, a story is told that isn't broken on the ride itself. There's no car park or unthemed land to suspend your disbelief through, which is pretty rare amung big coasters. We board the vehicle and never break the "space travel" conceit.

Flavio; the download-your-own concept is something the company VR Coaster (who created the SF attractions) are actively developing, so I suspect we'll see that much sooner than you might expect. Hope Denis is reading this and can fill us in on the specifics and practicalities of the concept.

March 31, 2016 at 11:37 AM · Oops, can't log in on my phone. The above post about Galactica was from me, Ben Mills.
March 31, 2016 at 12:05 PM · I rode Galactica on Tuesday at Alton Towers there is no age restriction for wearing the headsets on Galactica, my daughter who is 8 rode with me and she chose to wear the headset and is now a VR coaster convert like me. The experience is very difficult to describe but if the VR is done well like it is on Galactica it is a seamless ride experience that easily makes you feel like you are flying through space and you can easily forget you are just riding a coaster with a screen attached to your head. The headsets themselves are extremely comfortable and not in anyway heavy or bulky. However unlike six flags, Galactica do not change the headset between riders as they are fastened to the restraints, they are however cleaned with a wipe between riders, not sure how often the headsets are changed and completely cleaned but could be an issue especially for germ phobes as by the end of the day the headset will have been on a lot of different possibly sweaty or greasy heads. If you can cope with this it is an experience I would completely recommend you try. I had my reservations before I rode but I would now not go back to riding Galactica without the headset. On a slightly separate note people keep mentioning the theming of the coaster, apart from the loading bay you do not see any other part of the coaster whilst on the ride so theming from a riders point of view is not important, Galactica have installed a smoking space portal at the bottom of the first drop but when you are on the ride you have no idea when you pass through it, it is just for the benefit of visitors watching the ride from the ground.
March 31, 2016 at 1:24 PM · It sounds like a great advance, but it is advanced technology and technology sometimes fails. What happens when in the middle of a ride the interface is lost and you can see nothing but the inside of your goggles which I assume would be totally black darkness. That could be a horrifying experience and potential dangerous as panicky riders pull off their goggles so that they could see.
March 31, 2016 at 9:54 PM · After trying New Revolution yesterday, I have to say that VR is a great idea on coasters when used properly. If you've got an older coaster that isn't pulling the crowds anymore, offering VR on the ride is likely to increase ridership. However, VR does somewhat defeat the purpose of a roller coaster being a roller coaster, instead converting it into a weird experience that lies somewhere between a coaster and a motion simulator. It should never be mandatory for any ride, and it is not something I would want to do every time. It is also not something that should be applied to every ride...one VR coaster per park would be fine with me, but it will become too gimmicky if every ride has it (just like Universal and 3D simulators).
April 1, 2016 at 7:37 AM · I'm open to this, I really am. I am thinking of how this could be applied to a ride like the Loch Ness Monster in BGW. An old ride, still has many fans, but is not quite popular anymore. Add VR to it! Transport the rider to Old Scotland, let them meet Nessie. Each ride a different adventure. Of course VR would need to be voluntary, but I think this could enhance the experience of these older coasters.
April 1, 2016 at 8:31 AM · I can't wait to try my favorite roller coaster with "Google Plastic"!
April 1, 2016 at 10:58 AM · I have been a VR honk since launch day (December 8, 2014) of the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition. We now also have two consumer editions in our home. We LOVE LOVE LOVE the VR experience. I have introduced the VR to roughly 200 people, ranging in age from 13-85 (I'm 48) and EVERY SINGLE one of them have been blow away. And inevitably, the topic of "What if you wore this on a roller coaster?" would come up. We had serious discussions and debates back in December of 2014 until now about how this technology or even the procedures would work...and well well well...here we are.
We are taking a family trip to St Louis in July/August so I am extremely interested to put this to the test. Ninja is the one of the shakiest, roughest, head knockiest coasters I have ever ridden so I'm wondering how secure the unit will feel on my head. I have noticed in photos/videos, and unlike the Gear VR's in "real life" (Ha Ha)...there is an "under the chin" strap that must make it EXTRA secure. I'm excited about this advancement. I'm also glad it is an option. Ride it without? Sure. Ride it with? ABSOLUTELY!!!! If we could bring our own personal VR units from home? And download apps that could be run on ANY coaster in the park? oh man...We're in HEAVEN baby!!! As others have said above, I'm certain that in the very near future, at least you will have multiple choices of what you experience for the one coaster running VR. Which means riding that bad boy again, only this time in the (insert experience here) environment. It may not be for everybody, and that's cool! But as my 85 year old aunt said after VRing for the first time..."How beautiful..this is going to change everything!" Have fun in the parks!
April 2, 2016 at 1:15 AM · Having tried the VR coaster at Six Flags over Georgia (Dare Devil Dive), I have to say it was amazing. The technology behind this will only get better as time goes on and the possibilities seem limitless.

Comparing a VR coaster to a traditional ride (without VR) is comparing apples to oranges. They are two different experiences and I will still enjoy riding non-VR coasters as well. The argument was once "wooden VS steel"; now it will be "VR VS traditional!"

Nonetheless, this is all very exciting. My only fear is that the VR technology will give parks an excuse to NOT add new thrill rides. I mean...why invest millions in a new coaster when you can take an older coaster and give it a VR makeover for a tiny fraction of the cost? (I hope I am not giving any theme park big wigs any ideas...)

Ultimately it will be coaster fans that drive the development of VR. The more folks that give it a try will translate to more research and development and thus even more amazing experiences in the near future. I can't wait!

April 2, 2016 at 3:52 AM · I'm not sure Oculus can expect developers to update for each of their SDK releases.

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