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.