VR comes to motion simulators, at Busch Gardens next year

March 18, 2017, 12:41 PM · America's first virtual reality motion simulator theme park ride will open at Busch Gardens Williamsburg next year, the park announced today.

The as-yet-unnamed ride will replace the Europe in the Air show, which closed last year. The new experience will not use the motion simulator theater's screens, but will display its show on individual VR headsets that riders will wear. Busch Gardens offered some behind-the-scenes views of the motion simulator platform in an announcement video released today.

Six Flags brought virtual reality to several of its roller coasters across the country last year, but this will be the first installation of VR at a major theme park's motion simulator ride. As we noted in our review of Six Flags' VR coasters, the key to a VR theme park ride experience is achieving perfect synchronization between the action on the screen and the action of your seat. When done correctly, this makes ride VR a superior experience to watching FX-heavy movies from a stationary seat, especially when compared with movies whose cameras don't always obey the laws of physics.

It's that disconnect between what you see and what you feel that creates nausea. When I've ridden the VR coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain, the action of the coaster exactly matches and amplifies the action I'm seeing in front of me. The combination feels natural, comfortable and enjoyable. (Assuming, of course, that you enjoy the idea of flying a fighter jet through an alien invasion!)

If Busch Gardens owner SeaWorld can deliver the well-synchronized experience that Six Flags, for the most part, has, then it just needs a compelling story to make this a must-see experience for theme park fans. In its announcement video, Busch Gardens teases that the new experience will be about the "otherworld" of Ireland that is invisible to humans.

But there's one more challenge that Busch Gardens/SeaWorld must overcome, and it's the one that has compromised the VR experience for so many Six Flags visitors. Can Busch Gardens find a way to make getting, putting on and using VR headsets as quick and easy as grabbing and putting on a pair of 3D glasses? The slow process of putting on and adjusting VR headsets just killed the dispatch time for Six Flags' VR coasters, sharply reducing their hourly capacities and inflating wait times.

So putting VR on a theme park attraction raises significant technical, creative, and operational challenges. But that's the price of innovation — you don't have a proven blueprint to follow.

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Replies (5)

March 19, 2017 at 6:03 AM · A flying VR.
March 20, 2017 at 9:41 AM · Yeah the slow loading is the big issue with VR. At our local Six Flags park, La Ronde in Montreal, the Goliath queue is a breeze without VR. Add the VR and a people eater turns into a long wait.

We tried it once, and it was an interesting experience. I wouldn't mind doing it again, but we would just as soon breeze into the queue and ride it multiple times.

March 20, 2017 at 6:29 AM · I was at the announcement, which the park attempted to do through the audience raising cards in a full theater (didn't work), and have a few comments...

1. I don't think the park said the screens would be removed from the simulator. In fact, I think they'll still be needed to allow smaller children to experience the attraction since VR is not typically recommended for children under 13. There will also need to be markers in the theater somewhere to orient the goggles.

2. The current design of the simulator building is perfect for this type of VR application. There are 2 pre-show rooms in addition to a holding area. The first pre-show room would allow them to explain what's going to happen and how to put on the goggles. The second room (one for each of the 2 simulators) would then allow time for guests to put on their goggles and make sure everything is working properly before loading into the simulator. This setup should limit delays unlike many of the VR coasters that essentially have less than 2 minutes between cycles to achieve maximum capacity. With two simulators and 2 discrete pre-show rooms, staff will have at least 3-5 minutes to get everyone ready to load. The trick will be getting guests loaded since walking down the long row of a simulator is trickier than sitting in a coaster seat.

3. I have to applaud BGW for constantly updating their simulator. This will now be the 5th incarnation of this attraction (Questor, King Arthur's Challenge, Corkscrew Hill, and Europe in the Air were previous versions), which is definitely the most a theme park simulator has been updated. Granted, some of the updates have occurred because the films have been bad (King Arthur's Challenge lasted 1 year I think, and Europe in the Air has sagged in popularity for years), but BGW is really utilizing the flexibility of this type of attraction that no other park has done.

4. What happens on Kraken should give a good idea of what guests can expect to see on this new attraction. My guess is that BGW will engage with the same graphics/VR firm that is converting Sea World's floorless coaster into a VR experience. The graphics and sychronization on the coaster will give guests a good indicator of what this new experience will be like. Six Flags went pretty corny with their VR coaster conversions, so it will be interesting to see the level of quality the VR experience will be on Kraken. Perhaps they will take a more "augmented reality" (guests view the world through the camera on the back side of the goggles, which enhances the image with animations on top of what is happening in the real world) experience where guests are viewing a movie on the screen with additional animations that come at them through the goggles. Theme parks have just scratched the surface with VR.

Not noted by Robert above, it was also announced that Invadr will open on April 7, 2017, which is a pretty impressive feat to have a brand new coaster opened so early in the season. The mild winter probably had something to do with it, but none the less, Invadr will be the first major new attraction to open in 2017.

March 20, 2017 at 9:51 AM · The best thing I can imagine about this is it should make loading a motion base theater a bit faster. Why? Well, if everyone in the theater is viewing the show on a single big screen, people want to be in the sweet spot - Center/Middle. That's why people stop in the center of the row and refuse to "move all the way down to the last open seat, filling in all open seats as you go...".
With individual VR headsets, presumably, each seat will offer the exact same experience so it won't matter if you are in center/middle or not. Still, I'm sure it will be a lengthy process of masking up.
March 20, 2017 at 10:20 AM · It really depends on where you're putting the goggles on. There are rumors swirling that the VR on Kraken will actually be built into the coaster trains, which would significantly reduce the load time, as gearing up would simply be part of the restraint check. BGW said that Europe in the Air would be down for the entire 2017 season, so that lends some credence to the possibility that VR headsets would be mounted into the simulator, eliminating the need for guests to gear up in the pre-show room and walk down the aisles to their seat. Also, if the headsets are hard-wired, that would eliminate the problems that Six Flags is having with headsets dying mid-ride because of battery issues. The only consideration would be how the headsets are cleaned between cycles.

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