Edge of Innovation

Is room-scale VR the crazy future of theme park rides?

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

While roller coasters are still a big part of any modern theme park, simulator rides have become just as popular. What started with 1987’s Star Tours has evolved into thrilling 3D dark rides like Disney’s Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée de Rémy and Universal’s The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man.

These cutting-edge attractions whisk you between different animated 3D scenes playing out on huge screens. The close proximity of the cars to these screen ensures that you feel as though you are part of the action. At one point in the Ratatouille ride, the view tips down and plunges down through a glass pane into Gusteau’s restaurant. Even though you’re not moving, the digital illusion makes it feel like you’re falling.

But 3D is so 2009…

The next generation of theme park ride could very well step up another digital level, incorporating virtual reality technology. There are already VR coaster apps for the Oculus Rift like Atlantis: Infinite Coaster and the NoLimits 2 Roller Coaster Simulator, giving you the sensation of hurtling around a metal track while sitting in front of your PC.

Upping the thrills, Alton Towers opened its Galactica ride (pictured top) in 2016. This combines the physical experience of riding a roller coaster synchronised with a virtual view into a digital world via a Samsung Gear VR headset. So as the coaster twists and dives above the Staffordshire countryside, riders experience a futuristic ‘flight’ through an asteroid field and go barrel-rolling past planets.

This mixed reality ride points the way forward to new types of experiences. Thorpe Park now has a Derren Brown-designed VR Ghost Train attraction that uses HTC Vive goggles, while adding VR to old roller coasters at Six Flags amusement parks in the US has allowed them to be repurposed and reinvented for a new, tech-savvy audience.

The Oculus Rift VR headset recently joined the Vive by adding support for room-scale virtual reality and the technology could spark another revolution in theme park attractions.

Room-scale VR uses additional sensors installed around a room that track the position of the head mounted display. These sensors define the boundaries of the play space, allowing the wearer to physically move around the room — jumping, crawling, walking or sitting — and seeing those movements translated into the virtual world.

In the US, a company called The Void is creating unique VR experiences that “let players walk around a real location while playing a VR game.” Ghostbusters: Dimension is the latest foray into what The Void calls Hyper Reality. Visitors strap on a backpack computer, haptic vest and a VR headset, then pick up a gun to try catching ghosts in a 15-minute adventure.

“Everything is rendered one-to-one,” says Game Informer’s Mike Futter, who tried the experience at Madame Tussauds in New York. “Every wall is perfectly mirrored in the real world, and we were encouraged to reach out and touch them. One of my teammates even sat in a chair placed in the apartment.”

Again, the experience works because the VR world is mapped onto a physical stage. Concealed fans blow air to simulate wind, the floor shakes, while the haptic vest vibrates allowing you to feel when you get hit. Virtual doors need to be opened manually by reaching out and pulling, because there’s a real door there underneath the VR veneer.

“This was genuinely the most exciting piece of interactive technology i’ve used in the last couple of years,” says Kyle Melnick on VR Scout. “The technology of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are incredible, but the ability to traverse a physical space, receive haptic feedback from NPCs and interact with a physical environment is just too mind-blowing to compete with.”

It’s a taste of what room-scale VR can do. The bigger the playing space, the more complex the experiences can become. Stage-scale VR is the ultimate next step and, if it takes off, tomorrow’s theme park rides could be radically different to those that thrill us today.

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