Inside the making of Derren Brown and Thorpe Park's VR Ghost Train

Strap on a HTC Vive and prepare to be spooked
Inside Derren Brown's VR Ghost Train

As you can imagine from seeing him on screen, TV illusionist Derren Brown is quite the perfectionist. Whether its predicting tomorrow's lottery numbers or convincing hapless norms to throw someone off a building for TV shows, the master mind manipulator cares about the small details.

So, when it comes to him launching his own bespoke VR-fuelled Ghost Train ride at Thorpe Park, you'd better believe he's been sweating pixels to make it happen. "It had to be something I had come up with and designed from the ground up before I put my name to it," says Brown. "This isn't just an endorsement of a pre-arranged ride. This definitely feels like my baby, but it's a scary baby that's a train and it terrifies people."

Read this: How Hollywood is starting to invade the VR film scene

Making an attraction that's different to anything else out here is one thing, but Brown and 3D production company Figment wanted to make a ride that changed with every experience. Not just per ride, but per person. Brown says, "Each time it becomes what you aren't expecting. I want people to be thrown off kilter where they leave thrilled, but also thinking, "What the fuck just happened?"

This isn't a ride where you just sit there with a headset on and watch passively. The final product throws together evolving VR entertainment with live role play and psychological mind tricks, with Brown himself admitting, "It's a nightmare to describe without giving away the whole surprise."

Revamping the tired old ghost train format - with its rickety train carriages and hydraulic ghouls - for the smartphone generation is the ultimate challenge. Producers Figment had to somehow marry technology to the mad ideas of Brown - a man who doesn't even own a TV - and then deliver a project that worked for 10,000 users per day.

Simon Reveley, Figment's managing director, has worked on the attraction for over two years alongside some 200 staff. When it opens this week Ghost Train will be Merlin's most expensive attraction ever costing more than the previous record £18m spent on a ride.

"There are variations in the story and different endings, completely distinctly from one another," he says. "Derren always wanted people to get off the ride and turn to their mates and say, 'Wasn't that bit amazing when X did Y?' and their mate replying, 'What I never saw that, what are you on about?' It then starts to make people question what they saw and what they missed."

Keeping up with the coasters

This definitely feels like my baby, but it's a scary baby that's a train and it terrifies people

Every theme park out there is throwing VR elements at all their new rides - an almost chuck a headset at a wall and see if what sticks approach. Thorpe Park's sister park Alton Towers recently unveiled its Galactica rollercoaster whilst Six Flags park in LA has the New Revolution which is equally a white-knuckle ride - both use Samsung Gear VR headsets. However, whereas Galactica lasts a mere 189 seconds and runs along a 2,768 metre track, Ghost Train doesn't necessarily move anywhere (it's complicated) and is a longer, more psychological and filmic experience.

An NDA means we can't reveal the exact length of the ride (for now), but in terms of length I'd suggest you think film short rather than a single scare in the dark.

Because of the variability Brown demanded in the attraction, Figment had to engage in significant geekery with the VR headsets, road testing over 30 different brands and types. Eventually opting for the high end HTC Vive for ride users to wear, Reveley says there were specific interface reasons which meant that the Vive edged out its rivals.

"The HTC Vive is at least as good as the best headset out there. VR is all about how you track movement - the relation of your head and body therefore needs to mirror the virtual world," he says.

"The Vive headset itself knows where it is relative to the space, whereas the Rift relies on a camera which watches you move, meaning the computer has to tell the headset where it is. With the Vive - because every headset looks after itself independently - we can lots in one space and it doesn't affect the performance. That wasn't the case with other models."

As with all VR attractions, working on a project across two years means you are in a constant arms race to match or incorporate the latest gadgets. Figment - which worked on Galactica at Alton Towers and attractions at Madame Tussauds, Berlin - had to build the whole set off-site at their base in Guildford to make it work.

"We built mock ups of the tunnel the ride will be housed in here, just to see whether - spatially - the whole ride would fit together," says Reveley. "We also had the train carriage painted green screen and then had the actors that will appear within the ride come in and work within that studio space. That's vital for VR because what you create has to exactly match the eventual layout, from each conceivable vantage point any use might eventually sit in."

Inside the thrills

Every ghoul, scare or interior on the attraction has been completely designed by Derren Brown, tapping into his geek knowledge of old horror films and the science of what makes people brown their pants. Whilst they looked at making nods to the classic ghost train image, the team decided to build something entirely unique.

To add extra value, part of the philosophy of the ride is that your psychological re-conditioning starts way before you even get on, and continues sometime afterwards.

Brown - very proud of his ability to mess with people's heads - boasts, "I rejected anything that was predictable. Even then the VR is only one level of what the experience is - this isn't an attraction where you wear a headset and just sit there. Whenever I have done TV or stage shows I always try and over deliver. People arrive expecting something and those expectations are met and then hopefully exceeded."

Are the days of gripping white-knuckled to the seat in front of you over? We could soon demand nothing less than rides which take control of all our senses. And who better to usher in the trend than the man who has successfully convinced people to push strangers from buildings. Derren Brown's day job is to scare people and take over their minds - you can just imagine what he is capable of given some hi-spec virtual reality tech.

Ghost Train at Thorpe Park opens soon. It was due to open on 6 May but has been delayed for "purely creative" reasons, according to the theme park - we'll update you when we get more information. Tickets cost £27.99 online.

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