How Six Flags and Alton Towers built fresh theme park thrills for VR roller coasters

We ride Magic Mountain and Air with Gear VR headsets strapped to our faces
VR thrills at Six Flags & Alton Towers

Having your stomach turned over and your heart in your mouth just isn't quite exhilarating enough these days. It was only a matter of time before we arrived at roller coaster VR.

Enter Galactica, the UK's first roller coaster experience powered by a Samsung Gear VR headset and Alton Tower's latest attempt at making people poop themselves. It's basically the park's veteran Air 'flying' ride with VR headsets thrown in to turn it into a journey through space.

And on the other side of the pond, there's Samsung's Gear VR experiences on rides at nine of Six Flags' theme parks in the US, including Magic Mountain in its LA park.

Both are among the first to trial this new type of theme park thrill, with Thorpe Park in the UK joining in with Derren Brown's HTC Vive-powered Ghost Train later this spring. The real question: is it thrilling enough to become a permanent fixture?

Lee Bell rides Galactica (UK)

Once I'm strapped in with a Gear VR on my face, Galactica's VR experience is guided by an "on-board artificial intelligence" that transports me from a space station launch pad and up and around space.

Matching the twists and turns of the ride, the VR tour takes me face-first through the stratosphere of exploding planets as I physically feel the effects of the roller coaster tearing around the track.

And I have to say that Galactica doesn't necessarily benefit hugely from the addition of VR.

Yes, the VR experience is improved by the exhilaration of my body being thrown around in the real world, adding to the digital experience, but while I'm flying around the track enjoying the content projected at me, it's pretty impossible to shrug off that consciousness; the knowledge that I know the experience isn't actually real. While Galactica's VR experience is immersive, there was always part of my brain wondering what's happening to my body in the real world.

Perhaps I'm just nosey, but my biggest mistake was taking the headset off for my last ride, and seeing what was happening in the real world. I was just as content, if not more, in the experience without the VR.

This could be telling of VR (or mobile VR at least); that it isn't truly realistic enough yet, or that as humans we will always be aware of the headset, that half the experience isn't real, and what we truly want is a real experience.

Lily Prasuethsut rides Magic Mountain (LA)

When Six Flags first announced it was partnering up with Samsung to provide Gear VR's on roller coasters at nine theme parks, I was skeptical. Why use a headset in the real world, especially on an outdoor ride? Not to mention the fact that both the VR headset and roller coasters already make people queasy on their own. In general, it all just sounds like a recipe for a (sicky) disaster.

After trying out the Gear VR at Six Flags Magic Mountain for myself, I humbly admit, I was proved wrong.

At the park, watching people get strapped in, then seeing their faces full of jubilation afterwards, sans throw up, I started to feel better.

After plopping on the headset I was up. It was simple: glasses off, adjust diopter, seat belt on, safety bar down. I did have to remember to put the lanyard around my neck first - in case the Gear decided to fly off my head - and velcro in the extra chin strap. Once that was done, I was transported to some sort of aircraft hangar where I was able to use the directional pad on the right to shoot a gun. Looking down, I saw that I was a pilot in a cockpit.

Read this: The Samsung Gear VR apps, games and demos to try first

And then we were off. I was too busy looking around to realize that I was on a roller coaster, but boy did I remember when everything started moving. The experience is timed with the ride's ups, downs and halting stops so each jarring moment you're watching on the Galaxy perfectly matches what you're physically feeling.

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One of my favorite scenes involved crashing into a building. The coaster would stutter to a stop just as the ship I was piloting did - then zoom off again as "my ship" picked up speed. From alien ships swooping past and shooting to structures falling apart, there was a lot to look at in such a short period of time.

The Gear VR is like riding a roller coaster in the dark, or blindfolded.

I got on the ride with the Gear VR and without it several times and came to the conclusion that it definitely felt like a different ride with and without the headset on. The Gear VR is equivalent to riding a roller coaster in the dark, or blindfolded. You can't see the turns and upside down loops coming up ahead so it feels a lot more thrilling. You're also in another world seeing things corresponding to the motion - which probably explains the lack of motion sickness.

I didn't feel the same stomach lurching knots riding the roller coaster twice in a row without the headset, but I did each time I wore the Gear.

So is wearing a Gear VR on a roller coaster really necessary? Not at all. But it's a hell of a lot more fun and it's something you definitely need to try.

The Galactica project

Alton Towers' first VR roller coaster began life in late 2014 when Figment Productions was working on its in-house motion synchronisation and control platform called Vector VR, alongside Merlin Magic Making - who are responsible for the creative vision of what goes on in the theme park.

The idea to test a VR concept on a proper roller coaster had been a dream of Figment for some time. For the years before the development of Galactica, the firm had contacted various attraction operators and with a stroke of good timing, Merlin Entertainments had started to investigate adding VR to Air at Alton Towers. The teams got working on a proof of concept.

"We talked about what could be the ultimate thing we can't do anywhere else," Simon Reveley, founder of Figment Productions, told Wareable. "I guess I am biased as I grew up in the '80s watching Star Wars relentlessly, so the idea of sticking a jetpack on a flight through space made sense to me."

At the heart of Galactica's VR system is two key components: a standard Samsung Gear VR headset powered by a Galaxy S6, and a custom bespoke headstrap.

According to Figment, the headset wasn't easy to develop due to the long check list of requirements. It actually needed a host of custom components, sourced from a company which supplies the army with gear and designs fighter pilot helmets.

Read this: Watch the best Oculus Rift freak outs

The result is 28 bespoke headsets fitted on each of three roller coaster carriages. These are waterproof, have more face mask padding than on standard Gear VR headsets, boast custom-built integrated headphones with binaural audio, and a tethering system to make sure riders can't whip the headsets off while riding.

The headsets also feature a specially moulded shoe on the bottom to make sure the power cable stays in and is fed through to the next key component: the control pack. Inside this is the brains of the system comprising a Bluetooth controller, Wi-Fi controller, gyroscope, and an accelerometer designed especially for the ride. On the top there's a touchscreen where a whole bunch of settings can be accessed by park staff, like reorientation, so they don't have to take phone out of the headset.

To develop the VR content, Figment slapped an accelerometer and gyroscope on the ride vehicle and sent it around the track to create a master path of data. The team then built a virtual environment around this by comparing data from a headset worn by a passenger so their Vector VR system could identify the exact location of the vehicle. Not only did the VR headset to render synchronised content in real time and create 'events' for areas of the track.

"The flight perspective of the ride gave us more of a challenge when developing the VR content as on Air you can't guarantee where people are going to look – they might look up or look straight down, so from a content perspective we had to think about it," said Reveley.

"Luckily, VR means you can look anywhere but still you're always going to have action you want people to not miss. The number of times we've had to reposition it; it was really tough."

Reveley hopes visitors will find Galactica compelling enough to reinvigorate the kinds of investments that have been made in roller coasters in the past.

"With a much smaller expenditure - relatively - you can transform a roller coaster into a different ride with VR," he said, but added that the worry here is that people could use VR to upgrade some old coaster. "If they just 'chuck some VR on it', people are going to have a bad experience and might put them off VR."

The Six Flags experience

Sam Rhodes, corporate director of design for Six Flags, told us a bit more about the Gear VR's modified design in LA, answering other pressing questions about durability and cleanliness.

First off, it's still a Gear VR - nothing's been drastically altered. But it's been changed in a way that makes it suitable for multiple users and theft proof. There's no cover on the front protecting the phone from falling it. Rather, there's a zip tie holding Galaxy S6 Edge phones in place.

According to Six Flags, the S6 Edge's sides make it more slippery especially on rides but the system will work perfectly fine with Galaxy S7's which LA's theme park is getting in a few weeks. The zip tie is also in place to deter people from pocketing the expensive phones. "It's not a permanent solution," Rhodes told us, noting that there will be something other method used to keep the phones in place in the near future.

However, it looks like the devices are pretty solid in terms of anti-thievery. The button you push to release the phone has also been modified with glue that's filled in one end and a piece of metal that has been fit inside the other so there's no way to pull the phone out.

It makes the Gear headset look a little wonky but it all still works perfectly fine on the ride. The other thing we were worried about was hygiene. We'd heard of pink eye stories from the early days of Oculus Rift demos and didn't want to be at ground zero for another break out.

We previously reported that Six Flags will be sanitizing headsets between every use with antibacterial wipes - which definitely did happen when we trialled the ride. Phew. The Gear VRs are also equipped with anti-microbial leather - something else Six Flags advertised. All the straps are made with the leather including the new one that velcros under your chin and the foam cushioning on your face.

Another driving force behind both these theme park experiments is, of course, Samsung. The tech giant thinks that headsets being used on roller coasters just can't be imitated by any other experience.

"Simulated rides and large size theatres are trying to give you a rich immersive experience, but this is actually the experience itself," said Samsung's VP and GM of immersive products and virtual reality, Nick DiCarlo. "You are really riding a double loop roller coaster, wind blowing in your hair, g-forces being applied to your body.

"In VR, your eyes are seeing you piloting a fighter jet, so the sensation of real g-forces from the coaster completes the experience in a way that can't be replicated."

Then there's the question of what kinds of VR and ride combinations visitors will be willing to queue for.

Three of the nine Six Flags parks (New England, D.C/Baltimore and San Antonio) are already trialling a Superman versus Lex Luthor VR experience set in Metropolis rather than the New Revolution Fighter Plane sequence at the remaining six (LA, Arlington, Atlanta, St. Louis, Quebec and Lake George). As well as superhero and movie tie-ins to match existing branded rides, a big push at Halloween and Christmas is also on the cards.

"We're excited about using this technology to enhance some of our signature Six Flags events like Fright Fest and Holiday in the Park," Six Flags' SVP of Marketing Brett Petit told us. "Imagine wearing Gear VR headsets while walking through one of our haunted mazes, or being immersed in an animated Winter Wonderland."

Disney is considering recreating its rides and attractions for VR, but maybe it needs to shift some resources towards kitting out the actual rides in The Magic Kingdom.

The future of theme park thrills

Over the next few years, a bunch of VR roller coasters are set to debut across Europe, Asia, and the US, suggesting that the collision of traditional physical and virtual entertainment is a new playing field for millennial thrill seekers.

It won't be for everyone, as you can probably guess from our reactions but perhaps, 'Shall we try the VR one?' will soon become as commonplace a question as 'Shall we go on Magic Mountain again?' on a day out to your nearest theme park.

While Alton Towers, Six Flags and Thorpe Park fine tune the future of VR's place in theme parks, these early experiments don't just show us how VR can enhance the roller coaster experience. They also give us a clue as to just how ubiquitous these headsets are going to be in the (very) near future.

Additional reporting by Lily Prasuethsut.

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