The virtual-reality hype train sure is running on full steam lately. In recent years, we've seen the fledgling concept of virtual reality rise from the grave of obscurity into an all-new tech trend. Devices like the Oculus Rift and Samsung's Gear VR headset are selling out in huge numbers, and it's no wonder why so many game developers are eager to work with VR. The technology offers so many possibilities for consumer immersion that filmmakers (and even restaurants) have started using it, hoping to revolutionize the way they tell stories and sell products, respectively. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the amusement park industry is trying to make use of the technology as well.
Virtual reality is said to be the next big thing in amusement parks
This year, we've already seen several "virtual reality roller coasters" pop up at Alton Towers and various Six Flags theme parks. With the use of VR headsets, these parks hope to turn their seemingly ordinary roller coasters into fully immersive media experiences for guests to enjoy. Instead of just seeing the track ahead of you, you can be surrounded by explosions and city skylines as you fly through the air. It sounds promising, but can such an ambitious concept as a whole live up to its potential?
As a huge coaster fan, I wasn't sure if completely updating the traditional experience of a roller coaster would be more than just a trendy gimmick. However, I was still willing to give it a shot, as the idea of adding immersive media to already thrilling rides admittedly caught my interest.
I decided to try out the VR roller coaster for myself
Last Sunday, I drove up to Six Flags New England, where a VR experience was recently added to Superman: The Ride. Upon entering the station, I didn't exactly get a good first impression of the ride. The experience uses the Samsung Gear VR headset, which is held onto riders with three Velcro straps that go around the head, a Velcro chin strap, and a lanyard that is buckled around the neck. Right off the bat, I noticed many of the passengers struggling to put on their headsets while seated. This caused ride attendants to go back and forth making sure the guests had their headsets on correctly. Meanwhile, the passengers in the train behind them were sitting in the hot sun waiting for the train to leave the station.
In the meantime, a ride attendant gave me my headset in a haste, as two other attendants rushed to sanitize the ones from the last train. While it was good to know that the sweat and grease from the previous passenger wouldn't be on my face, I was concerned at how the headsets were being cleaned. The employees seemed to be rubbing the headsets' padding with damp hand towels at an alarmingly fast pace. I suddenly felt a rush of sympathy for the workers, as they were probably instructed to clean the headsets as quickly as possible.
One year ago, when the ride was painted purple and called Bizzaro, the workers at the station were much more relaxed, and nobody was rushing to clean twenty pairs of VR headsets at a time. I could only imagine how much the workers longed for the days without VR and stressful labor.
The VR headsets were difficult to hand out promptly
The wait times were also much shorter, and this ride could dispatch 10 trains in five minutes. Now it takes 10 times as long for guests to board just so they could put the headsets on. In fact, later that day, the ride had a wait time of over two-and-a-half hours, while most of the park's other rides had wait times of under 20 minutes. It sure didn't seem like a worthy investment to me.
After getting my headset, I was immediately told to wait behind the gates, as I was the next person to board the roller coaster. The previous train was still not ready to leave the station, so I still had a little while to wait before I could get on the ride. At this point, I noticed that the ability to choose which seat to take was gone. Instead of getting to wait a little longer to sit in the front seat, I was directed to sit in the middle. While this isn't that big of a deal, I was pretty disappointed to see the front row queue taken over by a cabinet full of headsets. It seemed like traditional convenience was sacrificed in favor of modernizing the ride.
I finally boarded Superman: The Ride
After about 10 minutes, I was finally able to board the next train. I got in my seat and attempted to put on the headset, only to realize that I was not instructed on how to put it on. After all, it's pretty hard to put on something when it's blocking your vision. Eventually, a ride attendant was able to help me put it on, and I was greeted with the sight of some pretty underwhelming visuals.
The on-ride graphics
Upon putting on the headset, I was greeted with a blurry view of Metropolis. I took on the role of a kid wearing a Batman shirt sitting in what seemed like a single-person monorail. The headset uses a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge to display the graphics, so they were naturally quite lacking for such a hyped-up ride experience. Everything looked like it was straight out of a PlayStation 2 game, and, for something that was billed as being a high-tech experience, I was fairly let down by it. Still, though, at least it was in color and not in red and black (*cough* Virtual Boy *cough*).
A few more tedious minutes went by before the train finally left the station, sending me and the rest of the passengers up the lift hill. As the train ascended the lift hill, the screen showed Lex Luthor using a tractor beam to derail the monorail and send it floating into the air. This could have been a cool scene, except for the fact that I could barely hear the audio on it. As Lex Luthor tore up the monorail station, the soundtrack was pretty much drowned out by the sound of the lift hill. The lack of any sound effects killed much of the immersion, and I was suddenly pretty apathetic to the experience.
The ride was exciting once I got past the uneven quality of the VR
Soon enough, the train reached the top of the lift hill, and Superman showed up on screen to save the day. Thankfully, this is where the ride finally started getting good. The second that Superman blasts Lex's tractor beam, you're sent flying down towards the street. This is the part where I started screaming repeatedly as the force of the drop completely took me by surprise. The inefficiency of the headsets and the sub-par graphics had lowered my expectations to a point where I forgot that I was riding a 200-plus-foot-tall ride.
Once the ride got going, my criticisms of the graphics went straight out the window, as I was suddenly fully immersed in the environment. I was flying through an epic battle between Superman and Lex Luthor, and enjoying every second of it. I hadn't memorized the track layout, so every new twist and turn was unexpected and added to the ride's excitement. Not being able to see the track made the ride an unpredictable and terrifying experience, and I had a big fat smile on my face by the end of it. Of course, that smile was quickly flattened out by having to wait for the train ahead to leave the station.
While I was entertained by the experience, I still think that the ride would be better off without VR. The inefficiency of the final product has far too many problems to work out in the long run.
Although the VR is optional, it still put a heavy burden on guest service and efficiency. With long lines, confused passengers and stressful working conditions, the desire to make the next big thing in thrill rides feels feels like more of an inconvenience than an innovation. According to other coaster fans I've spoken to, many of the other new VR roller coasters have the same problems. While the concept still has potential, the amusement park industry should probably have waited a bit longer before green-lighting it. The idea is still too young, and the inefficiency of its current execution overshadows the enjoyment of the ride itself. Hopefully in the future they can figure out a way to create new thrill ride experiences without sacrificing the necessary elements of efficiency and convenience.