Already highly regarded for its arsenal of kick-ass thrill machines, Six Flags will up the ante by repurposing nine of its roller coasters as ride systems for what could prove to be delirious, out-of-this-world VR experiences. It will take immersive storytelling to new heights – literally.
Take Superman the Ride at Six Flags New England in Massachusetts. Considered by many ride fiends (myself included) to be the country’s best steel coaster, the over-200-foot, 77 m.p.h. screamer pays homage to the Man of Steel with its color scheme, logos, and other cursory references. The superhero theme will take a quantum leap this year, however, when passengers strap on VR headgear and embark on a hyper-realistic journey in the city of Metropolis.
“This will be the first opportunity that people will have to virtually fly with Superman,” says Sam Rhodes, corporate director of design for Six Flags. And by fly, we’re not talking about the comparatively tame rendition of flight that motion simulator rides such as Star Tours at the Disney parks and the Harry Potter rides at the Universal parks deliver. We’re talking about flying alongside Supes while experiencing an actual, stomach-churning 221-foot drop, maneuvering through tight turns loaded with bone-crushing G-forces, and floating heavenward from multiple bouts of zero-G airtime.
The Superman VR experience, which will recruit passengers to help battle baldie baddie Lex Luthor, will also be offered on Superman coasters at Six Flags America in Maryland and Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio. It will be one of two VR storylines the park chain will be introducing this season.
The other will be a futuristic fighter plane experience called New Revolution. The plot, which sounds suspiciously familiar to Independence Day, will feature a humongous mothership filled with aliens who are up to no good. Instead of Will Smith, coaster riders will get to be the heroes who save the planet from annihilation.
The New Revolution name fits the story, but it also corresponds to the name of a coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California. The park had already announced that the classic Revolution coaster, which dates back to 1976, would be getting a major update this season with new trains and other modifications that are designed to deliver a smoother ride. With the addition of the VR overlay, perhaps it should be called The Really New Revolution. The park will debut the ride on this Saturday, March 26, for some annual passholders.
Dare Devil Dive at Six Flags Over Georgia near Atlanta and Shockwave at Six Flags Over Texas near Dallas include the sci-fi VR experience already. Later in the spring, Ninja at Six Flags St. Louis in Missouri, Goliath at La Ronde in Montreal, Canada, andSteamin’ Demon at The Great Escape in New York will incorporate The New Revolution. All riders on all trains will be offered the VR opportunity (although those who would prefer to forego it can make that choice), and there will be no additional charge.
It would be hard for passengers to be heroic without any weaponry. Six Flags will have you covered. The VR headgear will include controllers that riders will be able to use, video game-style, to fire virtual guns. The shooting will only be enabled while the trains ascend the lift hills. Traditional coasters typically spend about 40% of each ride slowly click-clacking up a lift hill. While it helps build anticipation, it’s generally the least engaging part of a ride. By incorporating VR, the lift hill will become an essential part of the coaster experience.
The VR will actually begin before the trains leave the station. Once passengers get into their seats and don the headsets, they will have a fully realized, 360-degree, 3D view of the alternate reality. It won’t be a fixed video. It will be a virtual landscape that will be linked to the trains’ motion and will respond to the passengers’ head movements. According to the team working on the rides, the headgear will not include audio, but there will likely be external sound effects blasted from speakers set up around the coasters.
Six Flags has been exploring VR for years, but only recently began to pursue it in earnest. The German-based company, VR Coaster, presented an on-ride demo of its technology in November 2015. “We’re seasoned veterans, but we got off and said, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ ” Petit notes. “We have to fast-track this now.”
The Six Flags VP says the folks at VR Coasters cracked the code to make the concept viable and compelling. The system uses the latest Samsung Galaxy smartphone clamped into a Samsung Gear VR headset. The goggles were designed in conjunction with VR innovator, Oculus. They will include modified head straps and chinstraps to help secure the equipment during the wild and crazy coaster rides.
The mobile phones will be loaded with a proprietary VR Coasters app that will run autonomously in the headsets. To keep the virtual experience tethered to the real coaster experience, the phones will be wirelessly connected via Bluetooth to a “black box” mounted on the train.
The ability to precisely track the motion of the train is critical. “It’s the magic of a VR coaster,” explains Six Flags’ Rhodes. With their vision impaired by the goggles, passengers would have no way of knowing what’s about to happen on the ride. They wouldn’t be able to adjust their body in anticipation of a hard bank, for instance. If every curve and other element hit them without warning, they wouldn’t feel great.
The VR visuals, however, will match the coaster layout. If the coaster train is about to bank left, the perspective from the virtual fighter plane that passengers will see in their headsets will also bank left. “Everything is more intense and more heightened than reality,” says Thomas Wagner, the CEO of VR Coasters. “But we’ve designed the experience in a way that riders always know what is coming.”
Matching the virtual to the reality is also key to preventing one of VR’s biggest bugaboos: nausea. When there is a disconnect between what a person sees on VR goggles and what their bodies are physically experiencing, it can lead to queasiness. The Six Flags VR coasters will have “realistic 3D movement in virtual reality combined and precisely synchronized with the real movement of the coaster,” Wagner says. “It will be individually choreographed to each unique coaster and synced to each rider. There is no motion sickness,” he assures.
Speaking of sickness, what about passengers, including sweaty ones who might have to wait in line an hour or more on a sweltering summer day, sharing headsets and the, er, cooties factor? Petit says that the modified headgear will include anti-microbial leather on all surfaces that will come in contact with riders. Six Flags crewmembers will wipe and sanitize the gear between each use. There will be about five headsets for every seat on a coaster to allow for a steady supply of cleaned and charged units.
Other parks are developing their own VR coasters. The first one debuted in 2015 atEuropa Park in Germany. Alton Towers in England will transform one of its coasters into the space flight-themed Galactica this season. Canada’s Wonderland near Torontoran a limited test with park guests on one of its coasters last fall and will continue to make the VR experience available for the 2016 season. Parent company Cedar Fair, which also operates parks such as Ohio’s Cedar Point and Minnesota’s Valleyfair, says that it plans to conduct a test at a second, as yet undisclosed location this year.
But with its bold rollout of the nascent technology, nobody is embracing VR coasters quite like Six Flags. With a huge numbers of passengers poised to give its nine thrill machines a whirl, it will provide a real-world laboratory for virtual reality rides. While I wasn’t able to ride a VR coaster, I was able to get a sneak peek of a Superman scene on the equipment Six Flags will be using. It was eye popping and stunning, and that was without moving an inch. I’m looking forward to soaring at superhero speeds and being blown away.
This article first appeared on USA Today and was written by Arthur Levine.