World's First Virtual Reality Rollercoaster Ready For Lift Off at Alton Towers

By Gerald Lynch on at

If the thought of donning a virtual reality headset at a desk makes you feel queasy, consider doing the same on a super-fast roller coaster. But the ride designers at Alton Towers have done just that, and believe they've cracked a fundamental issue concerning VR nausea in the process. Galactica will ride the wave of interest in space travel by taking passengers on an intergalactic adventure at the Alton Towers theme park in April 2016, when it will open as "the world's first" virtual reality rollercoaster.

Repurposing the existing track from the park's popular Air ride, Galactica will see riders pop on a modified consumer Samung Gear VR headset (securely fastened to the ride's carriages), before being placed in a prone "Superman" flight position and whisked around a space-themed visual experience. With a 20 metre drop and a ride speed of 75km/h, passengers will feel the force of 3.5 Gs - .5 more than astronauts feel during a rocket launch take-off.

Virtual reality is notorious for creating a feeling of nausea in some users – an effect that is heightened when motion is involved. The body can't reconcile the disparity between what it's physically feeling and the movements VR visuals are telling the brain to expect. Working with the virtual reality specialists at Guildford's Figment Productions, the ride uses a bespoke "Vector VR" system which looks to alleviate these unpleasant sensations – and take advantage of the specific thrills VR can offer.

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For starters, a rider's position within the car helps counteract motion sickness; as each passenger is securely strapped in, their movements are limited, allowing Figment Productions to fine tune the visuals to each individual seat in the cars.

"Each rider gets accurate tracking based on exactly where they're sat on the coaster thanks to our custom-made control centre – that means tracking for each individual rider as well as the 'global' positioning of the car," Simon Revely, Figment Productions owner, told Gizmodo at this morning's launch event.

"That allows us to be incredibly accurate in terms of synchronisation. But what's almost more interesting from a creative perspective is that we've found it doesn't actually need to be in sync the way you might think. The human body seems to work a bit like an accelerometer. It can detect changes, but doesn't necessarily know when it's experiencing a constant speed or direction.

"That means you can play with it a little bit – so long as you can synchronise turns, acceleration and deceleration, the rest is up for grabs. You can really play with it – if you hit a corner, so long as the VR is in sync on that corner, you can then keep on turning people further than they are really going in reality. You can exaggerate motions so long as your body detects a real one. Your brain doesn't really know how far your body should move."

Figment Productions has certainly done its homework then, also extensively working with HTC's Vive headset too. My current concern sits with customising the headset for each rider individually, or more pertinently the lack of those options. Being able to tweak a VR headset's physical optics and lenses, not to mention securely strapping a headset on in such a way as to eliminate real-world peripheral vision, is essential for an immersive experience, which may not be possible during those hectic, panicked moments at the front of a roller coaster queue.

But yes; those wearing prescription glasses can keep them on during the ride, and the relatively short length of the experience should mean passengers have little opportunity to fall foul of the full stomach-churning effects of bad VR. And of course, the question must be asked – will anyone that does leave the ride feeling a bit sick be able to discern whether it was the thrill of the high-speed coaster or the virtual reality experience that caused it?

As for hygiene and the logistics of plonking a VR headset on 1,500 passengers an hour goes, Alton Towers claims to have a "custom built" solution for the former, and anticipates no notable delay to ride queuing times caused by the latter. It's even employed ophthalmologists and microbiologists for their expert opinions; their thumbs up will hopefully satisfy those uncertain about any sanitary concerns associated with sharing potentially-chunder-soaked headsets with fellow riders.

Alton Towers will hope that Galactica will revive its fortunes after a rocky 2015. Its Smiler coaster was involved in a serious crash in June of last year that resulted in life-changing injuries for some passengers, and has announced that it will shut the park going forward on days that have traditionally seen fewer visitors, such as midweek. But with the full endorsement of some of the world's most discerning roller coaster experts, it looks likely that Galactica will  attract thrill seekers far and wide.

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