If you’re already sick of virtual reality, I apologise in advance. The thing is, VR is the future of roller coasters. Alton Towers’ soon-to-be flagship attraction, Galactica, confirmed it when I jumped aboard this week, just ahead of launch. However, there’s lots of room for improvement.
The first thing I noticed about the roller coaster is how utterly ordinary it looks. Ignoring the fact that the site is still under construction, and the Air placards and banners from yesteryear are yet to be removed, the blue Galactica track is modest. There are turns, drops and twists, but nothing especially intricate or intimidating.
Watching an empty carriage on a test run didn’t get my adrenaline pumping either. It didn’t move slowly, but it certainly didn’t appear to be travelling at breakneck speed. 'Has Alton Towers dropped the ball, or am I simply off-the-scales badass?', I thought. I settled for the latter. After all, I knew that what I saw from the ground wasn’t everything I’d be getting.
Time to grab a headset and strap myself in.
Though it looks like a regular inverted roller coaster, Galactica goes a step further, positioning you horizontally, like Superman in flight. However, unlike the great underpants-flasher, you need to be strapped in – while sat upright – by one of the ride’s attendants before shooting off.
After plonking myself down in one of the seats, a member of the team pulled one of those hefty barricade things over my shoulders. A separate mechanism then closed around my legs, locking me in even tighter and leaving me with the ability to move my arms and turn my head, but little else. If you suffer from claustrophobia, be warned.
Attached to each safety barrier is a Samsung Gear VR headset, which you need to pull around your head. The ride attendant advised me to stretch the strap over the back of my noggin first, before dragging the main visor onto my face. Though the technique helped me get it on quickly, I managed to fold my ears into themselves in the process. Around 30 seconds of fiddling with my cartilage-y bits later, I was more comfortable, but still not quite ready to get cracking.
The Gear VR, already on of course, displayed the Galactica logo flanked by visual instructions on how to tighten the headset’s straps, adjust the focus and tinker with the volume settings. Though I’ve used it on numerous occasions, I needed help locating the Gear VR’s keys and dials, which are sensibly, though impractically, hidden under a protective sheet. It took me at least three minutes to optimise the headset.
After that, the attendant had to calibrate the content, telling my fellow Galactinauts and I to look straight ahead. The virtual Galactica logo, which previously sat towards the right of my picture, soon centred itself. Bring the next stage on.
Ready, set, what the hell? Having forgotten that Galactica positions you belly-down, I was prematurely shocked when I started tilting forwards. Silly boy. Can I stick my arm out like Superman? Just about. A short countdown later, the visuals popped up and we started moving.
A quick glance around showed me that the riders on each side of me had been hidden out of sight by pixels, and that I was on some sort of spacecraft. Or rather, I was a spacecraft. After travelling, relatively slowly, through a grey, metallic-looking tunnel and an enormously-deep room that appeared to be filled with innumerous virtual robots and machines, myself and a team of spacecraft zoomed out of the Launch Portal and into sweet, dark nothing.
As a planet that looked a lot like Earth crept into view, the speed of the real-world carriage picked up and I felt that familiar, stomach-clenching sensation of being twisted upside down. Time to scream? Definitely. While trying hard to deafen the other riders, I flew through a wormhole, which instantly transported me to Nero 5, a bright orange land of lava. Sort of like hell, but without that Satan bloke.
Another wormhole later, I was soaring over the frozen planet Kepler 9. The ice below crumbled as I streaked overhead, making me momentarily wonder what alien penguins might look like. Before I spotted any lifeforms, it was time to move on again, with the next wormhole transporting me to a massive spaceship. The sight of a two-legged droid with friendly features suggested that I’d arrived back at base, and a bodiless narrator confirmed my suspicions. Ride over.
The disembarking process was a lot quicker than the boarding process and, odd as it sounds, considering I’d just spent the previous moments being flung around in mid-air while completely blind to my surroundings, I didn’t feel at all nauseous or dizzy or jelly-legged when my feet were reunited with the ground. That’s very impressive.
Back when Galactica was announced, the virtual reality specialists at Guildford's Figment Productions said that the ride uses a special system, dubbed Vector VR, designed specifically to counteract motion sickness. Since each rider is securely strapped in and therefore unable to move very much, the company’s been able to fine-tune the visuals to accurately represent the real-world movements of every individual passenger. It certainly seems to work.
Another realisation that hit me was how chilly my hands felt after I jumped off the carriage (bear with me). I’d been so absorbed in the ride that I’d essentially forgotten about everything else around me. You don’t need me to tell you that that’s a good thing.
However, entranced though I may have been, I certainly wasn’t overawed by image quality. The Gear VR content isn’t as sharp as it should be, and Galactica’s graphics are a cut or two below the level they need to be at for the experience to be convincing. As things stand, it feels like flying through a virtual world from a computer game that’s already been on the shelves for a couple of years. Good, but not quite mind-blowing.
I also think the ride itself could do with some added pizzazz. Apart from the turns and speed changes, there isn’t actually a great deal else going on. How about installing a fan system to blast hot or cold air at you when you pass through the extreme climates? Or introducing a hostile alien that brings you to a sudden halt when it jumps out at you? I'm happy to pluck ideas from the air and not have to worry about whether or not they're possible.
Fortunately, Tim Briggs, an Alton Towers staff member, told me that the content could and would be altered and improved over time. This means that Galactica may be completely different in a year’s time, without any of the track changing in the slightest. Great news for Alton Towers, bad news for thrill-seekers’ wallets.
My final criticism concerns timings. Relatively speaking, the boarding process took a long time. A lot longer than the ride itself. As well as strapping each rider in and ensuring they wear and optimise their high-tech gear correctly, Galactica's team of attendants also needs to wipe down the Gear VR headsets with disinfectant between rides.
Briggs told me that one attendant would be responsible for kitting out each row of riders, which makes Galactica the most manpower-dependent attraction at Alton Towers. However, while the extra hands would no doubt speed up the process, he admitted that it wouldn't be the quickest attraction to prepare at the theme park.
The last few paragraphs haven't exactly been glowing, which is why I need to stress that I genuinely enjoyed my Galactica experience. It's unlike any roller coaster I've ever been on before, and makes up for a lack of traditional thrills and spills with something that has the potential to be so much more exciting.
Alton Towers hasn't quite created the finished article yet, but Galactica represents a very sturdy foundation on which to build. The ride opens on March 24th.