Galactica, Alton Towers

VR and theme parks

Mixed realities could be on the horizon for all attractions.

Read more about all aspects of Virtual Reality technology

Virtual Reality has become fashionable, with companies rallying their investments to ensure they are at the forefront of this progressive technology and its apps.Thus, when one thinks of the perfect pairing of app and VR, it could be with a great escapism experience: theme park attractions and rollercoasters.

A fast-paced and adrenaline-pumping rollercoaster can push thrillseekers to their limits, so what could happen if it became multi-sensory and fully immersive, with limitless possibilities and infinite variety?
You can find answers, not in the birthplace of Disneyland, but somewhere less obvious: the UK.

Old Blighty has become the frontrunner of using mixed realities to create extreme experiences, as park giants Thorpe Park and Alton Towers unveil their AR attractions in April.

Thorpe Park’s ‘Derren Brown’s Ghost Ride’ is a multi-sensory experience held in a purpose-built warehouse, with a seven-tonne Victorian train carriage and 60 bespoke Vive VR headsets by HTC for riders. Derren Brown, the illusionist and mastermind of the Ghost Ride, says the mix of “virtual reality, grand illusion, special effects and live action” will change the ‘rules’ of theme park attractions.

Alton Towers will also be opening Galactica, a mixed-reality rollercoaster where passengers can travel through several galaxies, with the twists, turns and falls timed perfectly with their VR headsets.

“By augmenting the VR with the synchronised movement of the ride, we can create an experience that you simply can’t get anywhere else,” Alton Towers claims, so what could VR eventually be capable of when it comes to theme parks? Could we see the end of ‘real-life’ rollercoasters?

Chris Savage, CEO of Wistia - a video marketing platform which is also expanding into VR - doubts it: “I don’t think VR will be included in every theme park ride, but many more of them will find ways to use VR to enhance the experience.

“They will be able to mix live motion, feelings and smells with visuals and audio that can help transport someone to a completely different place.”

CEO of Holovis - specialists in sensory experience design - Stuart Hetherington, agrees: “We still need the physical presence of iron coasters in the park and [rollercoasters] are the only type of ride that can provide the G-force needed,” but he adds that VR can enhance a coaster experience and refresh staple attractions.

Caecilia Charbonnier, co-founder of Artanim Interactive (developers of immersive and interactive systems around motion capture and VR) has a differing opinion, believing that theme parks can move totally to VR if they achieve “a sufficient degree of realism by recreating the sensation of being in a rollercoaster (in terms of motion).

“Once this has been achieved, then we can definitely move to VR for this kind of attraction - which will also be much safer for the visitors.”

Charbonnier adds that VR could “provide users with the flexibility to change 3D environments as they please, without the need to rebuild the entire attraction”.

It is not certain whether theme parks could take on an all-VR selling point - The Void in the US is attempting to woo the world with its ‘first VR theme park’ tagline and will open this summer, but it’s still having teething problems. Yet using VR for at least part of their package could save theme parks vast amounts of time and money, which could mean cheaper thrills for all of us - and safer experiences.

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