Let’s Talk: Virtual Reality

Let’s face it: there are lots of fads in the theme park industry. A particular ride design or piece of technology comes out and gets snapped up by just about everybody. Just look at the number of Euro-Fighter coasters built since 2005, or the Wing Coaster craze of the last few years. One technology that has made a sudden and emphatic resurgence over the last couple of years is virtual reality.

It has to be said, there is nothing new about the concept of virtual reality. I remember having my first ever Merlin (or Tussaud’s as it was back then) Annual Pass in 2003, and pretty much all the big theme parks had an area where guests could try out virtual reality. These kind of disappeared towards the mid-to-late 2000s as ride technology grew steadily more sophisticated and eliminated the need for virtual reality. In the wider world, Nintendo released a now-infamous console called the Virtual Boy – it didn’t last very long, raising question marks over the suitability of virtual reality in other areas such as gaming. Yet curiously enough, VR is now making what some would call a triumphant return in both of these areas.

I first became aware of VR in a theme park sense when it was announced at the beginning of this year that Alton Towers’ Air was to be re-themed as Galactica and incorporate VR elements. I had the opportunity to experience Galactica earlier this year. And the experience itself was…interesting. As a coaster I used to love Air and was curious if and how a VR element would enhance the ride experience. And having done it, I’m not actually all that convinced it does.

The whole idea of a roller coaster is to experience sensations that you couldn’t experience in normal everyday life. Air was always interesting because it was the first flying coaster of its kind, and the only one we in the UK had relatively easy access to. The problem with the virtual reality is that you don’t even notice the flying element so much anymore really, as you’re far more engrossed in what you’re seeing and experiencing inside your headset. This is all well and good, so long as your headset is tuned in properly of course, but it very much eliminates some of the sensation that one expects, and indeed enjoys out of a roller coaster.

The other issue I have with VR, and this is no matter in what situation it’s used, as that it makes for a very solitary experience. You’re essentially wearing a blindfold and headphones and blocking out everything that’s going on around you. For me, one of the great enjoyments of a theme park is sharing it with others; looking over at your mate who’s never done the ride before and seeing his expression is all part of the fun. Similarly with gaming, I much prefer gaming in the company of friends, which isn’t really possible if you’ve got a whacking great helmet on your face.

I’m not completely damning VR here, just so you know. I think there are circumstances where it could be really, really awesome. Situations that have been specifically designed to use VR, rather than it just being slapped onto an existing coaster. I think something like Derren Brown’s Ghost Train at Thorpe Park would be a far better use of VR because they can manipulate you in new ways on what is a fairly stationary ride anyway, and it doesn’t matter whether you miss out on any sensations or not. From what I’ve read they actually incorporate the isolation into that as well, and I think a concept like that is a really effective use of VR. It doesn’t mean I’d rush out and experience it though – scary rides are not really my forte!

In summary, while VR is currently spreading like wildfire throughout the bigger theme parks of Europe and the U.S., it’s not necessarily a trend that I would be excited or enthusiastic about seeing added to any of my favourite rides. By all means design a ride around it, but personally I’d rather experience the sensation of a roller coaster with my friends rather than be trapped inside a videogame which for all intents and purposes feels somewhat rushed due to the length of the coaster and doesn’t really add a whole lot to the experience of riding. Virtual reality may be the future of the theme park industry, but for now I’m sticking to the present and actual reality.

See you around =] x x

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