Virtual reality roller coasters are certainly cool, but are they really the future of theme parks?
Whose bright idea was it to strap a vomit-inducing virtual reality headset to people's faces and then flip them upside down at 55 miles per hour?
It's certainly not my idea of fun, but in the spirit of Halloween and all the thrills that come with it, Samsung and Six Flags debuted Rage of the Gargoyles, one of the first virtual reality coasters with a video game built into the ride. You play it by pointing your head at moving targets with the Gear VR while flying through the air on one of eight participating Six Flags coasters around the U.S. The game is meant to seamlessly integrate with all the twists and turns of the coaster its synced to, and Six Flags even promises that you won't feel any motion sickness. Well, I'm here to tell you that this is not entirely true, as I learned from my own experience playing Rage of the Gargoyles.
A virtual reality video game roller coaster
In retrospect, I probably wasn't the right person to test drive Rage of the Gargoyles, considering I've had bouts of nausea brought on by VR in the past. But part of my job is trying new things, and I was curious about Samsung's attempt at marrying virtual reality with the real world.
I was curious about Samsung's attempt at marrying virtual reality with the real world.
I was invited by Samsung to a media preview day at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom to experience the Rage of the Gargoyles. At this particular park, the virtual reality video game is built on top of the 18-year-old Kong ride, a faded red and yellow steel inverted roller coaster that already has an unfortunate reputation with the locals for being the bumpiest in the park.
Once I was ready for my inaugural ride, a Kong operator equipped me with my own first-gen Gear VR headset with a Galaxy S7 unit strapped in. It had a safety lanyard for my neck, as well as an adjustable chin strap and head strap to keep the unit from flying off once I was in the air. There was also extra padding around the eye area so that the Gear VR wasn't pressing into my forehead.
Before the ride could take off, everyone had to calibrate their headsets. We did this by basically looking ahead at the QR codes pasted on the car in front of us. Then, after we saw our virtual selves in an apache helicopter cockpit, we were allowed to adjust our view with the Gear VR's focus wheel.
The VR coaster experience essentially ships as a kit and it's up to the engineering team to find the safest place on the ride to install the sensors. In Kong's case, that's car six, which houses the position detection system and a black box wth a Bluetooth sensor that pushes pulse counts and rotation numbers to an app monitored by the supervisor on duty. The sensors typically have to be re-calibrated when it's wet outside, but since California is in the midst of an extreme drought, that hasn't been an issue.
Rage of the Gargoyles was not an easy ride to stomach. It's a virtual reality game, which means that the entire time you're zooming through the air at 55 mph, you're also supposed to move your head from left to right to shoot at gargoyles. At the end of the ride, you're scored for how many you've shot down. The idea is that you'd ride a few more times in an attempt to beat your best score and the scores of those around you.
Unfortunately, this sort of hybrid experience is difficult to enjoy when you're also screaming bloody murder (I certainly was). There was so much visual stimulation, that it was hard to manage my sense of equilibrium. I tried bracing myself for every spin and rapid turn of the coaster, but instead, I felt panicked at what was next, like I was riding blind despite the Gear VR strapped to my face.
There was so much visual stimulation, that it was hard to manage my sense of equilibrium.
A few other riders who were in attendance had also remarked about how sick they felt. One pair of pals took our near-literal bellyaching as a warning and opted to ride Kong once around without the Gear VR to get a sense of the twists and turns beforehand. I regret not thinking to do that.
I played another round of Rage of the Gargoyles after a half hour break, this time with cameras pointed at me. The video above doesn't include a direct feed of my run, however, which is a bummer, because I wanted to see what the game looked like after I had lost control of it. The Gear VR was poorly secured around my head at the beginning of the run, so it slipped down my face halfway through the ride. It was painful, and I felt a bit of an ache on the bridge of my nose for a few days after.
I committed to a third and final lap on Kong—this time without the Gear VR. Kong was exponentially easier to handle without virtual reality, but because of the nature of the ride, I was still uncomfortably tossed around in my seat. At the end of it all, I realized that the locals were right: Kong is way too bumpy, and the Gear VR did absolutely nothing to enhance the experience.
Is virtual reality the future for roller coasters?
I don't think the initial set up is what made me queasy. The ride and the narrative playing on the Gear VR were actually synced up quite nicely. The problem is that Kong is the wrong rollercoaster for a virtual reality experience. It's erratic to begin with, and I was too concerned with getting comfortable to pay attention to the post-apocalyptic scene with gargoyles floating about. We have examples of roller coasters at other Six Flags locations that do great with VR.
The problem is that Kong is the wrong rollercoaster for a virtual reality experience.
So, is virtual reality a viable technology for integrating into roller coasters? I hate to offer such an irresolute answer, but I feel like only time will tell, especially since this experience is so limited right now. Rage of the Gargoyles is open only to Six Flags season pass holders until the end of the month. After that, anyone can try it until the end of the season. I'll be curious about the vomit reports drawn up as a result of this, and whether Six Flags attendees in other states will find Rage of the Gargoyles more fun because their coaster wasn't as bumpy. At the very least, this experience is a great introduction to virtual reality for the uninitiated, and it means we'll see more refinement of the technology over time.