Alongside the launch of Galaxtic Attack, the new virtual and augmented reality layer to Mind Eraser at Six Flags America, Samsung and Six Flags have rolled out some significant improvements to the concept of VR coasters. The Samsung Galaxy S6 that sat in the heavily modified Gear VR for Superman: Ride of Steel has been upgraded to a Galaxy S7, and that's far from the most interesting thing that has changed since last season.
Samsung and Six Flags have worked together to improve the fit of the headsets, dramatically increase the graphics in the headset, and make it much easier to bring users in and out of these experiences to help with potential ride delays. It's a lot to have fixed over a relatively small period of time, and from our chat with Six Flags' Sam Rhodes on what comes next it's clear this pace for improvement isn't going anywhere.
Better hardware everywhere
While the launch of Galactic Attack in Six Flags America is happening days after the launch of Samsung's Galaxy S8, don't expect to see that hardware in the park anytime soon. Samsung and Six Flags are using a Samsung Galaxy S7 inside one of the older white Gear VR headsets for a bit longer.
There are a couple of great reasons for this, for starters the Galaxy S7 offers the greatest pixel density for VR right now even when compared to the new Galaxy S8. This denser display also lacks any of the curves that are so popular with Samsung phones right now, which means no opportunity for chromatic aberrations that occasionally appeared on the Galaxy S7 edge in the same Gear VR.
But why not upgrade to the new headset? At the moment, Six Flags had bigger fish to fry. Specifically, the fit of the harness around the Gear VR so the headset doesn't move at all when attached to your head. According to Rhodes, this is all part of the experience.
We went with a new restraint system that made the headsets much easier to put on and off, which was a huge change. We're actually trying to patent it now, because our engineers found a solution that was unique to us.
It's far from simple, but works very well. There's a ratchet system similar to the PlayStation VR and Vive Deluxe Strap for tightening the plastic harness around you head, as well as a pair of extra straps to ensure there's no movement when flying around the track. The design is far from elegant, with bolts everywhere to fasten it all down, but transitioning all of this to the newer Gear VR design is clearly secondary to making sure the headset itself is not only more comfortable than its predecessor but also more secure.
Another step in making all of this easier to get people into so lines don't slow down is a special NFC card the operator has for resetting the VR experience. Just before strapping the headset on, you hear a tone from the phone as the plastic card hits the back of the headset. This saves the operator from needing to look in the headset and check every single headset, making it so all they need to do is hear the tone to get started.
When the ride itself is finished, every Gear VR is returned to the maintenance station where it is wiped down inside and out with cleaning wipes to keep everyone safe from germs. Each headset is then checked for remaining battery life, and either goes onto a rack for charging or is prepped for the next user. Watching all of this happen was more than a little impressive. The process is much faster than last year, such that Galactic Attack can now be a part of every Mind Eraser ride, instead of just specific times of day like previous VR coasters.
Similar software, with a vastly improves approach
Galactic Attack is being called a "Mixed Reality" ride, and in this instance that means there's an augmented reality portion at the beginning and end of the ride with a virtual reality experience in the middle. The augmented reality section is all about presence, letting you see the trip up the coaster for the first drop so you don't lose that anticipation when enjoying the ride in an entirely virtual reality environment.
Switching seamlessly from augmented to virtual reality isn't easy, which is why you rarely see it done in other Gear VR apps. Combining the camera with the VR experience is expensive from a power and heat perspective, but when your experience is a 2 minute trip at 65mph those two things aren't quite as big a deal.
To improve the visuals for Galactic Attack, Samsung and Six Flags are relying on supersampling. The VR experience is created at a dramatically higher resolution than the display can handle, so when the experience is drawn on the display it appears sharper and more detailed. Or, as Sam Rhodes puts it:
It's technically 4K in each eye, so basically 8K but because its split you say 4K. The video is 4K in each eye, so the graphics quality is much, much better.
The actual resolution per eye for a Samsung Gear VR is somewhere closer to 1280x1440 per eye, so by supersampling with 4K output the graphics inside the headset would be noticeably improved from previous VR coasters that were using the native resolution of the headset for video. Combine that with the quality head tracking experience you get from a Gear VR and the rock solid sync experience Samsung and Six Flags have implemented on these coasters and it's going to be quite a ride.
Iterating fast, and discarding what doesn't work
The most impressive thing about the work Samsung and Six Flags have been doing with VR coasters is how quickly things are improving. Six Flags isn't afraid to step away quickly from what isn't working, for example the Rage of the Gargoyles experience that quickly turned stomachs was set aside just as fast as it was deployed.
Six Flags is quickly trying new things and using that information to focus on what works, which is part of why the current Galactic Attack experience is only going to be be around until the end of Spring. This team is moving quickly, and working closely with Samsung to improve constantly, which is great for everyone thinking about getting on a VR coaster.
The next big change, according to Rhodes, is addressing battery life by making the Galaxy S7 brain behind this experience act less like a phone and more like a dedicated VR computer.
We're modifying the battery life right now. One of the challenges we had in the past with battery life was the fact that there was a lot of applications running in the background. We've created a new application that will shut every single thing down except for our app, and we're expecting to get 60% more battery life out of one phone.
More power for each phone means fewer phones and less manpower to manage the constant maintenance required to keep each of these VR add-ons clean and functional. When you add that to the improvements in making the headsets easier to put on and start up, there's no doubt Samsung and Six Flags will be offering unique VR experiences on roller coasters for quite a while.
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