The medium of virtual reality is changing how we experience games, movies, news, sport, porn, The Simpsons... and now, roller coasters. Already this year, several theme park operators in the US and UK have announced rides that will blend physical sensations with digital worlds. Germany's Europa-Park introduced just such a ride last year, and Britain's first VR roller coaster "Galactica" will be opening to the public on March 24th at Alton Towers. Ahead of its launch, I jumped on an opportunity to experience the space-themed voyage first-hand, and I can easily say it's utterly unlike any roller coaster I've ever ridden.
A handful of fellow tech journalists and I turned out for the press preview of Galactica, but this ragtag crew needed a Commander. Luckily, real astronaut and cover artist Chris Hadfield had taken the first "official" ride earlier that day, and was on hand to prepare us for the trip. Once this PR power-move had run its course, though, we were on our own. And you really are on your own.
For me, at least, roller coasters have always been an inherently shared experience. Even if your squeamish friend doesn't feel like joining you in the front row, you sit yourself down next to strangers to endure the loops and G forces together. When you don the Gear VR headset and headphone combo in preparation for Galactica, though, you are immediately isolated from the world beyond the goggles, including your shipmates. Because of this, each run feels like a personal, perhaps even lonely adventure. It was an unexpected sensation, and one of the many ways the headset completely alters your roller coaster experience.
Galactica isn't an entirely new attraction at Alton Towers. Instead, the park has taken an existing ride, Air, and created VR visuals that align perfectly with its drops, twists and turns. Air is particularly suited for the space flight theme, as you are suspended horizontally, Superman-style, for the duration of the ride. If you're a traditionalist, or just don't feel comfortable putting a headset on, then you can always leave the Gear VR in its holster and enjoy the ride as is. And I wouldn't blame you.
There's something a little claustrophobic about the whole situation, and I'm happy to admit my initial excitement quickly turned to apprehension as I strapped on the headset for the first time. It's strange to know you're about to be flung around a windy, disorientating track at speed, and yet you're also effectively relinquishing control of one of your most important senses: sight.
The premise of Galactica is that you're embarking on a rubbernecking trip across the universe. You're a space tourist, only a thousand years from now. It opens on your vessel meandering its way through a space port in preparation for launch. Hovering robots scurry in and out of view; at one point, doors open beneath you to reveal a monumental landscape full of flying machines and sci-fi architecture. This is the build-up; the roller coaster's ascent before the first drop.
The acceleration and millisecond of weightlessness that comes with cresting that peak coincides with your first wormhole jump into outer space. Without going into too much detail, the rest happens extremely quickly -- or at least a lot quicker than you'd believe considering the three-minute ride time. One second you're admiring Earth from afar, then you're through another portal to witness the birth of a star. Another jump and you're weaving through the fiery valleys of a volcanic vista, almost plunging into the surface of an ice-covered planet, dodging metal and rock as you cruise by a space station in an asteroid field.
It's a lot to take in, and you barely have enough time to process each scene before you're onto the next, then back at base. I realized that I hadn't really been paying attention to the roller coaster aspect of the ride at all -- the physical had taken a back seat, merely complimenting the virtual. The bank of the spaceship that lines you up for the next jaunt coincides with a low-G loop on the physical coaster, but you're getting totally different visual cues. You aren't seeing the horizon as you loop the loop, and you don't catch that tree whizzing past your peripheral vision. Instead you're looking out onto the vastness of space, or at the fast-approaching surface of an alien world. You aren't bracing for any of these changes in speed or direction, either, since you can't tell they're coming.
In this way, the VR version of the ride has a distinct, unique feel to it. The best way I can describe it is you're not really on a roller coaster at all, but a high-tech simulator. Where a motion simulator like Back to the Future: The Ride or Star Tours creates the sense of movement, Galactica pairs actual movement with the virtual reality space expedition. Your body is undergoing the stresses and strains of a real low-G turn and a real upside-down loop, allowing you to suspend belief for that brief moment and feel like you really are pulling out of a dangerous nosedive into a waiting wormhole.
Image credit: Alton Towers
The term "immersive" is used often when discussing virtual reality, but this is exactly what the physical part of Galactica achieves: a more immersive, believable VR experience. In fact, I wouldn't even call it a roller coaster, since the various sensations combine into something... new. Galactica isn't without its shortcomings, though.
The visual acuity of the VR experience leaves something to be desired, for instance. Maybe Gear VR isn't quite up to scratch, or the 3D scenes themselves are lacking some finer detail. Either way, you know you're looking at a computer-generated world, like the difference between live action and CGI scenes in a movie -- believable enough, but could be better. You can also break the illusion by craning your neck (uncomfortably) to either side. Another minor gripe, since you are locked into a rigid harness and don't have a great degree of head movement anyway. Granted, your field of vision is completely covered, but if you twist your neck just far enough, you can see where the edge of the virtual reality world ends and the grey nothingness beyond begins.
Also, perhaps a pedantic point, but there aren't any "4D" stimuli, making it a little less immersive than it could be. By 4D, I mean additional, physical cues like a spray of water or a blast of hot air. These could occur as you exit the wormhole into the lava-filled valley, for example, or as you approach the icy surface on one of the other planetary pitstops.
Maybe I'm being overly critical. After all, Galactica is a repurposed ride, and it might be too technically challenging or cost-intensive to incorporate these 4D extras. Also, the beauty of Galactica is that it's possible to build completely different VR experiences for the same physical ride. A different intergalactic tour, perhaps, or something altogether new. Adding 4D elements might be creating too strict a structure at this point.
Queueing for hours for a few fleeting but exhilarating moments is par for the course at theme parks, but I dread to think how long the lines for Galactica will be. The pre-ride preamble has to be much longer than any other attraction in history. Putting the headset on, trying to find a comfortable lie (which isn't easy, let me tell you), tightening the strap, making sure the focus wheel is in the optimum position and adjusting the headphones all takes a minute or two. The headsets have to be calibrated en masse before setting off, and then wiped down after each trip.
It's a cumbersome process, and though Alton Towers will no doubt have an army of staff to keep things moving, you can't avoid the pre- and post-ride workflow. But, should you endure what will no doubt be the longest line at the park on busy days, you can at least take comfort in knowing you're in for a thoroughly unique and engaging experience.