How do you know if you're in a good virtual reality experience? One of the most common pieces of evidence presented is fear of heights. You're standing on the edge of a virtual cliff, and even though you know, rationally, that you're actually in your living room, you can't bring yourself to step off the edge, because the simulation is that convincing. You've achieved "presence" in the parlance of the VR industry.
So what happens when you take a virtual reality simulation, and combine it with an actual, physical drop from a very high height? I found out for myself recently during a trip to Six Flags in Maryland. I rode on the Superman – Ride of Steel rollercoaster, a 15-year-old attraction that has been remade as a VR experience. You strap a Samsung Galaxy Gear headset on, and the movement of the coaster is synced up with a virtual story in which Superman and Lex Luthor play catch with you over Metropolis. It's terrifying in all the right ways.
A 68-degree drop becomes a 90-degree plunge
The graphics on the ride aren't great — they are powered by a stock Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone, after all — but the fact that the whole thing looks like an old PC game doesn't matter after the first drop, because the combination of the physical forces coursing through your body and the digital drama unfolding before your eyes exaggerate the thrill of the coaster. The first hill is, in the real world, a 68-degree drop. But in the VR experience, you take a sheer 90-degree plunge toward the sidewalk.
At the end of the Superman coaster there are two small hills, mere bumps compared with the size of what you've already experienced. But in VR, with no sense of scale, and with Superman and Lex Luthor still tossing you back and forth over building, the terror and excitement were powerfully sustained.
The headset syncs with the ride 30 times per second
The technology behind the new ride was created by VR Coasters, a German company that has also outfitted a number of parks in Europe. Each train is equipped with a sensor package that tracks the revolution of the wheels to determine exactly where on the ride your are. It transmits that data to the headset 30 times per second, working to ensure that the VR story unfolds in a fluid and fully synced way.
Six Flags has slightly redesigned the Gear headsets, swapping in antimicrobial leather straps that are more hygienic and adding a chin strap to ensure it doesn't fly off during the ride, which can reach a peak speed of 73 miles per hour and subject your body to a G-force of 4.5. A closet full of headsets and smartphones stands beside the area where new riders board, so used units can be set aside for cleaning and fresh ones can be swapped in without adding a delay for the next set of passengers.
Augmented reality coasters are next
The VR coaster system is set to roll out to nine Six Flags parks around the country this summer. From a business perspective, it offers the chance to give a second life to old rides without the expense of constructing anything new. It also makes each coaster adaptable, able to change to suit the season or a new movie by simply swapping out the software package.
Augmented reality, where the real world and the virtual are mixed together, will be the next evolution of this system. AR is more difficult to do well, and so its development will lag behind VR by a year or two. But it won't be too long before you'll be able to ride a coaster and see the actual world around you, while demons take bites out of the track ahead, and Superman descends from the skies above.