Virtual reality and water slides seem like things that shouldn’t mix. One is a still nascent technology that generally tends to rely on delicate and sensitive electronic equipment, and the other is a form of entertainment that largely involves sliding fast in an enclosed space filled with water — things which generally tend to have harmful effects on delicate and sensitive electronic equipment.
And yet, here we are, with VRSlide, which recently opened at Galaxy Erding in Germany, and proudly lays claim to the title of “first virtual reality water slide.” Now, adding virtual reality to theme park rides isn’t really anything new: Six Flags teamed up with Samsung to add Gear VR headsets back in 2016, and later upped that to augmented reality in 2017 that lets you see your surroundings.
The tech behind the VRSlide is pretty impressive — it’s a wholly custom waterproof headset that can be completely submerged (up to a few meters), powered by an integrated Samsung Galaxy S8 that runs custom software for the VR experiences, which are built in Unity. There’s a two-part tracking system that both utilizes the S8 to listen to ultrasound chirping from sensors and monitors the inertial data that gets compared to riders of various weights to figure out exactly where users are. The headsets also recharge wirelessly, making it easy for parks to constantly swap sets in and out throughout the day.
Impressive tech, but to what end?
But as interesting as this tech is, the whole thing just seems a little depressing to me. Were water slides so boring that we needed to spice them up with blocky, almost-PS1-era 3D graphics that let you have the thinnest illusion of being in space or on a snowy mountain? Call me old-fashioned, but isn’t the whole point of a roller coaster or water slide the experience of moving fast and flying around? What could a smartphone-based VR system possibly be adding here?
I remember back when I was younger, Six Flags revamped one of my favorite roller coasters, Medusa, into Bizarro. The ride itself was completely unchanged, but — along with the new paint job and DC Comics merchandise everywhere — Six Flags added a blaring speaker system to the ride for blasting the sound effects of a dramatic Superman battle into rider’s ears. I’m sure it did very well for them, but I get that same sense of weariness looking at the VRSlide as I did when riding Bizarro for the first time, wishing I could just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
Ballast — the company behind VRSlide — is viewing this as the first step toward a larger kind of aquatic VR setup, one that would see full, impressive tanks that users could swim in while in virtual reality. It sounds far more intriguing than simply strapping a headset onto a water slide, but unfortunately that system isn’t quite ready for commercial roll out just yet.
Disclosure: Stephen Greenwood, the CEO of Ballast VR, is a former Verge employee.