They promised us jetpacks, flying cars, hoverboards, robots, and virtual reality. So far, the jetpacks have been limited to Tomorrowland demos at Disneyland circa 1966. Development of flying cars has apparently stalled due to a critical lack of Flubber. Hoverboards have been coopted by the ridiculous and dangerous powered scooters that catch on fire (and emphatically do not hover). Star Wars notwithstanding, the best we seem to be able do for robots is to turn them into glorified vacuum cleaners.
But with the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, and other systems, virtual reality is really becoming a thing.
Parks and ride developers have been teasing us with a subset of the genre: the virtual reality coaster. Guess what? They are here. And you can ride one at a Six Flags park. In early March 2016, the park chain announced that it is converting nine of its roller coasters into VR experiences.
What Is a VR Coaster?
There are variations on the concept. Since the introduction of motion simulator attractions such as Star Tours at the Disney parks, developers have often used the rides to simulate roller coasters. Sometimes they use footage of real coasters as the source material; other times they create virtual coasters using computer-generated imagery. In either case, getting tossed around by a motion base while watching a coaster movie projected onto a screen has generally been underwhelming.
As technology has improved, and VR goggles have become more readily available, developers have created VR coaster experiences. But they are static. Users strap on headsets and are immersed in a virtual coaster ride, but remain tethered to their couches and don't actually move anywhere. Designers have developed VR ride systems in which passengers sit in seats that move in sync with the imagery displayed on their headsets. Still, the seats never move more than a few inches in any direction, and the coaster thrills are largely an illusion.
The Six Flags VR coasters flip the concept. Instead of using VR to simulate coaster rides, the parks use actual coaster rides and enhance them with VR overlays that transform them into otherworldly experiences. Instead of pretending to soar skyward and perform acrobatic inversions, passengers climb real lift hills, hit bugs-in-your-teeth speeds, endure real head-over-heels loops, and experience airtime and other G-forces that coaster crazies like me (and you?) crave.
Riders on the park's virtual reality coasters are given a Samsung Gear VR headset. It includes a Samsung Galaxy smartphone that is tricked out with an app from the company, VR Coaster based in Germany. The phones communicate wirelessly with sensors mounted on the train so that they can accurately track the coaster's movement. The Galaxy's accelerometers, gyros, and proximity sensors also come into play as the app mimics the passenger's head movements.
The result is that when riders sit down in the coaster and place the headsets over their eyes, they are transported to a virtual world. They have a 360-degree view of a CGI landscape. The action is synchronized with each coaster's layout and responds precisely to the actual real-time progression of the train through the course. The synchronization helps passengers visually anticipate actual coaster elements which allows for comfortable rides and reduces the risk of motion sickness.
Go Flying with Superman
Depending on which park you visit, you'll be treated to one of two VR coaster storylines. The VR experiences are available for all passengers of the designated coasters, and is included with the price of admission to the parks. If passengers would prefer to opt out of the VR experiences and take traditional rides on the coasters, they can do that. Six Flags says that children 12 and under cannot use the Gear VR headsets. There will be some disappointed kids at the parks.
Three of the coasters feature a Superman theme and take guests to the Man of Steel's long-suffering city, Metropolis. Instead of a coaster car, passengers ride in what appears to be a virtual, futuristic tram. They are led to believe that they are going on a tour of the city. As with most theme park attractions, however, things go horribly wrong. Metropolis' main villain, Lex Luthor, fires an anti-gravity gun at the tram which rises into the air.
Lexbot henchmen attack the vehicle and smash its windshield (which helps explain why passengers feel the rush of wind in the real open-air coaster cars). As riders look around them, they notice buses, taxis, and other vehicles floating by that have also been hit with anti-gravity waves. While the train is actually 150 feet or so in the air, passengers have the sensation of being much higher.
The all-American hero flies in to save the day, and uses his laser vision to knock out the anti-gravity gun. That causes everything, including the tram, to fall. Before it crashes, Superman swoops down to catch it. It appears to riders that they are flying, almost cheek-to-cheek, with Supes. The Lexbots continue their mayhem by attaching a grappling hook to the tram and sending it careening through buildings and other obstacles. Superman, of course, ultimately saves the day.
Here is where the Superman experience is offered:
Join the New Revolution
The second Six Flags VR experience is a sci-fi scenario in which passengers are cast as fighter jet pilots. The ride starts in an underground military bunker. As the jet is towed up to the top of the hanger, riders have the ability to fire weapons using controllers mounted on the sides of the VR Gear headsets.
Poised some 1000 (virtual) feet in the air, passengers see a futuristic city under siege by an alien mothership. All hell breaks loose as the jets dive down towards the city's streets and try to avoid the gunfire from the ship and its drones. As the jets fly through the mothership, the passenger's/pilot's mission is to drop a bomb and blow it up.
These are the parks and coasters offering the New Revolution experience:
- Six Flags Magic Mountain in California on The New Revolution. Opening spring 2016.
- Six Flags Over Texas on Shockwave. Opening spring 2016.
- Six Flags Over Georgia on Dare Devil Dive. Opening spring 2016.
- Six Flags St. Louis on Ninja. Opening summer 2016.
- The Great Escape in New York on Steamin’ Demon. Opening summer 2016.
- La Ronde in Montreal on Goliath. Opening summer 2016.
Are you wondering why the Six Flags park near you isn't offering a VR coaster? That's because it has another major new attraction already planned for 2016. See what's on the way to all parks in the chain in my Six Flags Ride Guide 2016.