Reinventing Roller Coasters with Virtual Reality

Have you ever thought what it’s like when the real world and the virtual are mixed together? Putting the two together in one experience might sound like an overkill, but that is precisely what some of the world’s famous theme parks are embracing today.

No longer exclusive for gamers and tech geeks, virtual reality has been going mainstream everywhere, and it has caught the attention of theme park designers. More specifically, the roller coaster industry is taking its game to exciting new heights by incorporating virtual reality to the thrill ride.

The Roller Coaster Thrill

What is so enticing about roller coasters? Just by looking at the highly elevated railroad track from a distance and observing how the coaster goes up and down, it should evoke terror yet we still find our way queuing for hours just to experience a two or three-minute scare of a ride.

Richard Stephens, a psychology professor at Keele University in England, explained that roller coasters invoke “eustress,” a good kind of stress that has the same effect as euphoria. This kind of stress is not bad for the health, but rather it is pleasurable, and most of us actively seek it out.

In the past years, roller coaster designers have been introducing novelty ideas to keep people coming back. So far it’s always about the superlatives – the tallest ride, the most twists, or the steepest drops. But these ideas have a limit because safety is still a significant concern. So what’s next? It seems that the answer to this question is to go virtual.

Evolving Immersive Technology

Rapidly evolving immersive technology is providing incredible new opportunities to reinvent theme parks for a whole new generation. Virtual reality is a type of immersive technology that makes a user completely shut out from the rest of the world. Head mounted displays (HMD) are used with headphones to give a fully immersive experience in a new world.  It has the unique ability to transport you inside a story or off to other dimensions.

For decades, theme parks have been offering virtual reality-like experiences, such as attractions that offer a trip to the moon, a submarine voyage under the sea, or travel to Africa aboard a jungle cruise. More recently, they have been incorporating VR headphones into their roller coasters and converting the thrill rides into story-based attractions. The first publicly operated VR roller coaster was in late 2015 at Europa Park in Germany. Since the success of this new innovation in the roller coaster industry, several theme parks all over the world have adopted this technology.

What It’s Like to Ride a VR Roller Coaster

For most theme park enthusiasts, the draw of the roller coaster is all about the enjoyment and adrenaline rush you get during the momentary drop from the peak of the track, the loops, the sudden upside-down turns, and all the swoops and swerves that will make your stomachs drop. Now, imagine taking a VR simulation and combining it with the actual physical thrill from the roller coaster – just by thinking about it might blow our mind, but the experience is something that is surely fun and exciting.

With VR, you are introduced to a new world, it could be inside a science-fiction movie or a trip to anywhere – to the forest or to the aquatic world. Whatever the genre is, the physical experience while seeing the VR right in your eyes is the real deal.

The video content is amazingly in sync with the roller coaster and gives you an added sensation to completely immerse yourself into a new dimension. The combination of the physical forces from the real world and the digital video content exaggerates the thrill of the roller coaster. 

Rethinking Roller Coasters

Adding a whole new interactive element to roller coaster rides with VR is not only an exciting experience for theme park goers, but it is also profitable for the theme park industry. From a business perspective, it is a cost-effective way to give a second life to old theme parks and amusement rides without the expense of building new rides. It could also help to reinvent traditional steel roller coasters that are generating less interest and revenue.

Through VR, roller coasters can be modified to suit the season or to change into a new content video by swapping out the software package. This is an effective strategy for theme park owners because it is easier to change the promotional concept of the roller coaster every now and then.

What the Future Holds

Since this new technological advancement in the roller coaster industry is attracting the masses, there were concerns on whether it might pose a threat to the future demand and existence of traditional roller coasters. Some argue that it is losing the point of what a roller coaster is.  But according to research (Louw & Louw, 2018), this isn’t the case. Rather than being a threat, VR can serve as a crucial essential player in promoting the roller coaster industry.

It is no debate that roller coasters are indeed one of the main attractions in every theme and amusement parks. This is supported by a research conducted in 2016 that suggests that the most desired attraction for the majority of theme parks in the world are roller coasters. So the idea of modifying it with a twist of VR would not be an issue in the demand of the traditional roller coasters.

People will always find the excitement and thrill on every roller coaster whether it comes with VR or not. The additional twist of VR will serve as a complementary asset to traditional roller coaster infrastructure and product offerings, rather than a threat.

Final Words

With technological advancement, the fastest, tallest, scariest roller coasters the world has ever known were made possible. Today, it seems that a new era of roller coaster thrill ride has begun through virtual reality. For aging theme parks, VR is the ticket to revitalize the rides.


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