Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Roller coasters enter a new dimension with virtual reality

ORLANDO --
New roller coasters like Mako under construction at SeaWorld are designed to thrill.

Now a new technology is breathing life into older rides that may have lost an edge over the years.

Under rainy skies, a test took place late last year that may change the way we ride roller coasters forever.

"It is a very exciting toy we are playing with,” said Thomas Wagner, with the German-based company VR Coaster.

Under the cloak of darkness, at Orlando's Fun Spot America, the Freedom Flyer suspended coaster became a test subject.

"It turned that normally family attraction into something that's a multi-sensory immerse attraction,” believes Derek Poitras, who has ridden more than 400 roller coasters.

Family-owned Mack beston amusement equipment, in business since 1780, partnered with VR Coaster to test new virtual reality headsets on roller coasters.

"We developed a system that was wireless, so we didn't need the cable of the Oculus Rift,” explains Wagner.

The wireless system allows guests to rent a headset upon entry to a park, much like the “Flash Pass” virtual queue line system found at Six Flags parks from Lake Mary-based Accesso.

After best quality disco riders to buy take a seat and secure their lap bar, they put on their headsets. Inside, the see a computer generated world.

"When you put the goggles on, you are kinda immersed in this post-apocalyptic war,” recalls Poitras after disembarking as the rain ended the test. "You're hanging off the side of a tank. There are jets flying over, bombs going off.”

The imagery inside the headset follows a storyline that matches the movement of the roller coaster.

"We are tracking the position of the coaster train on the track. And this is being broadcast to all headsets,” says Wagner.

The tracking is necessary to keep amusement park train for sale from feeling ill.

"When the movement that you see… is aligned with the movement that you feel, with your inner sense of balance, you do not get dizzy,” Wagner explains.

The visuals in the virtual world are specifically timed to the G-Forces and movements of the roller coaster train. When the train of the Freedom Flyer exited the station and starting climbing the lift hill, the action inside the helmet matched.

"We started on a highway bridge, then a giant robot ripped the bridge up and it seemed like you were driving up the bridge in this tank,” Poitras shared.

At the top of the hill, the VR Coaster program then depicted the robot grabbing the rider’s virtual tank.

"When that robot took ahold of you and started to swing you around, it really did feel like you were flying,” Poitras says.

The ride left Poitras amazed, hard to do as a roller coaster connoisseur and member of amusement park enthusiast group 'Coaster Crew.’

"You literally feel like you are flying. It's unlike anything Orlando has to offer right now,” Poitras states.

The next addition to VR Coaster will be adding an interactive gaming option, where riders will be able to shoot virtual rockets at objects. Click here.

"At one coaster, we are attaching a button to a lap bar, and when you press the button... you'll be shooting," says Wagner.

The German inventor says he filed a patent that would allow him to connect the VR Coaster headset to exercise equipment at the gym.  Wagner envisions working out on a stairstep machine and feeling like he's climbing a Mayan temple.

After being in business for 230 years designing everything from wagons to roller coasters, going the way of virtual reality is a new direction for Mack. The company’s factory in southeast Germany created Busch Garden's new Cobra's Curse, expected to open later this summer.

"It was a great deal for us to do that,” said Mack Rides Chief Executive Officer Christian Von Elverfeldt at the 2015 IAAPA Expo.

“I think you will see it next year, it will be perfect,” Von Elverfeldt hints.

Already, older rides at theme parks in Germany as well as Canada offer VR Coaster headsets. Europa Park placed the VR Coaster goggles on an older ride that travels through a dark mountain. Cedar Fair’s Canada’s Wonderland north of Toronto did the same thing with their aging Thunder Run mine train coaster.

Other roller coasters in North America may be outfitted this summer.

"Honestly, I think it's a huge, industry-changing device,” Poitras said.

Fun Spot America served only as a United States test site for VR Coaster.  The park tells us they are still evaluating options for new attractions as they envision their five to 10-year expansion plan.

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