You take your seat on the roller coaster and a large belt is locked into place. A Six Flags ride attendant places a virtual reality headset over your eyes. A chin strap is tightened, and you look forward in the headset.
Suddenly, you’re inside Superman’s Metropolis in an immersive experience. You can’t see the coaster, the ride attendants or even the person next to you. You only see the virtual Sky Tours seat, which looks like the pod of a large Ferris wheel. As the ride begins, you see the simulated urban landscape, but then Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis, comes into view. The physical coaster is climbing up the track, but you have no idea how high you are. Luther has an electricity gun, which he fires at the train, along with some LexBots that also grab the train, detaching you from the track.
As the physical train crests over the top of the track, it barrels down a 221-foot drop at 77 miles per hour. In the virtual space, you’re also plunging, but Superman flies in to catch you before you crash, and you’re now flying with the Man of Steel. But then Luthor knocks out Superman and once again you’re dropping…
That’s just the beginning of the VR experience as part of the Superman roller coaster ride at Six Flags New England. For the next two-and-a-half minutes, riders wearing the virtual reality headsets experience a whole bunch of other swoops, dives, turns and thrills as Superman battles Lex Luthor high above the buildings of Metropolis. The VR component, which debuted on June 9, is the latest addition to the coaster, which has won the ‘best steel roller coaster’ award by Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Awards five times since launching in 2000. It’s not the first coaster in the Six Flags system to get VR - Shock Wave at Six Flags over Texas in Arlington, has that distinction, but the Superman coaster in New England is the “world’s tallest, fastest and longest virtual reality coaster,” Six Flags says. In addition to the Superman VR experience (also seen or soon-to-be seen at two other Six Flags parks), coasters with VR at other Six Flags parks include an experience where riders are “transported to a futuristic battle to save planet Earth from an alien invasion.”
Six Flags is on the cutting edge of using emerging virtual reality technology. It’s still a nascent industry though, so deployments are not yet commonplace. Research firm IDC predicts there could be 9.6 million VR units sold this year, with the VR hardware market surpassing $2 billion in revenue. One of the most common areas of interest for VR thus far has been in the video gaming industry, but theme parks, hotel and leisure establishments and even college campuses are among the first enterprise users of this technology.
+ SLIDESHOW: Superman VR roller coaster in pictures +
Adding VR to an already existing physical property - one that already brings its own set of excitement - was an interesting challenge for Six Flags. The team worked with several companies to create the experience, including representatives from DC Entertainment (for Superman-related storyline and brand issues), VR Coaster (a German company that synchronizes VR with roller coasters) and the theme park company’s own designers and engineers. A marketing partnership with Samsung Electronics announced in March provides the parks with the Gear VR headsets and Galaxy smartphones.
“What I love about this particular project is that it was a group effort,” says Jennifer McGrath, communications manager at Six Flags New England. “We all jumped onboard together, and to create a product that our guests absolutely love, and Six Flags is very proud of that.”
VR Coaster says that by the end of 2016, more than 20 parks worldwide will be equipped with its VR technology. This includes many Six Flags parks, including ones in Texas, Georgia, St. Louis, New York and Maryland. In addition, the company has equipped VR on coasters in parks in Germany, Belgium, Canada and Finland.
“Three years ago if you said, ‘Jen, would you have virtual reality on your coaster?” I actually wouldn’t have thought that this was possible,” McGrath said. “Virtual reality is in and moving very quickly. In the theme park world, not just Six Flags, we’re all trying to jump onboard and see what we can do with it.”
For the Superman ride in New England, here’s how the system works - riders who want to use the VR headsets (they’re totally optional and Six Flags say about 70% of riders choose the VR) are given the headsets right before they get onto the ride (or as they’re climbing into the car). The system utilizes a Samsung Galaxy S7 phone paired with a Gear VR headset. Other modifications include an over-the-head plastic strap that can be tightened behind the head, a safety strap and chinstrap to prevent the headset from flying off during the ride, and an anti-microbial Velcro pad that touches the rider’s face (the ride’s attendants sanitize the headsets before they get used again).
Once on the ride, the headset reads a QR code that is located directly in front of the user - it’s on the back of the seat in front of the rider. This means that riders sitting in the front row of the train can’t utilize the VR component. After the headset reads the code, the VR animation is ready to go inside the rider’s helmet. During the ride, the headset communicates via Bluetooth to a control center located on the fifth car of the train (this car only has two seats instead of the regular four seats on other cars). The animation that occurs during the ride is synchronized with the physical aspects of the coaster, so as the car drops or turns, the associated action happens within the VR animation. The box in the middle of the train also synchronizes with your particular seat on the train - if the front of the train is doing the drop and you’re in the back, you don’t see the drop animation until the back of the train starts to drop.
Audio only occurs in the beginning part of the ride - once Superman “catches” the car after the first drop, there’s no audio from the headset - riders are usually too busy screaming or laughing, and the external soundtrack of the coaster is playing the Superman theme song by John Williams. McGrath said Six Flags is working on figuring out ways to integrate audio into the entire ride, not just in the beginning.
Since opening the ride, McGrath said they’ve seen a couple of side benefits. First, customers who usually stay away from roller coasters because they’re afraid of heights are trying the ride because they don’t have to see how high up in the air they are. Second, people who can’t ride the coaster because of physical challenges or disabilities can still experience the VR portion of the experience. McGrath said the company went to a local children’s hospital and showed the experience to patients who couldn’t physically ride the attraction or leave their hospital room.
The VR on the Superman ride is just the first step for Six Flags, she adds. VR could be integrated into other coasters within the park, or even through other non-coaster rides, depending on the physical layout of the ride, safety effects and how VR would affect line-waiting times. In addition, Six Flags is mulling whether animations for the existing VR rides could change (instead of Superman, it becomes a Bizarro-themed animation, or a holiday-themed coaster depending on the time of year).
Six Flags New England is planning to announce its 2017 attractions on Sept. 1, McGrath said. This may or may not include VR. “More to come, stay tuned.”