For all the headlines virtual reality has made, it has yet to establish a solid footing with casual consumers. They may have seen one of those cool Samsung commercials on TV displaying the Gear VR or maybe they even got a chance to try out PlayStation VR or Oculus at a Best Buy, but they’re probably not any closer to buying a VR system.
Samsung wants to change this and is using an unorthodox way of going about it—roller coasters.
Samsung has teamed up with Six Flags for a VR-roller coaster mash-up that incorporates the best elements of VR with the physical aspect of a roller coaster. I got the chance to visit Six Flags Magic Mountain and try out the new Galactic Attack virtual reality coaster.
The VR coaster is currently available at Six Flags theme parks in California, Texas and Mexico. The plan is to bring it to more locations in Missouri, Georgia, Illinois, New York and Canada later this year. This is actually the second year Samsung and Six Flags have teamed up for a VR ride.
The coaster uses custom-fitted Gear VR headsets and are used in conjunction with a Galaxy S7. Obviously these units are slightly different than the normal Gear headsets casual consumers can buy. Instead of just an elastic band, this set has a plastic band that can be adjustable along with a chip strap for extra precaution and a plastic cable that wraps around the neck just incase the two previous steps fail. The whole set-up isn’t entirely comfortable given how tightly they need to be placed on your face to prevent the set from flying off during the ride.
The VR experience features what Samsung is calling “mixed reality.” When the headset is first put on, it activates the Galaxy S7 camera to see the world around you. It almost feels like you’re viewing the world from the perspective of a robot. The peripheral vision is really bad, but it’s still an interesting sensation to view things from a tunnel-vision angle.
After being strapped into the coaster seat, the official VR experience kicks in. You’re suddenly in cockpit of a ship. The passenger next to you on the roller coaster becomes your co-pilot in full Halo-like armor. This is where the fun really starts.
As the coaster gears up the hill, the VR experience immerses you in a space world until you drop and the ship sets sail. Weaving through space, narrowly missing asteroids, you’re quickly thrust into this VR world quite jarringly. Random asteroids and alien ships dart in and out, it’s hard to locate yourself in this new world. Trying to get a grip with the surrounding its a lot easier said than done and the high speeds of the coaster don’t help at all. The coaster lasts only a couple of minutes (if that), so there’s no time to waste in the virtual world.
Through Gear VR touchpad on the side of the headset, you can access the gun you will need to shoot down asteroids coming at the aliens that are trying to obliterate Earth.
During the mission, there are three different paths you can take that have different turns and twists that provides a different experience every time you use the Galactic Attack coaster. The VR experience is calibrated with the trajectory of the roller coaster so the turns and drops align with the space world making it a much more immersive experience. This is the next frontier of VR and it’s really exciting. I’ve never experienced a more immersive VR experience than this. From shooting down aliens to feeling every turn the coaster offers, the thrills are definitely present.
But it’s not all good with the VR coaster.
It might seem pedantic, but this VR experience still felt a little underdeveloped. One of my main gripes with mobile VR, like what you find in the Gear VR (or Google Daydream), is that the virtual world you experience is watered down due to the hardware’s limitations. The Galaxy S7 is powerful, but not to the degree of a gaming console or computer. The graphics of the VR world are passable, but not anything to brag about. It doesn’t compare to what I’ve seen from PlayStation VR and HTC Vive whose VR worlds are much more polished and engaging.
The VR experience that Samsung and Six Flags tried to create is ambitious and really cool, but falls short of its ultimate goal. It still has a ways off to really be something to be excited about. A VR experience requires more than slightly modded headsets meant for living room usage to immerse the users in a world. It’s a fun experience to try once or twice, but the commodity wears off quickly.
I hope Samsung and Six Flags don’t lose heart with this experiment though. If VR will ever reach the potential we see in it, it largely depends on ambitious projects like this that push it to new levels. As devices become more powerful and VR programs continue to enhance, the sky will be the limit. Unfortunately, that moment just isn’t here yet.
Disclaimer: Six Flags invited TechnoBuffalo to try out this new VR experience at its Magic Mountain amusement park in Valencia, Calif.