On a routine trip on the Metropolis subway one morning, disaster struck.
Lex Luthor, the famed tech billionaire secretly set on world domination, destroyed the elevated train line, tossing my carriage into the air and putting me at eye level with the peaks of Metropolis’s tallest skyscrapers. The train started to fall, and I could feel my stomach sinking and the wind whipping through my hair as I hurtled toward the ground. I screamed in terror and grasped my seat as hard as I could, as if that would change my fate. Then, at the last minute, Superman appeared. He battled Luthor, saved the day, and found a spot to set the train down safely.
At least, that was my virtual reality. In reality reality, I had just ridden Six Flags New England’s 20-story “Superman: The Ride” rollercoaster, which on Saturday (June 11) opens to the public with a new feature. Six Flags partnered with Samsung to create a VR component to the ride using Samsung Gear VR headsets to show the scene above as they ride. The short film, set in a virtual version of Superman’s Metropolis, is completely immersive, meaning riders can look all around them as they hurtle up to 77 mph around the coaster’s track. (Unless, of course, you’re like me, in which case you spend the entire 90 seconds staring straight ahead, trying to breathe, and hoping you’re not going to die in a VR fantasy world.)
The Massachusetts attraction is one of about 20 VR coasters open or opening soon around the world, but according to Six Flags, it’s the tallest and fastest one in the world.
I hate heights. I’ve been terrified of being more than a few feet off the ground my entire life, which is at least one of the reasons I haven’t ridden a proper rollercoaster since about 2000. But I had a feeling that a VR headset might help: It would prevent me from knowing how high I was, or seeing how soon the coaster would drop. I agreed to take part in Six Flags’ preview because VR is a soon-to-be mainstream technology still in search of good applications…but mainly because I wanted to stop being a wuss. At least for a few minutes.
When I arrived at the rollercoaster, I immediately regretted my decision. The ride looked like a mangled mess of track with a series of steep drops, and the thought of not seeing where I was going started to freak me out. But once I was strapped in, the VR headset was a welcome distraction. I didn’t notice the steep incline, or many of the loop-the-loops the ride took me on. Instead I wondered why my VR avatar was wearing a Batman shirt on a ride about Superman, and why the graphics looked like something out of a late-1990s video game. Then came the first big drop. In the simulation, it seemed like I would just slowly rise forever, looking out the Luthor-induced carnage befalling Metropolis. But then Lex himself grabbed the car and we started hurtling to the ground. Completely immersed in the simulation, I held on for dear life.
Even when we know that what we’re seeing is not real, virtual reality can still trick our caveman brains into thinking something is actually about to happen to us. I’ve experienced simulations that make you think you’re on a tiny plank of wood hundreds of feet in the air. I’ve felt legit fear playing some of the more challenging games on the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. Given the efficacy of VR catastrophe, it doesn’t seem at first glance like adding a dose of reality to virtual reality is worth the effort.
At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Samsung even went the other way, combining VR headsets with bucking seats to convince stationary people they were on a real rollercoaster. Setups like these could potentially disrupt the notion of schlepping to far-flung theme parks and paying hundreds of dollars for overpriced snacks and hours of wait time. In (a relatively dystopian version of) the future, we could put theme parks inside strip malls and visit them whenever we felt like popping into a virtual world.
But VR on top of the real world does add something not easily replicated in a room: the real world itself. The feeling of actually dropping 200 feet in a few seconds is very different than a rigged chair dropping you a foot, and nothing beats real wind rushing through your hair. Whether VR avatars and blocky graphics add enough to a regular rollercoaster is probably a personal decision, but not one between better and worse—it’s just different.