Virtual reality helmets took the theme park industry by storm. Just like 4D cinemas and moving platforms in their time, some operators see them as a source of perpetual renewal at low cost.
Most of the time, Disney leads the way when it comes to new attraction formats. With VR, the promise is so strong that operators do not hesitate to explore a path in which the market leader has apparently given up. Is it possible that those early adopters are right? The reality is certainly nuanced, as we will see, after having defined the basis of what "virtual reality" means in the context of themed entertainment:
VR types Virtual reality experiences can be divided into two main families: the "head-mounted displays » similar as consumer gaming devices. In their simplest version, these headsets make it possible to passively explore a 3D space. Some are just a cardboard fold in which a smartphone is inserted. With the most advanced, like the Oculus Rift, you can move within a room (room scale VR), with a resolution that depends on the number and quality of sensors.
The other family of virtual reality devices allows "free roaming" (moving in large spaces and in all directions). A simple helmet does not offer enough room to house the necessary computing power. Most of the time, the player is harnessed to a back-end computer, which can possibly be supplemented by a device provoking physical feedback.
Types of attractions
These two hardware families define the VR amusement families found in parks and FEC: "static" experiences, in which the participant does not travel on their own, and games where one or more participants move freely in a room. In the first case, the content can be synchronized to physical effects or the movement of a vehicle, like a roller coaster. The second case corresponds to interactive experiences most of the time performed in groups, like laser games.
Contestants could meet other players on line while staying at home, but dedicated spaces offer the promise of state-of-the art equipment and possibly physical effects.
The antisocial danger
How many visitors go to the theme park alone? Very few.
The day at the park is a group activity. In a world where people are glued to their smartphones, amusement parks can bring back a form of sociability lost with the use of the Internet. Separating groups to offer individual experiences goes against the very purpose of entertainment venues. Minimizing this social dimension will definitely impact the business as a whole.
People like to meet their friends and relatives to go out. Cinema and live shows attendance is stable, when not on the rise, while people can enjoy hi-def movies and surround sound in the comfort of their homes. It seems that the need for social bonding grows parallel to technology. As a form of amusement, It is hard to imagine that virtual reality will have an effect different than video games, and their impact on the sociability on hard-core users.
Boosted by the promises of visionary gurus, operators who have embarked on the VR adventure report mixed results. Some visitors are not as enthusiastic as one might wish. In his article in USA Today about his virtual experience on the Kraken Coaster at Sea World, Florida, Arthur Levine writes, "riders will probably immediately notice that things are conspicuously missing in the virtual world: namely their hands, the rest of their bodies, their friends sitting next to them, and, for that matter, any sign of human life.”
But the biggest criticisms concern technical and operational parameters: Parks that have added VR to their coasters report at least 50% longer loading times, even with the help of extra employees.
Helmets must be cleaned, checked and adjusted every time, not to mention daily charges. The cost for the operator is not only the VR equipment, but also the extra staff and the drastically reduced throughput.
Foam headband from consumer headbands can be battery farms. Cases of pink eye and even ocular herpes are reported on social networks. To this, we must add the risk of earache and ear canal inflammation if the headset is equipped with audio headphones.
As we have seen above, the benefit of a VR experience outside the home is the possible presence of physical effects (admitting the tickling backpack is a good idea). This means that the VR media must synchronize with an external reference. This can be achieved by many ways, with various results, especially when consumer smartphones are used as screens.
Nevertheless, the sync aspect is critical: our body does not support conflicting information: the feeling is unpleasant (or worse) if our visual system sends indications to our brain that are not in tune with what our body reports.
In his paper on cnet.com, Sean Buckley recounts his experience on "Galactic Attack" at 6Flags, after his helmet went out of sync: "It was nauseating. If everything had gone as intended, I probably would have come away thrilled by a high-speed VR space combat experience that perfectly synced with the roller coaster's track. Instead, I was fighting a headache brought on by simulator sickness."
The image quality of consumer helmets can also be debated. Resolution and fluidity require computing power. Unfortunately for venue operators, free from the constraints of professional use, consumer devices will always be one step ahead of those used in public places in terms of performances.
For now, with consumer equipment becoming cheaper and more capable every day, the technology demonstration alone cannot attract customers, at least in the long term. Like simulation platforms and 4D theaters, the parks’ finance department sees VR as a way to break the circle of expensive attractions renewal. Let's bet that the real showmen see things differently. Their job is not to isolate people, but to bring unique experiences to be enjoyed as a group.
We are still in the infancy of a technology that will profoundly impact the way we interact with computers. It won’t take long before creative minds develop experiences that will go beyond current implementations, and their limitations. In the meantime, the real spectacle is the brave that the ridiculous did not kill, waddling with a VR helmet on his head.