They’re always trying to mess with my childhood. After all, Monopoly is played with credit cards now, and penny sweets rarely cost a penny anymore. Nothing is sacred.
The latest culprit is England’s Alton Towers, a theme park in Staffordshire and the thrill-filled playground of my formative years. The park has taken a ride called Air that I have known and loved for many years and given it a high-tech makeover by adding virtual reality. Now rebranded as the space-themed Galactica, it opened Thursday as the world’s first VR roller coaster.
The UK is blessed with few real theme parks and a paltry number of proper thrill rides, so when a new one comes along, it feels like Christmas. Air launched when I was 14 years old, the peak of my Alton Towers years. It was the most expensive ride the park had ever built. And with its slogan “assume the position,” the ride promised an experience akin to flying.
“I was immediately thinking, mobile VR, stick it on something that moves — that would be awesome.”
Simon Reveley, Vector VR
I’m already a huge fan of VR, so when I heard that Air was being transformed into the park’s first virtual reality ride, I was excited but also a little apprehensive. Would it detract from the experience?
Either way, I had to try it out.
Galactica is just the latest to jump on the burgeoning phenomenon that is virtual reality. Once a niche concept understood by few, this technology that takes you into fully immersive digital worlds is slowly seeping into our everyday lives. It’s an area that has drawn heavy tech hitters like Facebook, Google and Samsung, which all believe it’s the next great frontier in tech for us all.
Theme parks, which already know a thing or two about blowing your mind with hair-raising experiences, are the next on board.
Unfortunately my tolerance for G-force speeds has diminished significantly in the decade since I was 17. It’s something I discovered a year ago, mere seconds into the first drop on the New York-New York Hotel & Casino’s roller coaster in Las Vegas.
As my taxi wound through the misty lanes of the West Midlands en route to Alton Towers, I was fretting about how I would fare on the ride.
How it feels to be Superman
Fortunately, Air — excuse me, Galactica — was and remains the kind of roller coaster that you want to keep going and going. Once seated, you’re hoisted up so you’re horizontal, with your front side facing down. You are then left to dangle (and, if you’re like me, worry about whether your shoes are tied on tight enough).
This is all part of the flying coaster experience. Head first, you swoosh around corners, perform balletic inversions and — if you really want to imagine how it feels to be Superman — stretch out your arms in the direction you’re going. It’s not so much stomach-churning as a blissful release from the tedium of being a ground-based, two-legged mammal.
In this VR experience, you’re an out-of-this-world tourist, watching the universe fly by as you’re shot from a space station among careening spacecraft to come within brushing distance of exotic planets. On the return, you’re thrown off course at the last minute, but ultimately make it back safely.
Galactica uses the latest Samsung Galaxy S7 phone encased in customized Gear VR headsets for the virtual reality element of the ride. Speakers have been built into the headband, and the headsets charge off the roller coaster’s overhead main power. They’re stored in special pouches on the chest plate of every seat when not in use and are tethered to the ride in case of accidents.
As soon as Samsung’s Gear VR was unveiled in September 2014, Simon Reveley of Vector VR, the company that brought Galactica to life, knew it would be the perfect fit for a roller coaster.
“I was immediately thinking, mobile VR, stick it on something that moves — that would be awesome,” he said.
Air was the first roller coaster Reveley tried out his idea on, “with lots and lots of gaffer tape.” It turned out to be the perfect fit. “We were lucky because this is like the Rolls Royce of roller coasters,” he said. “It really is amazing.”
I can’t help but agree. The addition of virtual reality has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for this steel beast. The video kicks off as soon as you leave the station, meaning the ride shifts into high gear before you finish the first climb. The extension of the experience is welcome. The ride is more about the turns and twists than getting altitude, so you’re not missing a view when strapped into the VR headset.
Galactica’s theme of space flight is a predictable but also fitting choice for a flying roller coaster. Coaster addicts won’t get bored because there are so many things to see and because your experience changes each time. You can choose to look straight ahead, down or side to side and discover new scenery.
Surprisingly, I didn’t feel sick going through the ride, which couldn’t be said after trying out Samsung’s VR motion simulator ride at the Mobile World Congress conference last month in Barcelona.
I felt compelled to ride Galactica three times — and not just for the sake of nostalgia.
Not all change is a bad thing, it turns out.