Screams of terror pierced the air as I made my way up the steps to what used to be the terrifying Project X roller coaster. Legoland Malaysia, together with Merlin Magic Making, had given it a tech makeover: It’s now the ostensibly less intimidating Great Lego Race. Still, I was nervous.
The Great Lego Race marries virtual reality and good old roller coaster thrills, then adds a dash of Lego fun. Riders zoom into a world made entirely of Lego bricks, where they careen aboard a Lego car and race Lego characters. The Malaysian theme park will be the first to launch the experience, later this month, followed by its resorts in Florida and Germany next year.
VR roller coasters aren’t new. Last March, England’s Alton Towers theme park opened the world’s first such attraction, the Galactica. But previous rides have been targeted at an older crowd and at roller coaster enthusiasts. The Great Lego Race, on the other hand, is aimed at kids, perhaps Lego’s biggest fans.
This could be the sort of thing virtual reality needs to steer toward a more economically vibrant future. Consumers haven’t exactly been rushing to buy the bulky and often pricey gear required to trick themselves into believing they’ve landed in computer-generated worlds, whether under the sea or out in space. That’s in spite of a big push into VR over the last several years by tech giants ranging from Google and Facebook to Samsung and Sony.
Before you hop on the ride, staff at the Great Lego Race hand you a Samsung Galaxy S8-powered Gear VR headset equipped with headphones (and decorated with Lego eyes). It doesn’t matter where you sit in the coaster, because you’ll find yourself in the driver’s seat of your very own Lego car. Make sure the headset’s securely fastened so it doesn’t slide down your cheeks like mine did after the ride’s first drop.
Once I’d slipped into my gear, I found myself in a Lego car parked in a garage and removed from the real world. As the roller coaster began moving, the garage doors opened and my virtual Lego car began driving itself onto a racetrack. There’s no steering; You’re just along for the ride.
Spectators on the grandstand cheered as I entered. As I looked around, I found myself joined by fellow Lego racers: Trendsetter, Pharaoh, Surfer Girl, Wizard and Pirate Captain. I’ve never been a fan of roller coasters, but this time I could feel excitement creeping in as our cars began speeding away.
When the real-world roller coaster action kicked in, the virtual world reacted accordingly. Swerves and turns along the course are translated into your driver’s attempts to avoid crashing into falling objects or rogue Lego racers, and the ups and downs are turned into bumpy roads or rapids in VR. Needless to say, sudden drops are most exhilarating — I could only watch as my Lego car tumbled down a slope 18 meters high, or off a broken track.
It’s lots of fun, and the fruit of hard labor. The creators went on countless rides over two and a half years to identify every twist, turn and drop along the course, which were then added to the story line that makes up the VR experience and recorded on every headset, according to Thomas Wagner, CEO of VR Coaster, one of the companies involved in the Great Lego Race project.
Tracking hardware on the coaster transmits the rider’s position along the track via Bluetooth to the headset, ensuring that what you see in VR is in sync with what you’re experiencing in the real world.
As with all new tech, glitches can happen. During the ride, the wrong experience was playing on our headsets in my coaster so we had to get off and wait to board the next car. In another coaster, riders said the Lego car they saw themselves sitting in wouldn’t move out of the garage, so they didn’t know where and when to expect the turns and drops, essentially riding blind.
It turned out the problems we had were with the tracking hardware on the coaster, according to the staff, though issues can also happen with the headset. If you do end up on a coaster with faulty equipment, though, Legoland Malaysia says you’ll be allowed to go on the next ride without having to queue all over again.
The ride officially launches Nov. 22. Hopefully these kinks get ironed out so others can feel as much joy as I did. By the end of the race, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.