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First Look - May 2017

Gardaland Wants to Take VR Coasters to a New Level

IN The 16 months between Europa-Park’s rollout of a virtual reality (VR) headset experience on the park’s “Alpenexpress” family coaster in September 2015 and the end of 2016, scores of amusement facilities around the world quickly jumped on the technology and incorporated it into their own coasters. But with any hot new technology trend, it doesn’t take long before other iterations begin to appear, and that’s exactly what Merlin Magic Making and Figment Productions have planned in 2017 for a coaster at Gardaland park in Verona, Italy.

The park is investing more than 5 million euros in “Shaman,” a VR experience on the park’s venerable “Magic Mountain” steel coaster. Figment Productions of Guildford, Surrey, England, has been tasked with creating the attraction, and company director Simon Reveley minces no words when describing what guests will experience: “[It] is going to be a mind-blowing ride through the Native American spirit world. That one-line pitch should tell you why this is so different from other VR-based attractions. They asked us to take guests into a world few entertainment experiences have explored—you won’t feel like you’ve seen this a million times before.”

Unlike most previous VR coaster encounters involving only the addition of the headsets, “Shaman” includes theming. “The ride will have a great impact element—a dreamcatcher 16 feet in diameter,” says Aldo Maria Vigevani, CEO of Gardaland. “At the entrance of the ride, visitors will find a small portal. They will have the impression of entering the interior of a typical open tepee surrounded by rocks and totems. Animal skins, wooden decorations, and Indian paintings on the beams will form the distinctive elements of this first part of the theming.”

A dreamcatcher is a web stretched across a willow hoop that Native Americans believe allows positive dreams to slip through a hole at the center while catching negative dreams in the web. The area around the coaster will resemble a setting typical of the Rocky Mountains and western United States.

Reveley says the VR experience will begin distinguishing itself in the ride station, where the customary delay in fitting guests with headsets is diminished, saying his company is working to minimize that overhead. He notes Figment spent a lot of time analyzing guests’ physical experience on such a ride. The coaster’s harness restraint arrangement is key to how the company designed the custom headsets, and Figment has a brand-new system designed to overcome the restricted movement allowed by such restraints.

As for the media, Reveley says, “‘Shaman’ will use version two of our Vector VR system. We produce our content using a unique blend of pre-rendered and real-time graphics; we don’t run content that’s pure game-engine stuff. With the kind of VR processors that run on coasters being limited to game-engine graphics,  it’s very hard to deliver beautiful, complex visuals. But instead of having only a fraction of a second to generate a frame of content on a tiny processor, each frame of our content can take several hours to generate on a top-of-the-range render farm.”

Also, he says Figment found having everything encapsulated in a smartphone was tricky regarding heat dissipation and operational control, so it separated the processing unit from the headset. “The level of control you need over each component in the system is huge,” he observes. “Hence, why we’ve moved away from standard off-the-shelf consumer products that sandbox their functionality. From an operational perspective, I don’t think there’s anything on a coaster that compares to this.”