Versed in the Metaverse
Outside an indoor community pool in Hockenheim, Germany, a team from Mack Rides’ subsidiary VR Coaster unloads an aqua-blue trunk from the back of a small truck and wheels it into the building. Inside the container is one of the company’s latest products, something which promises to transport swimmers far from the frigid Rhine Valley winter to the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef more than 9,000 miles away.
More than a dozen people, ages 10 to 65, gather by the water to trial “Swim VR.” They put on specially designed snorkel gear, outfitted with underwater virtual reality glasses (waterproof Pico G2 4K headsets), while VR Coaster Chief Technology Officer Dennis Gordt tosses white flotation devices, attached to 20kg sandbags, into the pool.
Once worn, the weighted life belts ensure that swimmers—whose attention is captivated by Australian corals, whales, and colorful schools of fish, and who cannot see the physical pool or people around them—remain in place and do not bump into each other or the pool walls.
The trial participants proclaim the test to be a success. “There was this turtle, coming really close. You thought you could touch it, but of course, it wasn’t really there,” exclaims Angelika Rode, 48. “It was really cool when you took off the glasses and realized you were still in the pool and not in the sea,” adds Lucian Benitez, 22.
Since that December 2020 test, VR Coaster has rolled out Swim VR to nearly a dozen community pools in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. An attraction in Mack Rides’ water park, Rulantica, takes the product even further, adding animation and special effects, like counter current water jets, to create a “diving theater.” This is an example of how attractions can harness the growing power of the metaverse.
What is the Metaverse?
From entering the universe of the “Divergent” film series in the Dauntless Fear Simulator at Lionsgate Entertainment World in China, to creating immersive sci-fi Cyber Blaster storylines for bumper car enthusiasts in family entertainment centers (FECs) in Saudi Arabia and Europe, extended reality technologies are fostering amazing new attractions and providing older rides with fresh life.
As innovative as Swim VR and other virtual reality attractions may be, though, they have yet to fully enter the “metaverse,” at least according to the definitions used by people working on the cutting edge of these new technologies.
First coined by Neal Stephenson in the 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash,” the term metaverse has surged in usage, pushed into the spotlight since Mark Zuckerberg rebranded Facebook to Meta twelve months ago.
But the metaverse encompasses far more than a pair of virtual reality (VR) goggles.
The metaverse is a “digital layer over the physical world,” proclaims Trigger XR CEO Jason Yim, whose company has more than 275,000 hours of extended reality development under its belt. He argues that there are currently two sides to the metaverse: an “Immersive Metaverse” that includes VR and online gaming platforms like Roblox and Fortnite, and a “Real-World Metaverse,” consisting of augmented reality like Pokémon Go.
“We’re pushing to seamlessly interconnect these two sides of the coin,” he explains, so that each experience impacts and improves the other.
Tapping Into the Metaverse
Harnessing the metaverse will take imagination and an application that serves as an attraction. Trigger XR has worked with major Hollywood movies, including “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and, perhaps fittingly, “The Matrix: Resurrections.”
His most high-profile gig occurred earlier this year: a live, augmented reality experience from the stage of the 2022 Super Bowl LVI halftime show. During the concert, viewers planted an augmented reality “door” in their homes, then walked through it to emerge on stage next to Snoop Dog or Mary J. Blige. Thanks to a plethora of cameras, they could enjoy a 360-degree view, with full agency to look in any direction and see the show from the performers’ perspective. Hundreds of thousands of people watched in real time for the full duration of the concert.
Another performance that provides a taste of what is possible is the ABBA Voyage, which premiered in London in May. Holograms of the 1970s pop stars dazzle live audiences nightly.
Yet, even holographic ABBA only goes so far into the metaverse.
“The metaverse is a distributed simulation,” says Stephan Otto, the co-founder and managing director of Spree Interactive, a company specializing in selling VR experiences to the FEC market. “The metaverse is not a game. You can’t stop it and you can’t run it. It just runs. It is always there. And nobody is the owner of it.”
“It is the next generation of the internet,” adds his colleague and Spree co-founder Jonathan Nowak Delgado. “It is real-time. It is largely 3D and mostly interactive, social, and persistent.”
Otto draws a comparison to shopping in the physical world. When a consumer buys clothes in a retail store, they take the clothes with them when they leave the store. But in the virtual world, players cannot currently transfer virtual assets from one game to another.
“This is opposed to the idea of the metaverse,” Otto says.
Consider, instead, a metaverse where people bring their avatars with them wherever they go, including through the gates of a theme park.
Applying to Attractions
There are myriad ways that attractions, big and small, can contemplate using the metaverse. For example, an extended reality (XR) mascot might greet visitors at the gate, or an AR map could direct visitors to the nearest toilet and answer questions about ride times. This metaverse could be integrated into back-end systems, such as heat maps and weather reports, to provide parkgoers with useful information and suggestions.
Attractions could also create metaverse experiences for parkgoers to enjoy at home. Some apps already do this, but these experiences are rarely linked to the park, and don’t often provide a payoff. With the metaverse, an in-park mascot can recognize a player’s at-home victories and perhaps present a line bypass ticket for a ride in the physical world.
“Why not let interactive dark rides interact with your achievements in the metaverse at home?” asks Europa-Park Head of Park Operations Lukas Metzger. “[For example], you have to have a special achievement or point score at home in order to gain access to a specific room of the dark ride. The sky is the limit.”
“This is going to be part of the magic, a feeling of personalization,” says Yim. “Sometimes you can’t be in the real world; sometimes you can’t be fully immersed. You want to create an experience that straddles both, and right now, theme parks are not taking advantage of the energy and affinity leading up to a visit.”
The Hardware and Software
The technology that makes all this possible is quickly evolving; improved connectivity and bandwidth play a crucial role as well. One of the latest advancements is Visual Positioning System (VPS), which can be used to create an underlying 3D map of the physical world. Niantic launched a VPS product called Lightship earlier this year.
“Normally, AR always appears as a top layer, which breaks believability,” Yim explains. “Now, with object occlusion (in which virtual objects can be hidden by things in the real world), you can see a dinosaur appear from behind a tree or hide behind objects in the sky. That adds a tremendous amount to the consumer feeling that it’s actually there.” The AR experience could also be easily customized for celebrations at different times of the year.
New hardware is also on the horizon. Buss suggests that Apple is expected to release mixed reality glasses next year.
“The metaverse is a huge opportunity and the attractions industry would be making a huge mistake if it does not embrace it,” says Delgado. “It is definitely not a fad.”