Here’s something I didn’t think I thought I’d be writing: I went on a rollercoaster that relied on VR, and it was great.
Theme parks aren’t really Australia’s thing. Queensland has always had the lion’s share of the action, Wet and Wild eventually made its way to Sydney, and Melbourne has a couple of traditional amusement parks. But since Wonderland Sydney shut down, Australia has never had a park the size and scale of those overseas. So given that I visiting Japan on holiday, it made sense to visit Universal Studios Japan (USJ).
And I was in luck: until July, USJ has a special string of attractions called ‘Cool Japan 2017’. It’s six rides and experiences celebrating video games and anime. There was a 4D attraction for Attack on Titan, a cool Dragon Quest walkthrough where you got to wield a sword, and a lengthy line for Detective Conan that I didn’t get time for.
But the star of the show, and the ride with the longest queue time at the park – even more then anything Harry Potter-related – was Evangelion XR. It’s an indoor thrill ride with a Samsung Gear VR and a Samsung S7 strapped to your head, and it’s a fast ride as well. Think of all of the most exciting drops, twists and turns from the best indoor rides, like USJ’s Harry Potter 4D ride or Journey To The Centre Of The Earth from DisneySea, and combine it into a two-minute experience while you watch Shinji get into a scrap with an Angel.
The basic setup is that you’re the pilot of a Evangelion-esque hovercraft. The ride starts with the early remnants of an Angel attack, and the view from within VR is more or less you ducking and weaving debris and laser beams to survive. Shinji takes care of most of the fighting, but he can’t do bugger all about the city’s crumbling foundations, which makes for a neat surprise when the asphalt collapses beneath your feet.
Evangelion XR doesn’t solve any of the problems the Gear VR has. The resolution is serviceable at best, and pretty crappy in parts. The focus isn’t too bad when you get it right, but it’s a fairly small centre of view and the setup of the ride doesn’t give you a lot of time to adjust the straps and focus dial to suit. The frame rate tanks occasionally too, particularly whenever an explosion is involved.
But on the whole, the crappy textures and small area of focus didn’t stop Evangelion XR from working surprisingly well. Part of the thrill with rollercoaster rides is seeing the drops coming. You’re climbing higher, higher and higher. You can see the other end of the park. You can see the nearby hotels and restaurants. If the ride’s big enough, you get a view of the whole city.
And then that view is taken away, replaced with the sheer weight of gravity and a startling drop back to reality. There’s a sense of anticipation, the fear, anxiety and excitement that comes with that, and then the beauty of living in the moment that follows.
To an extent, being immersed in VR takes that away. Evangelion XR still gives you an initial sense of the rise and fall – the video opens with a slow incline with little distraction – but for the most part the drops, twists and turns come out of the blue, or with far less time to react than what you’d get in a traditional indoor thrill ride.
But what’s fascinating about it all is the possibilities. By encapsulating your vision entirely within VR, and not requiring any headphones or added input, USJ doesn’t have to worry about the cost or maintenance of indoor animatronics, special lighting, water, fire, smoke, or other effects needed to help sell the illusion. All that’s needed is good sound, a metric shit ton of speed, and good restraints for riders and the VR headsets.
When you take most of those away, it makes you wonder how cost effective a rollercoaster ride could be with VR. It wouldn’t be for everyone, but rollercoasters aren’t for everyone anyway. Many of the restrictions that keep people out of the more exciting attractions, like motion sickness, apply to VR as well.
The upside is especially great for places like Australia, countries that won’t have the economies of scale that a larger parks like Disneyland Shanghai might enjoy. The Batman Arkham Asylum ride in Queensland’s Movie World already employs this, having been built by the same company seemingly responsible for Evangelion XR. It’s especially handy for retrofitting older indoor attractions.
What really excites me is the possibility to get people interested in rides they wouldn’t otherwise try. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like giant rollercoasters. I’ve enjoyed the smaller Big Dippers when I’ve been coerced, and I’m a sucker for any indoor 4D ride, but the gigantic wooden beasts and being strapped upside down has always been one step too far. And it’s predominately a visual thing – I can see what’s ahead, and it’s too much.
VR takes that hurdle away, at least for indoor attractions like Evangelion XR. You don’t have to skimp on world building either – parks can spend the dollars on additional effects like fire and wind if they want. It allows for the same ride to be reused multiple times a year with different experiences too, although not all parks might want that outlay.
Nonetheless, the Gear VR thrill ride worked far, far better than I could have ever expected. For those planning on the upcoming TAYbie trip to Japan, if Evangelion XR is still around by the time you get to USJ – line up for it. I suspect by then it won’t be the only VR ride at Universal, if advancements in Europe and the United States are anything to go by.