Virtual reality Roller-Coaster Ride into a Digital World

As virtual reality technology takes off commercially, one German firm is offering theme parks the chance to outfit roller-coaster riders with VR glasses that promise to plunge them into a new dimension.
I think I left the lens cap on.

If Thomas Wagner leaves his office before midnight, he is going home early. Often he sits at his desk until dawn, and the phones are still ringing.

“In the evening, customers from America call,” he explained. “In the early morning, those from Asia.”

His customers are the world’s leading manufacturers of roller coasters and the directors of large theme parks. They all are interested in an idea Mr. Wagner intends to market through his firm — giving roller-coaster riders virtual-reality glasses that would transport them through virtual worlds as they ride, for example, by showing a plunge over a waterfall just as the coaster enters a big dip.

The 38-year-old is one of the virtual reality pioneers in Germany who doesn’t want to yield the booming market in VR to Americans or Asians.

There had never been this sort of project, and many people were afraid of becoming nauseous when they wore VR glasses. Thomas Wagner, Founder of VR Coaster

South Korea’s electronics giant Samsung has already brought a pair of VR glasses to market. Facebook’s subsidiary, Oculus Rift, and Japan’s Sony are also tinkering with glasses and headsets that present almost perfect 3D virtual views.

These new VR products are expected to be a big hit in the entertainment business this year, and Mr. Wagner is developing applications for them.

His roller-coaster business ride began as a professor for virtual design at Kaiserslautern University in 2014, when he was looking for a challenging task for his students in early 2014.

“At the time, the first VR glasses suitable for the mass market were becoming more widely known, and we wanted to use them,” he said.

A popular application for the glasses involves a virtual roller coaster: While wearers sit on a couch, VR glasses take them on a wild ride. Mr. Wagner expanded the concept and invited his students to design virtual worlds for actual rides.

As the idea was taking shape, Mr. Wagner met Michael Mack, a member of the family that operates Germany’s largest theme park, Europa-Park in Rust in south-west Germany. Mr. Mack, whose family also builds roller coasters, was enthusiastic and purchased 77 percent of the company’s shares, with Mr. Wagner owning the rest.

The student project evolved into the startup VR Coaster, which was financed by the Macks and now has 14 employees.

“Theirs was the first theme park anywhere to use this VR technology on a public roller coaster,” said Mr. Wagner, who already had entrepreneurial experience himself. Before becoming a professor, he founded a media agency and in 2010 helped to start a company that develops computer games.

Meantime, his new firm has applied for a patent for the technology that enables VR glasses to recognize where users are on the roller coaster, and generate appropriate virtual images.

At Europa-Park, for instance, riding viewers fly toward a virtual pink dragon. When they turn their heads, they sees its wings to the left and right, or a fantasy landscape below. The ride has been an attraction at the German park since September 2015.

In order to win over more customers, Mr. Wagner and his team had to use all their persuasive powers. “There had never been this sort of project, and many people were afraid of becoming nauseous when they wore VR glasses,” he explained.

Last December a trade fair was held in Orlando, the capital of theme parks and home to Disney World, Universal Studios Florida and SeaWorld. At the trade fair, Mr. Wagner outfitted a roller coaster with his new technology. After closing, trade fair visitors could take a test ride for free – after standing in line.

Providing a roller coaster with a virtual upgrade costs in the low- to mid-six figures. Mr. Wagner now flies around the world for his clients, to Belgium, Asia and North America, where he supervises initial operations, conducts measurements and goes on test rides.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put an idea into practice,” he said.

In principle, every steel roller coaster could be outfitted with the technology. In addition to Europa-Park, there are already more customers.

Cedar Fair, which operates huge amusement parks in the United States including Knott’s Berry Farm, Kings Dominion and Carowinds, has added Mr. Wagner’s VR systems to some of its rides. A roller coaster in Japan is following suit.

Virtual reality has set off a kind of “gold-rush fever,” said Stephan Schwingeler, an art historian and computer games expert at the Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe.

“If they don’t make any fundamental mistakes, I see great potential for VR coasters to really make lots of money in this sector,” he said.

Mr. Wagner is currently under great pressure: Many parks want fully equipped VR roller coasters when their seasons open in spring. But he is already thinking beyond amusement rides: He also wants to provide VR glasses for exercisers on fitness equipment or bored car passengers, hopefully beginning this year.

So Mr. Wagner’s actual reality is clear. With some 2,000 steel roller coasters in the world his long working days won’t get shorter any time soon.


This article originally appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: [email protected]