VRguy podcast Episode 28: Thomas Wagner on VR Roller-Coasters

My guest today Thomas Wagner, CEO of VR Coaster. VR Coaster’s technology helps park operators convert traditional roller coasters into VR Coasters.

The interview transcript appears below the media player. This episode was recorded on Nov, 10th, 2017.

Thomas and I discuss lessons learned from dozens of VR rides installed around the world.


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Yuval Boger (VRGuy):    Hello Thomas and welcome to the podcast.

Thomas Wagner:             Hello.

VRGuy: So, who are you and what do you do?

Thomas:               Well, I am the CEO and one of the co-founders of VR Coaster, which is a company focusing on equipping roller coasters and other kinds of rides like drop towers and carousels with virtual reality experiences. And that is basically what I do and my background is actually game design. I come from a mobile game development background. But that is, of course, very helpful when dealing with virtual reality, with VR. And also, personally, I’m a little bit of a roller coast enthusiast so it’s also a very fun work that I do.

VRGuy: And you were a professor, right? Or maybe you are still a professor?

Thomas:               Yes, yes I am. Actually I’m teaching game design and interaction at the University of Applied Sciences here in Kaiserslautern in Germany. And that is actually where the entire project was born. Actually, it was an experiment to test what you can do in regards to VR motion sickness. So when the Oculus Rift came out and the entire VR hype was starting, I was wondering, “Okay, what can I do, what exciting project, what interesting project could I do with my students?” And everybody liked the roller coaster simulations. Everybody was sitting at home, riding a coaster in virtual reality and everybody was amazed how immersive that was.

                But at the same time everybody was getting dizzy and nausea and got sea sick. And that was obviously because when you see the convincing 3D movement in VR, but your inner sense of balance does not feel the motion because you’re sitting still on a chair, then you get sea sick and that is a problem that the entire VR industry is dealing with. And I was approaching the roller coaster manufacturer Mack Rides and asked them, “Hey, would it be possible to do a test on a coaster, a real roller coaster?” To see if we synchronized the VR ride precisely to that real ride that is happening, to see if that is the solution to this problem, if that is comfortable. And it turned out that it’s not only comfortable, that it’s a totally amazing experience and that is how the entire company VR Coaster was founded back then.

We are now developing together with, you guys, an entirely new headset to make this experience even better

VRGuy: How is it synchronized? I mean, isn’t it enough to just say, “Oh it’s a two-minute roller coaster ride so after 57 seconds I know exactly where the coaster will be?”

Thomas:               Actually, no it’s kind of very difficult and very important at the same time to have a very, very precise synchronization. And that is, for instance, starting with the orientation of the headset. So you start out in one direction with the roller coaster train. But if you don’t go through virtual reality curve at the same time as the real coaster cars going through that curve then you end up going sideways, looking sideways, through the VR world or you end up if the synchronization is too much off then you end up being turned, rotated by 180 degrees watching your feet in virtual reality.

                So, it is a very, very important aspect to have a precise synchronization and technically what we do is we add some hardware to the roller coaster train, which we call the Black Box. It is basically a sensor that is monitoring the rotation of one wheel of the roller coaster car. This is being transmitted by a Bluetooth to all the headsets that the people wear on the coaster. It is done by a Bluetooth because, obviously, you need kind of mobile virtually reality headset because you could not have a computer controlling all the seats on the train. It would be at least, very difficult, if not impossible. So that’s why we use Bluetooth technology to synchronize all the headsets. And, yeah, if that is calibrated and synchronized precisely then you have a very good, very amazing experience.

VRGuy: And I think that it’s also important to even know where you are on the coaster. Right? In terms of are you in the first car or middle car or last car.

Thomas:               Yes, every roller coaster enthusiast or fan knows about this aspect, because when you’re sitting in the car rear, in the last row of a coaster train, you usually go much faster down that first drop placement. When the coaster train is going over the top head, so that then you are being pulled up a little and then the drop starts, the first row maybe has the best view, the best vision, because nothing’s blocking your view. But you’re hanging over that top head part and it takes a lot of time for the entire train to go over that top head and pick up speed. And when you’re sitting in the far rear, then it pulls you very quickly over the top head and you have a very dynamic and must faster ride experience. And this is also a very important aspect for what we do because in virtual reality you’re always in the front row. So you can even sit in the rear car of the train where you have the much more dynamic, sizzling motion and you’re going much faster, but still nothing is blocking your view so that is a big advantage in VR because everybody has a very good and unobstructed view of the virtual world.

VRGuy: I know that, last time I checked, VR Coaster was installed in about 40 different rides across the world. So it must be working well. How do the economics work? So, for instance, how much money does it cost typically to build a completely new coaster and how does that compare with the cost of upgrading and existing coaster to becoming a VR coaster?

Thomas:               Yes. I would say it’s differing by a factor of more than 10 because if you talk about building an entire new roller coaster, then you are talking about an investment of millions of dollars or euros or tens of millions of dollars. And when it comes to retrofitting it with virtual reality, which is still making the experience, of course, totally new and exciting and vision. You’re talking about maybe a few hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment because, of course, you have content, VR content that needs to be developed. That is what we do this is, basically, our business model. Frequently producing, selling new content but also the hardware that you need for that. Of course, a much lower cost investment compared to a roller coaster, even if you retrofit existing coaster with a new train because you want to update the technology, you want to have the feeling changed, it’s a very, very big investment. And compared to virtual reality where you can do the feeling in software this is, of course, a fraction of that investment.

VRGuy: Now Thomas, you have the coaster running in so many places for a number of years now, what are you seeing that works well in terms of enthusiasm and what might need to be improved in the next generation of coasters?

Thomas:               Well I think virtually reality combined with the motion, the sizzling feeling in your stomach of a real roller coaster ride, that is something that has not been around so far. So it created an entirely new kind of attraction. You never had a simulator that gave you more than 1G or less so having that airtime and free floating, falling experience, that is something that’s really impressive, really amazing. But on the other hand, we were always dealing with the challenge of not slowing down the process of boarding a coaster, of the operational aspects. So when people wear VR headsets, usually many people maybe never wore a VR headset before so that are totally new to this technology. Maybe we have to ask everybody if the application is still running if it’s working. We have to deal with overheating of the headset that might happen especially in warm places. We have to deal with charging the headset because there’s a battery in there. So there are a lot of new additional challenges with the operators that they do not know and with which they never had to deal with before. So, yeah, we were looking at a lot of aspects that need to be improved. And that was basically one of the main reasons why we started to look into develop our own headsets that is optimized for the use of, on a roller coaster.

VRGuy: And throughput translates to money, right? If the time to board or get off the coaster then the operator can run more rides every hour and then can services more guests.

Thomas:               Yes. I would say if a park is offering VR that is, or to, on a coaster, that is not only attracting people and giving that coaster maybe a renaissance. Maybe that coaster was a little bit boring or aged before and then virtual reality made it more attractive so you automatically have a longer queue line because more people want to ride that coaster. And if you then cannot provide the same kind of throughput and capacity on that ride it gets even worse. So that was a very important that, of course, all our clients asked us to solve. And I think we have a perfect solution now at hand.

VRGuy: Excellent. Now, I know that calling a roller coaster a passive experience may be a wrong choice of words, but is it a passive experience in the sense that I just sit in a coaster and look around while everything is happening or can there also be some level of interaction with the content?

Thomas:               Yes, absolutely. That’s how it is virtual reality in the end so it is by definition interactive because you can control what you are seeing, where you are looking at, and of course you can have gaming on a coaster. So, for instance, we have one ride where you can make a choice or you can interactively control your vehicle. You can change the lane with your head movement. So you’re going in a virtual race experience and you can change the lane to overtake your competitors or you can direct by head movement you can direct some guns to fire at objects in the VR world. So that is what we already did and there was a lot of contention by bringing gaming onto a coaster. And that’s why it’s also very important to have quite powerful hardware in that headset that you are deploying on a coaster because there is a substantial amount of real time graphics to be rendered and that is, of course, very important in regards to immersion and good 3D experience.

VRGuy: When you talk with park operators today, what do you hear about their vision? For instance, is it just to install more coasters, is it to maybe give you a headset when you walk in the park and let you keep it for the entire day and have different kinds of mixed reality experiences? What are you hearing about the future of theme parks as it relates to VR or AR?

Thomas:               Yeah. The vision of having people putting, maybe, their own headsets or to rent the headset and keep it with them for the entire stay in the park, that is something that we’ve been planning with right from the very start when we founded VR Coaster as a company, so that idea we’ve had. But right now we are still at a point where the parks only look at isolated attractions so you have the headsets in that attraction. The headsets are being handed over to the guests when they are on the queue line or you find that headset mounted to the coaster seat or the coaster car when you board the coaster.

                And I think the biggest challenge or the biggest question that they have is not so much about how strongly can we do customer relationship management with our guests by using VR, but it’s more of how can we solve the hygiene? So how do we sanitize the headsets easily, so that is more important. So right now our new approach is to focus on something, on a kind of headset that has a detachable face mask part. So the head strap, the chinstrap, everything that’s so important for safety that mounts the headset to your head is detachable with the ride VR design. And the electronics, the optical part, is a separate thing that does not need to be cleaned and the other part is machine washable. So these are the main questions that the parks have and the main challenges and these we are addressing right now.

VRGuy: It sounds like you and I have to first focus on delivering and installing the new headset that we’re collaborating on in parks before we get to how do you keep the headset the entire day?

Thomas:               Yes, but I think we already have that setup that would allow for doing that. Having guests just wear or carry the headset with them. However, I think the personalization of the ride experience is something that was can already aim for and work for so people, maybe, can achieve a certain score or collect a specific coin in one coaster experience and then use that on a different ride.

                So that has the potential, maybe, also to guide people and to maybe reduce the queue line at a specific ride and incentivize riding a different ride by just giving some free credits at that right over there. Or maybe if people are at home and they get the notice that some new content is available in a park, they might be interested in going again to that park, visiting the park again. So there’s a lot of stuff we can do in regards to CRM and it’s basically like going for an app store, like the Oculus store or iTunes app store, so maybe that’s the potential to incentivize things and maybe monetize things. We are looking at that and that’s a very interesting aspect of what we do.

VRGuy: Thomas, how can people connect with you to learn more about what you’re doing?

Thomas:               Well, first off there’s our website VRCoaster.com and everybody can write an email to info@VRcoaster.com. Everybody is free to follow us at Facebook. We, of course, post all the new and exciting stuff that we do. And, yeah, we have a Twitter account so I’d be very happy if we get more and more followers. We’re doing quite well right now and get more and more attention out there so, yeah, everybody feel free to follow us, like us.

VRGuy: And I guess you and I will be at the IAAPA show next week and we’re happy to talk to people about some of the new things that are coming.

Thomas:               Absolutely. I sent out a Tweet an hour ago because I was so amazed that the ride VR is already receiving so much attention and so much positive press right now and you also know we still even haven’t unveiled all of the cool features yet. So everybody is very welcome to visit us at IAAPA at the Mack Rides booth and we are very happy. I’ll be there. I’d be very happy to talk with everybody about the really cool stuff that is coming right now.

VRGuy: Thank you so much for joining me today Thomas.

Thomas:               You’re most welcome. Thank you.


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