Six Flags visitors can battle aliens virtually on the Ninja roller coaster

In late May Six Flags St. Louis will begin offering a virtual reality experience on its Ninja roller coaster.

Parkgoers ages 13 or older will have the option to wear a VR headset before riding the Ninja. The headset will cast users into a futuristic battle in which each rider must save Earth from an alien invasion as the pilot of his or her own fighter jet. (There is no additional fee to use the headset.)

Sam Rhodes, director of design at Six Flags Entertainment, talked about the novelty of this concept.

“In the States there’s not been a whole lot of this been done,” he said. “I’m not saying we’re the first one out there but in some ways we are the first ones to push it to the level that we are.”

Designing and implementing the first large-scale virtual reality roller coaster experience is complex, Rhodes said.

To ensure perfect synchronicity, a so-called black box is attached to the front of each train. This box has a cable that runs to a pickup device that counts the rotation of the train’s wheels. This count allows the black box to calculate the coaster’s exact position on the track. It then sends a Bluetooth signal to each headset.

“We’re putting a QR code on each seat and so as you sit down in the seat, put the virtual device on your head, it will pick up that QR code and that black box will not only know if you’re in the front or the back, it will know if you’re in the right seat or the left seat of the train,” Rhodes said. “(This is important because) if you’re going over the lift hill and the guy in the front car is looking down the hill, the guy in the back car is still looking up, so we have to make sure that this is synchronized perfectly so now they will see exactly what they’re supposed to see.”

The Ninja will be one of nine Six Flags coasters to feature the VR technology. Elizabeth Gotway, public relations manager for Six Flags St. Louis, says the Ninja was chosen because its design is compatible with the sensations experienced in a fighter jet.

“You’re a co-pilot,” Gotway said. “(The experience) combines the virtual world with real forces, the real drops, the real turns, the real loops, to provide this riding experience.”

This synchronicity also plays an integral role in eliminating motion sickness that notoriously accompanies traditional virtual reality headsets, Rhodes said.

“When you’re wearing VR device sitting in a chair, the VR device is tricking your brain and your body that you’re moving,” he said. “That basically sends a signal to your equilibrium and it’s trying to counterbalance itself — you’re fighting yourself, and so this creates a nauseous effect. When you actually put this device on the coaster, as long as its perfectly synchronized to the actual physical movement … the only thing you’re tricking now is your eyes, so it’s something different.”

The Ninja VR experience also features an interactive component. As riders go up the lift hill, they will be able to shoot incoming aliens from guns attached to their ship (all virtual). Not only does this interactive component add to the VR experience, but it serves a practical purpose as well.

“The lift hill itself accumulates 40 or 50 percent of the full ride,” Rhodes said. “So if you’re doing a two to two-and-a-half-minute ride and you’re spending 40 seconds to a minute going up the lift hill ... it’s the most boring part of a roller coaster, so we made it a little bit more thrilling and gave you something to do when you’re going up the lift hill.”

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Alex SiegmanComment