Why VR is going to change theme parks – Derren Brown’s Ghost Train

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Why VR is going to change theme parks – Derren Brown’s Ghost Train

SPOILER WARNING – Those intending to ride Derren Brown’s Ghost train at Thorpe Park may want to stop reading if they don’t want the surprise ruined.

The somewhat misnamed Derren Brown’s Ghost Train in the Uk amusement park Thrope Park, is a new take on the classic ghost train, which uses a combination of VR, classic rollercoaster movement, as well real life elements to try and spook you silly. Made by Figment Productions, a team specialising in theme park attractions that helped make Galactica in Alton Towers, as well as supposedly the well-known mentalist Derren Brown – although I can’t help but feel his role was similar to George Foreman’s in the famous grill.

The attraction begins with an introduction from the man himself in hologram form before the group is ushered into another room where you enter a train. Based off the London Underground, the seats have HTC Vive headsets for all riders, and the experience begins with a brief encounter with a shady looking guy, who explains in essence the ‘plot’, that in a quest for energy mankind has drilled too deep and exposed some sort of nasty gas.


Unfortunately, your conversation with the friendly gentleman is cut short by an incredibly rude zombie woman, who decides to bust through the train carriage window and give you a good spooking. The VR is complemented by real-world elements as staff touch your legs as the screen flickers off and on until you’re are told rather convincingly to remove your headsets and get off the train, only to find you have arrived at another station.

At this destination, there is a pretty cool real world element involving actors turning into zombies, and a lot of confusion that happens so fast you don’t really have time to compose yourself before being ushered back onto the train for the final VR segment. Here the attraction attempts somewhat of a movie style scene with giant monsters and lots of explosions before rounding off with one last spooking.

The whole experience, in my opinion, was thoroughly entertaining, and a total breath of fresh air, but as with all things there were pros and cons. I want to use Derren Brown’s Ghost Train to highlight why we feel VR is going to change theme park attractions, but also some of the current reasons why it may be a while before it actually becomes commonplace.

Firstly, there is the fact that VR enables the creation of scenes that otherwise would be impossible to create. For example, you could not physically have someone break through a window 100 times a day, nor disappear completely out of sight and reappear inches from someone’s face, without the use of VR. And if there was somehow a way that was physically plausible, the only thing scarier would be the cost.

The possibilities for attractions using VR are endless, as although with something like Derren Brown’s Ghost Train which has a specific VR scene pathway there is less flexibility, with any other bog standard rollercoaster parks could offer thousands of different experiences through VR on the same ride, infinitely increasing the attractiveness of returning to the park.


A second advantage of using VR which is used to a degree onboard Derren Brown’s Ghost Train, is the fact that because you cannot see the real world, there is so much opportunity for real life elements to be used to greater effect than when you can actually see what’s going on. For example, during the Ghost Train the visuals and sounds of a monster breathing are backed up by some sort of fan that blows air onto you. Whilst this does a good job of adding to the experience its hard to believe it would have anywhere near the same effect if you could see the fan.

Also whilst you are unable to see what’s happening around you there are tonnes of opportunity to mess with the people on the ride. During Derren Brown’s Ghost Train you are confused when you pull up at a different station, but can you imagine if instead you were placed say, into a different carriage by yourself, or when you took off the headset there was an actor/mannequin of the monster on the VR right in front of you. Admittedly it may result in a few heart attacks but nothing a good PR team couldn’t sweep under the rug.

Finally and most obviously VR has the amazing ability to make its users believe they are really ‘in’ the experience. Whilst regular roller coasters are fun and scary, it’s easy to accept the reality that you’ve watched this ride go around 100 times whilst in the queue and everything is fine. Whereas – as I’m sure most of you reading this are well aware – in VR it’s incredibly easy to forget you actually have a headset on at all, yet alone are on a theme park attraction. Not only does this make rides more scary and immersive, but also means that each attraction has much more of an ability to stand out, rather than just being more of the same just slightly faster, or with a higher % chance to throw up.


However ,VR on rides may not be rolled out in a large scale yet for a number of reasons.


Firstly there is the obvious fact that currently, the technology has got a while to go before achieving any kind of true photo-realism. For some people, especially those already familiar with VR, attractions such as the VR segments on Derren Browns Ghost Train could seem like little more than a budget indie game graphically speaking, which could certainly kill immersion. Also, there are certain immersion killing elements such as the fact that you cannot see your body, and that when you put on your headset the 50 other people in the cabin with you suddenly disappear from sight but not sound.

Secondly, is the unavoidable lack of physical feedback that comes with VR. In the live action segment of Derren Brown’s Ghost Train when a zombie actor ran at the crowd he sent people flying, meanwhile in the cabin, when you swat at the zombies in front of your face you feel nothing but air, causing you to remember ‘ oh yeah, this isn’t real’. Again this is obviously unnavoidable but certaintly something that can be a buzzkill for some people, rather than if it didn’t exist in the first place.

A final drawback at the moment is the expense. While I’m sure that the worlds major theme parks are in no tight spot financialy – bar when they accidentally remove legs – the use of 50+ vives and the rest of the tech needed to run the attraction, along with the neccessary maintenance and potential for faults, may not seem worth the investment. Especially for rides that work perfectly fine without it.


So in summary:


VR on rides is awesome and could be the future of rides because:

Allows the creation of otherwise impossible scenes
Can vastly increase the ‘replay value’ of rides
Opportunities for real world elements whilst blinded by VR
Unrivalled immersion and scope for much higher fear factor, as well as potentailly more unique rides.


However VR on rides is held back by :

Current tech doesn’t allow phot realsim
certain elements ruin immersion eg no body, no fellow passengers in the VR, no physical feed back
Will theme parks actually bother to fork out for VR and the hassle that comes with it?

Clearly this is not a comprehensive list, but I hope it has provided a bit of food for though on the future of Theme park attractions using VR.