Gustav Temple tries out VR technology to overcome a phobia of fairground thrill rides.
Disclosure alert: I am terrified of rollercoasters. My idea of hell is to be strapped into a rollercoaster carriage inching its way towards a peak, quaking at the anticipation of the tipping point that will quickly plunge us into a stomach-churning descent, and then up again for more staring in horror at the abyss below.
So when I was invited to accompany my teenage son on a new spin on the fairground thrill ride, using VR technology to simulate the journey, my first instinct was to run and hide. And not tell my son I’d been invited to try it out. But reading more closely, it seemed that the VR element was going to take care of the thrill part of the ride, while the ride itself, Twister, was celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. Originally known as the Scrambler, it was invented by Richard Harris and the first one installed at Lakewood Fairground, Atlanta, in 1938.
How could an 80-year-old fairground attraction cause any problems to someone who had rattled around on such contraptions in their childhood, whether wearing a headset or not?
My son Theo and I approached the end of Brighton Palace Pier during the July heatwave. Picking our way through the scary contraptions looming into the sky, some of them seeming almost to dip into the sea, already gave me the heebie jeebies. What relief, then, to discover that the host for the VR ride was a cranky looking old device under a canopy, with two-man pods affixed to a central axis. Compared to the thrills and terrors of the nearby Turbo Booster and the 130-foot human catapult Booster, it was clear why the humble Twister had been selected for a tech upgrade.
The inventor of this new ride himself was on hand to explain the technology. Brendan Walker started his career as a designer for British Aerospace, before swerving off into a second vocation in the arts by doing a degree at the Royal College of Art. He told me that VR had originally been developed in the early 2000s for the military, as a simulator to help soldiers recover from PTSD. I hoped it would cure my Rollercoaster phobia in a similar way. In 2016 Brendan created Neurosis, the world’s first brain-controlled thrill ride. This was followed by VR Playground, which represented Team GB at the 2018 Cultural Olympiad in Seoul, and which has been touring the world ever since.
My son asked what seemed an intelligent question that an adult wouldn’t have thought of: is the stuff on the VR headset in the same time sequence as the ride? “Oh yes,” replied Brendan. “It if wasn’t, you’d immediately suffer from motion sickness. Every second of movement on the ride has to be mimicked by the digital imagery on the VR. That’s why it’s taken so long to develop.”
When we took our places on the padded metal seats of Twister and placed the headsets over our eyes, it was a relief to know that the worst that could happen would be mild nausea, as opposed to the primal fear induced by a rollercoaster. This was to be a roller-coaster of the mind, and I felt I could handle that.
We’d expected the imagery on the VR to be some form of simulated ride, perhaps through an abandoned mineshaft or in the Grand Canyon, but Brendan’s artistic background had given it an entirely different, and less obvious, twist. The images were all of abstract shapes floating around, disappearing seemingly to infinity. When you looked down, you couldn’t see your hands or legs, as they were absorbed into the pastel colours of the VR shapes. It was, quite frankly, trippy. Like being inside the Lego Movie on LSD, or absorbed into the graphics of an episode of In the Night Garden – always a firm favourite with those who had grown up with hallucinogenics. Larger shapes floated towards you, and you passed right through them. Sometimes the movement was backwards, but always gentle and drifting.
When we emerged, minds fully blown, we took a look at the ride in action from the outside. It seemed impossible that we had experienced so much, seeming to have travelled such a great distance, while seated on a pair of slowly spinning seats.
I wouldn’t say I had laid my rollercoaster phobia to rest, but at least I had enjoyed a fairground ride with my son without fear of a heart attack. My natural aversion to anything that messes with the tried-and-trusted technology of the olden days had been severely dented, in enjoying a new way of delving into the unknown without physically experiencing the true terror of it.
VR Twister is on Brighton Palace Pier from 24th July, and is accessible to anyone aged 8 and above, subject to the usual ride restrictions. It is suitable for the visually impaired and the cognitively or hearing impaired if riding with an unimpaired guest over 1.4 tall. The physically impaired who are able to brace themselves and get on and off the ride unaided are also welcome.