It’s an overcast morning at an undisclosed theme park in the UK, the temperature is just right—wearing a sweatshirt won’t be conspicuous. Good thing too, lest security find the device strapped around Edmond O’Driscoll’s chest.

After passing through security and making their way to the target, Edmond O’Driscoll and Jonathan Forder were ready to put their plan into motion. They’d take the device onto the roller coaster where weeks of planning would culminate.

As the carriage pulled out of the station, O’Driscoll activated the device concealed beneath his clothing with a single click from a mouse duct taped to his arm. He was about to go on the ride of his life.

Once safely out of range of the ride’s cameras, O’Driscoll pulled forth from his hood a black box and placed it over his eyes just before the drop. His partner-in-crime, Forder, readied a hidden camera to film the whole thing.

Equipped with a hidden laptop and Oculus Rift, O’Driscoll may be the first person to have ever gone on a ‘Real VR’ roller coaster with perfect motion feedback. The duo’s system displayed a virtual version of the exact same roller coaster that O’Driscoll and Forder were on. With some practice they managed to sync the virtual reality roller coaster to the real rollercoaster.

How They Pulled It Off

O’Driscoll told me that both he and Forder were enamoured with the original Rift Coaster demo and wanted to take the experience to the next level. The idea was to create a virtual version of a real rollercoaster so that the physical feedback would match up perfectly with the virtual experience.

From there you could immerse the rider in multiple experiences on the same ride. Maybe the rider is sitting in the cockpit of a virtual fighter jet, looping and spinning to avoid enemies on their tail. Perhaps the roller coaster track is crumbling before your eyes, or maybe a portion of the ride can become a virtual scare house. With the blank canvas of virtual reality, the possibilities are limitless.

Planning and Virtual Coaster

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The project started with more questions than answers.

“To be honest, we had no idea if it would work; whether the rift would function under the G force of the ride or if we could get the VR in sync with the roller coaster.” O’Driscoll said. Sneaking the system into the park and onto the ride would also be a challenge.

“To be honest, we had no idea if it would work; whether the rift would function under the G force of the ride or if we could get the VR in sync with the roller coaster.”

The team started by finding a freely available model of the roller coaster track online and brought it into Unity. Forder was responsible for animating the track; he used point of view clips found online to make sure the model and timing were right. They wanted to show that VR could transport an ordinary ride virtually to anywhere, so they placed their virtual model in a space environment.

Concealing the System

Once they had the model animated and ready for the Oculus Rift, it was time to devise a way to conceal the system. The roles were decided; O’Driscoll would wear the rig, Forder would film it, guerrilla style. Sneaking a camera in was easy enough, but the VR coaster system, consisting of a laptop, Oculus Rift, mouse, and power supply, would be a bit more difficult.

“Yes, it was heavy and very uncomfortable… it was not very easy for me to bend! ” O’Driscoll said.

For the most part, the components were strapped around O’Driscoll’s chest with duct tape and hidden under a sweatshirt. The laptop would have been plenty to manage, but they needed a power supply for the Oculus Rift. That came in the form of an old surge protector that had a backup power supply. A mouse ran from the computer down O’Driscoll’s arm where it was taped so he could easily click the left mouse button to start the virtual ride without having to look at the laptop’s screen. The bottom of the mouse was taped over so that the mouse cursor, pre-positioned over the simulation’s start button, couldn’t move. The Oculus Rift was hidden inside of the hood of O’Driscoll’s sweatshirt for easy access once they got onto the coaster.

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Sneaking Into the Park

“We didn’t exactly ask,” said O’Driscoll when I questioned how they got through security. “To be honest we were pretty aware we could get kicked out so we didn’t mess around much except for when we were on the coaster.”

Getting through security could be risky. After all, when a security officer finds a bunch of wires and electronics hidden under someone’s clothes… things other than virtual reality experiments come to mind.

“There was two teams of big security officers at the gates but they were only searching bags… at that point we were wearing everything we needed,” said O’Driscoll. “In regards to them thinking we were bombers, we went during such an off peak period that there was practically only a handful of visitors there. The park was so empty it felt like a dream.”

Syncing and Riding the ‘Real VR’ Coaster

Once they were through the gates, it was on to the roller coaster. But they still had to manually sync the start of the virtual reality coaster with the real thing. O’Driscoll had practiced his timing using point of view clips online, but it would take a few tries to get it lined up just right.

“It took us a few attempts for the sync but wow when it worked, it really worked!” O’Driscoll said. “Being thrown around on a coaster naturally shakes your vision, and I believe this shaky vision would have helped mask possible errors in the tracking, making our proof of concept feel a lot smoother. It really showed to us the importance of the visual journey on a traditional roller coaster and how, with VR, this journey could now be taken into what was before impossible…”

“It took us a few attempts for the sync but wow when it worked, it really worked!”

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To the pair’s surprise, the Oculus Rift stayed on during the ride with no issues. O’Driscoll told me that his hands up to his head in the video are actually him keeping the hood held up to avoid the ride cameras. He also had no issues with nausea, even when the simulation was out of sync.

“Personally I didn’t feel sick but I’m sure this comes down the individual… something that I’m sure helped was that the VR coaster was identical to the actual so my body still felt what my mind saw. Creating VR tracks that are different to the actual track would be natural step to explore but I’m sure this will lead initially to a few puked-on people.”

It sounds like the ‘Real VR’ coaster wouldn’t be the last we’ll hear from O’Driscoll and Forder.

“Myself and Jonathan Forder took this project on because we saw it as a natural step in VR experiences. We do hope to explore this concept with a theme park partner but whether we do or another team does, from what we experienced this technology on roller coasters is unavoidable as there is just way too much potential. On other projects watch this space, we got a great of team of guys and another fun project in the works.”

About the ‘Real VR’ Duo

Edmond O’Driscoll studied product design at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. From there he went into film production, and eventually into the digital realm where he’s worked on augmented reality experiences for clients such as Mercedes and Citroen. In 2014 he began freelancing in digital production. He says that freelancing gives him “the real freedom to explore all the strange fun concepts that my friends in the industry and I didn’t before have time for.”

Jonathan Forder is a programmer, designer, and audio engineer, with a knack for working with the Unity game development engine. You can learn more about Forder at his website.

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • elecman

    Wow, just wow!

  • mrob76vr

    I don’t mean to sound …well mean but that does seem kind of pointless. I can see why they did it but if you are trying to simulate the feelings of a real roller coaster by going on a real roller coaster, just enjoy the real roller coaster? Anyway that roller coaster is called Collosus and is at Thorpe Park near London. It is quite good but nothing compared to the coasters I’ve been on in the US when I was over there.

    • SirPaper

      Imagine if this were officially supported by a theme park. You get on the coaster and put on your VR headset. As you look around you find yourself in the cockpit of a small spaceship inside a hangar. You can hear a humming noise as your spaceship starts moving and you launch from the hangar, flying upwards. Just as you fly out you look behind to see a massive battleship ripped apart in a storm of laser fire, the same battleship that you were inside just moments before. As you look around a massive fight is taking place with small fighters weaving in and out as massive battleship lasers light up the area. Suddenly a fighter appears before you. You go into a steep dive just as the lasers shoot past overhead. The fighter gives chase, you weave back and forth to avoid it. Suddenly you bank hard to the left to avoid a large beam from one of the battleships which takes out the fighter behind you. As you look below you can see another large battleship which seems to be the source of the fighters chasing you. You go into another dive towards the battleship as fighters are flying towards you. Just before you collide into the battleship you turn away as a bomb flies from your ship towards the enemy. You watch as the battleship explodes in a ball of energy that engulfs the enemy fighters as well. Your spaceship is pulled into a hangar on an allied battleship and the ride is over.

      I dunno, I’d think on an actual rollercoaster that could be an insanely immersive experience. Dunno how it would work as far as safety is concerned though (not being able to see and possibly hear while riding a rollercoaster). And of course different themes could be used for the VR rides as well.

  • Chris W. Morris

    Interesting project! This could allow theme parks to have amazing RC experiences without needing attractive “real-life” backgrounds. Even in confined areas, they could host wildly imaginative experiences.