Cupcakes and Coasters meets Malcolm Burt

For this installation of Cupcakes and Coasters meets, I spoke to Malcolm Burt. For those of you who don't know, Malcolm is literally a ride geek - he created an international documentary on why roller coasters exist as part of his research degree and now he's tackling the bee in every coaster enthusiast's bonnet: Virtual Reality. I came across him on Twitter and linked in with him, knowing he'd be a really interesting guy to give an intellectual perspective on the VR debate. And I wasn't wrong! Here's what we got chatting about:

So, VR is the new kid on the block and has been getting some very controversial mixed reactions from enthusiasts. Why do you think that is?

I think the most obvious reasons would be that the queuing is fairly heavily impacted when older rides and coasters have VR added to them (though this is improving rapidly), and also because some classic rides are going all-VR, without the option to ride "the way they used to". Interestingly, some enthusiasts have said they didn't like it "because it's not real" but then virtually everything about theme parks is manufactured and objectively "not real", so not sure if I can go with them on that one. 

Another observation was that the rides go from a shared experience to a singular experience when you're sitting there in your headset, but this too is changing with the advent of "mixed reality" attractions. And finally, there's a sense from some vendors that the only important part of a VR experience is their part—either it's the headset, or the marketing, or the story in the VR experience. What I've already found to be quite clear in my PhD is that it's the entirety of the experience that customers react to. This is why I'm seeking to define every one of the elements that are required to come together for a best-practice VR amusement experience in my research.

Do you think it’s fair to say that the use of VR in theme parks is still yet to be perfected?

I think it's very fair. Many of the big chains are quite honest in saying they moved very quickly in installing VR elements on their rides and are now rapidly iterating and upgrading the offerings. It's like anything really: version 1.0 is always going to be a bit clunky.

Some would argue that VR takes away the literal escapism of theme parks. What’s your take on that?

I disagree. In many ways it enhances escapism, and the experiences are able to be updated much more quickly than replacing a coaster or flat ride. I think a lot of the resentment stems from the points I made above, and also the incredibly strong nostalgia we associate with our favourite rides. We want some rides to stay the same because we have had such wonderful memories on them, and when they are suddenly "VR-ified" it can seem those memories, and your ability to recreate them, have been taken from you. However, at least in the design of these experiences, you should be able to enjoy more escapism than before.

What would you say are the virtues of theme parks embracing VR?

I think the highlight of VR in theme parks is staying on top of modern technology trends in amusement, allowing the creation of new hybrid ride forms, as well as the ability to change the ride experiences much more rapidly. There's also great value in being able to preview the rides in VR, and also a lot of parks and design firms are using VR in the pre-visualisation design period, so it's possible we may end up with better rides due to the fact they can be experienced at greater depth in the design phase, thanks to VR.

What would be your perfect use of VR in an attraction?

One where there is a seamless transition from the "real world" to the virtual one, where the experience is utterly compelling and completely resolved, where the headsets and controls are organic and feel natural, the experience is tailored to me in an authentic way, and I come off wowed by the magic and yearning for more. In other words, I want an experience just like the advertisements!

Do you think VR works best on a coaster or a slower attraction?

It's hard to say—when coasters go really wild it's possible the VR can just be disorienting—it doesn't always seem to keep up. But then, slower and simpler rides don't offer such dynamic G-forces and sudden changes which can seem a little underwhelming. I'm yet to experience the VR drop rides so look forward to reporting back on those. Let's ask this question again in a few years!

What is your personal favourite use of VR in a theme park to date and why?

The Arkham Asylum rollercoaster at Movie World on the Gold Coast in Australia is a very good example of a VR coaster done well, from the way it is promoted, to the way the queue has been set up (you can also choose to VR the ride or not), to many elements of the experience itself.  The Galactic Attack Mixed Reality coaster at Six Flags Over Texas was also impressive in that I really dig how they take you from the real world to their virtual universe and back again—the mind boggles at where this could go. The Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride at Universal—yes, I'm well aware it isn't a VR attraction—needs a mention here, because the way it takes you from physical sets and props into the simulator areas and back again is flawless. To be able to attain that level of fluidity in the real world-to-virtual-world on a VR attraction would be a triumph. Also, I'm pretty fond of the insane VR waterslide project I'm developing with the huge waterslide firm Wiegand-Maelzer in Bavaria right now too! 

VR is obviously having a huge impact on the gaming industry. Is this something you think we’ll see combined with a theme park attraction in the future?

Gaming and gamification is already creeping into many ride experiences and it's clear this will be employed ever more heavily. Users will be able to create their own avatars, and have gaming experiences at home that blend seamlessly with VR and AR gaming experiences in the queues, on the rides, and elsewhere in the parks.

Which genre do you think works best with VR?

Horror is always good (particularly with the PSVR) because it's not that hard to scare the crap out of someone with a good jump scare (or yourself, if you're experiencing these things alone late at night). Superhero-based VR adventures work well too, because in those worlds it's natural to be able to fly, have super powers, etc. which of course is fun to do in VR.

Where do you think the future of VR is taking us?

I would love to think that VR will become sophisticated enough to be a normal and expected element in the entertainment mix. In terms of amusement parks, if we want to check out a park we'd like to visit overseas, it will be natural to take a virtual tour. When we get to that park we're able to experience a mix of regular rides, VR-enhanced rides and simulators, and all the kinks will have been worked out in the system so that we don't need to consider how long it will add to the lining up, or how clunky the headsets might be, but to just enjoy what the experience offers us as it was intended. Realistically though, we will probably end up with sophisticated home-based simulators, motion platform chairs and nonstop VR, and instead of visiting parks for real we will live our lives from the lounge, just shelling out for the monthly Disney or Six Flags bill to ensure we can stay virtually in the parks on a permanent basis, and end up too fat to move.

As much as I'm still unsure about VR, I'm confident that if anyone can iron out the crinkles in its integration into the amusement industry, it's Malcolm. Hopefully his research will be pioneering into finally realising that perfect VR attraction that will finally have us all impressed! 

I'd like to thank Malcolm for taking the time to do this interview with me. You can check out his Twitter and Website if you'd like to get to know him a little more.

Talk later xoxo,