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21st century thrills: Take a ride on a virtual reality roller coaster

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VALENCIA, California — Piloting a fighter jet, dodging skyscrapers and battling alien intruders — all while barreling along a steel track hundreds of feet in the air.

Welcome aboard a virtual reality roller coaster.

It’s a concept that may change roller coasters forever by combining the traditional steel track with VR technology to place thrill seekers in a completely virtual world.

Here’s how it works:

Before boarding the coaster, riders strap a VR headset across their face. They won’t see where the steel track is going, or what’s coming up next. As the ride launches into a series of steep drops, banks and loops, riders are engulfed in high-definition imagery and 360-degree virtual views. There’s even a story line to follow as they’re screaming their heads off.

In the competitive world of who can go higher, faster and deliver more G-forces, this new kid on the block is already making a splash at amusement parks across North America. This spring, Six Flags will debut nine virtual reality roller coasters at its parks in Texas, Georgia, California, Missouri, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York and Montreal.

“It’s perfect to have this virtual reality technology that gives you the immersive feeling of being in a different world,” said Thomas Wagner, CEO of VR Coaster, which developed the system for Six Flags. “And to combine it with a coaster that delivers motion, G-forces, zero-gravity moments — it’s a totally new kind of attraction.”

What makes the experience different from 3-D motion simulator rides is that the imagery playing inside the headsets is completely in sync with what the physical roller coaster is doing on the track. So while riders are flying amid high-rise buildings in the virtual world, they’re barreling through a corkscrew in real life.

At Six Flags Magic Mountain outside Los Angeles, VR technology was added to longtime favorite “Revolution” and rebranded as “The New Revolution.” Built in 1976, it was the first looping roller coaster in the world. Today, riders no longer experience a twisting jaunt through green trees and hills. Instead, they’re knee-deep in a mankind vs. aliens story line.

At Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, thrill seekers who board the new “Superman: Krypton Coaster Virtual Reality Coaster” are fully immersed in the comic-book world of Metropolis.

Some skeptical park-goers have questioned whether the VR effects cause motion sickness.

“It’s crucial to have the virtual reality ride precisely synced to the real ride,” Wagner said, “because otherwise, you would get dizzy and have motion sickness.

“The entire VR industry, especially gaming developers, are fighting with this motion sickness problem. If you’re sitting at home in a chair and you’re watching this convincing 3-D movement, you get dizzy. But when you’re on the coaster, and you actually feel the same movements that you are watching and seeing, you don’t.”

Of course, “it’s still a roller coaster, and it’s still kind of intense.”

So far, Wagner said, the VR roller coasters have attracted every type of daredevil.

“People who are even afraid of coasters like it better in VR, because they feel a little bit safer,” he said. “They don’t think a video game environment can harm them in any way.”

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