Why Is Everyone Focusing on Virtual Reality Theme Parks?

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Friday, July 31st, 2015

Oculus Rift technology

Virtual reality has been a hot topic in the entertainment design space. Venues from theme parks to museums are working to determine how best to integrate virtual reality and augmented reality features into their offerings. There’s the recent Landmark announcement which we explored in depth, and several other nascent projects making headlines. Museums are using augmented reality and virtual guides to offer more robust tours of their collections. Major design firms and boutique startups are trying to find ways to push the boundaries of design by focusing on developing new VR and AR tools.

All of this activity prompted us to ask: what’s driving the interest in virtual reality and augmented reality experiences in the theme park and broader entertainment worlds? On one level, it’s counterintuitive. So many of the essential theme park experiences are physical. A roller coaster is about the physical sensations that cause an adrenaline rush. Water parks are all about getting soaked. Museums are unique because they allow you to be close to something exquisite or ancient. There’s something inherent in these experiences about leaving your surroundings behind for awhile and exploring a completely different world.

The VOID experience in Utah

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of theme parks and similar experiences. One is their expense, both to developers and to attendees. Developers typically have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a full theme park, with some of the latest mega projects tipping the scales in the billions. Even just the development of a single attraction costs millions and takes months or even years to construct. For attendees, the costs of park tickets are skyrocketing; for many, travel and admission to the parks simply isn’t viable. While museums or other attractions may be more affordable, they’re still often financially or geographically out of the reach of many.

Enter technology. Virtual parks can solve many of the logistical issues that typically confront visiting guests. There are no waits and the costs can be controlled because it’s theoretically much cheaper to develop virtual experiences. It’s also easier to change experiences with just a few programming changes, which increases the repeatability of visits. Museums like the Smithsonian can more easily and quickly create exhibits that showcase their collections of millions of objects. Theme parks can create whole new experiences based on the latest popular franchise, without waiting years between design and development.

Augmented Reality in museums

One project that’s getting a lot of attention is The Void, an attraction planned in Utah and set to release next summer. It’s by the same team that’s behind the development of Evermore, a planned theme park that integrates LARPing and interactivity at a whole new level. The VOID technology was developed as just one part of the plans for Evermore, with the Celtic Runes section designed to have a virtual reality component. Since fundraising is underway for Evermore but not complete, the founder decided to use the VOID experience as a standalone attraction.

The advancement of technologies such as Oculus Rift will make it much easier to scale VOID and other virtual reality and augmented reality projects. The VR glasses are set to hit the market next year. And competitors seem likely to follow once that market breaks open.

Virtual reality may also represent the next evolution in the frontier of entertainment since it addresses the rising preference for in-home experiences. Consider: movie theaters are already having trouble competing with streaming services. Theme parks battle complaints from teenagers that they wish rides were more like video games and that trend is impacting the interactivity levels of ride design. Museums are developing technologies to let global audiences virtually explore their collections. In-home entertainment is becoming more and more prevalent across categories. Virtual reality technologies may be the format that allows innovative designers to keep audiences engaged.

There are also creative benefits tothe format that can’t be overlooked. In a virtual world, the sky is the limit. There are no laws of physics, no limitations of construction materials or safety concerns. As quickly as designers can imagine, code, and test the experiences, they can be shared with the public. Ultimately, virtual reality entertainment may provide a creatively satisfying outlet for designers as well.

Images courtesy of Geek, The Void, and Augmented Reality Trends

One response to “Why Is Everyone Focusing on Virtual Reality Theme Parks?”

  1. Tom Lasten says:

    I really enjoyed this article and I agree on the most part. What I see as a problem with this is lack of originality like you pointed out. VR like this is wasted on virtual theme park rides as it doesn’t recreate the same emotions as the real experience, never has done. Imagine though a video game like silent hill made in this way. Something which already evokes certain emotions but would be enhanced by VR, I think the horror genre across the board would benefit from this tech.

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