Are You Ready for America's 1st Virtual-Reality Roller Coasters?
Thrill-seekers can wear virtual reality headsets while zipping through real-life twists and flips at nine different Six Flags parks this spring.
Credit: Six Flags Entertainment

Buckle up, roller coaster enthusiasts! The amusement park Six Flags has joined forces with Samsung to bump up the thrill factor of rides with virtual-reality roller coasters that are set to be the first of their kind in North America.

Virtual reality (VR) is already changing how people experience museum exhibits and conduct medical training, and now roller coasters that blend physical sensations with digital worlds can be added to the list. Park-goers will be able to experience these new rides at six different Six Flags locations, with another opening up next Friday (Apr 9) at Six Flags New England in Agawam, Massachusetts, and two more at Six Flags The Great Escape in Lake George, New York, and La Ronde in Montreal, Canada, later this spring.

"If you like coasters at all, it's going to be absolutely mind-blowing to ride this thing," said Sam Rhodes, Six Flags' corporate director of design. "It turns grownups into little kids again. It's absolutely amazing." [Photos: Virtual Reality Puts Adults in a Child's World]

Although the rides won't be entirely new attractions, they will be outfitted with Samsung Gear VR headsets that have been adapted specifically for safe and hygienic use on the coasters. Users will still physically be on the roller coaster as they experience either a "Superman virtual reality" or a "New Revolution virtual reality," Rhodes said. In the Superman coaster, riders will take a tour of the comic-book city Metropolis and encounter Lex Luthor, Rhodes said. In the New Revolution coaster ride, riders will take part in an interactive battle against futuristic aliens.

Combining the virtual-reality experience with the physical sensations of the roller coaster will increase the thrill factor up to 10 times, Rhodes told Live Science. And psychologists agree that the innovative VR roller coasters will probably achieve this effect by activating certain areas of a person's brain more than a typical roller coaster or virtual-reality experience alone would.

"Basically, you're taking an already novel, exciting event and putting on top of it another exciting, novel event so you get an additive effect," said Michael Bardo, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, who has studied sensation-seeking behavior.

New and exciting events reinforce limbic reward circuits in the brain, said Bardo, just like food, sex and some drugs. These experiences trigger the release of a feel-good chemical called dopamine, and this, combined with the adrenaline from twists and flips on the roller coaster, gives people the feeling of excitement or fear, he added.

Generally, seeking such novel experiences is biologically advantageous. People who had new experiences and went out in search for food or better places to live had higher chances of survival, Bardo told Live Science.

But people are usually able to tell the difference between a virtual experience and a novel real-life experience, according to Mayank Mehta, a neurophysicist at the University of California, Los Angeles. In lab experiments on rats, he found that the brain does not form a mental map of virtual surroundings the way it does in real-world settings. Nearly 60 percent of the specialized "GPS cells" in the brain that create mental maps shut down when in a virtual setting, he said.  

"If you are in virtual reality — no matter how compelling it is — you know that it is virtual and it's not real," Mehta said. "It's like when you're in an IMAX theater, you somehow know that it's not real because your neurons are able to tell the difference." [VR Headset Mega Guide: Features and Release Dates]

When making a map of space, the brain takes into account smells, sounds, body motion and other aspects of the environment, in addition to visual information. This is why virtual-reality technology makes some users feel nauseous. Inconsistent signals from the eyes and the rest of the body, especially regarding whether a virtual reality user is moving or not, disturb the brain and cause what scientists call "cybersickness," said Stefano Triberti, a psychologist at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, who studies how people mentally process being in a virtual space.

"In the case of the roller coaster, this inconsistency will be less strong because riders will be moving," Triberti said, adding that "there will more information coming from the environment that says we are moving in tune with the virtual experience … there will be wind in our faces, variations in gravity, etcetera."

As long as the virtual-reality experience and the twists of the roller coaster are in sync, riders will feel the physical forces and lean into the loops, without feeling nauseous. Riders may actually feel even less nauseous than they might on any other roller coaster, said Rhodes, because they would be so engrossed in the virtual experience, they won't even notice the track. And if the ride stops midway for some reason, the visuals will also stop to maintain the synchronization, he added.

In this way, the VR version of an amusement park ride will have a unique feel to it, almost like being in a video game, said Rhodes. It will be completely immersive, letting riders interact and shoot at aliens by touching a button on the side of the headset, for example. And each ride will be unique, Rhodes said. Users can look straight ahead, down or side-to-side and discover new scenery. In fact, each time they ride the roller coaster might be a slightly different virtual experience, he said, so those riding in the front are no longer the only ones with a good view.

"We are just scratching the surface with virtual reality technology," Rhodes said. "This is the beginning of major changes in all aspects of the theme park industry. At Six Flags, innovation is in our DNA, we're always looking at the next big thing, and as we like to say, this really changes everything."

Follow Knvul Sheikh on Twitter @KnvulS. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.