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Roller coaster designers exploit gravity

Industry Standard
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By Harold Goldberg

(IDG) -- Ten years ago, virtual reality rides promised amusement park visitors a thrill like no other: Wraparound movie screens, hydraulic motors and digital sound systems would mimic the experience of traveling at high speeds through, say, an asteroid belt, all within the confines of a pod bolted firmly to the floor.

But after hundreds of millions of dollars in research, development and construction, the pod rides are still trailing behind roller coasters in popularity and profitability. VR rides such as DisneyQuest's CyberSpace Mountain in Orlando, Fla., are indeed impressive feats of engineering, allowing riders to design their own rides. Still, technology like this didn't help DisneyQuest in Chicago, whose virtual ride park met with real-world Windy City indifference. It closes its doors in early September. And Iwerks, once thought to be the cutting edge of the sim ride industry, is now trading at about 33 cents a share, down from a high of over $100 at the time of its 1993 IPO. While small-scale pod rides dot local malls around the country, the big multimillion-dollar versions failed to revolutionize the amusement park industry. It seems plain old reality is still more desirable than the virtual kind.

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Roller coaster designers took digital technology and amusement down a different path: Rather than trying to approximate reality, they enlisted computers to exploit it. With digital simulators, designers could push theoretical tracks to their limit, test the load limits of the rails and marry technology with that indisputable force of nature: gravity. And what they wrought answered that essential question: Who needs asteroid belts when the blur of southern New Jersey will do just fine?

Iron rides continue to chug along stronger than ever, bringing in more visitors and more money. "A new coaster can add up to 11 percent to a park's revenue," says Susie Storey, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Amusements Parks and Attractions. The past 20 years have seen the erection of more than 1,500 roller coasters worldwide that account for an $800-million-a-year industry.

These days movielike scenarios of models not yet constructed are rendered digitally on computers. Designers push for weightlessness and flat curves, which give you the sensation of being thrown sideways. It turns out that digitally mapping a coaster is so enjoyable that the video game "Roller Coaster Tycoon" topped gaming charts last year.

Surprisingly, motion sickness can be more of a problem in a sim ride than in a digitally designed roller coaster. If what you see on the screen doesn't add up with what you're feeling, then look out below.

Despite the high G's, riding a new high-tech coaster can be positively Lexus-like. "Now that we can design digitally with computers, the curves are more fan-shaped ... making a swooping curve faster and the experience much smoother," says Jim Seay, president of Millersville, Md.-based Premier Rides, which manufactures coasters that can push you to an exhilarating 4.5 G's. Compare the brand-new Nitro, the tallest coaster on the East Coast, at New Jersey's Six Flags Great Adventure, to the park's 1989 Great American Scream Machine with its ultrashaky, brain-jarring loops, and you'll see how far coasters have come: You get more thrill, fewer injuries.

Now that the limits of pod rides have become clear, fusing the virtual with the real is the next step in the evolution of rides. Tim O'Brien, a senior editor at Amusement Business magazine, points to the $100 million Spiderman ride at Universal Studios in Orlando as an example of successful hybrid engineering: "It's a motion-base ride moving on a track using 3-D glasses. ... A virtual Spiderman lands on your car. Then you're dropped 400 feet in a virtual fall." Combine that with what Seay forecasts, and now you're talking: "From an engineering and design standpoint, I see no reason you can't go 150 mph without forgoing comfort."





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