Peter Schnabel has built some of the world's most famous theme park rides. Chris Robertson has created some of the world's top-selling video games. Last fall, their worlds collided in an unlikely spot: a café in Victoria.
As soon as they met, the two industry legends – who both live in the mellow B.C. capital – knew what they had to do next: combine forces and upend the theme park business. "I said, 'Chris, I don't know anything about virtual reality, but I know it's coming,'" Mr. Schnabel recalls saying. "'I don't want to be a follower. I want to be a leader.'"
Today, their new firm DreamCraft Attractions Ltd. is developing a virtual-reality-based attraction they herald as a game changer for the $40-billion global (U.S.) industry. Combining Mr. Schnabel's flair for building cutting-edge rides with Mr. Robertson's software prowess, DreamCraft is building a fully realized virtual reality (VR) thrill ride that aims to avoid issues that have dogged other VR attractions. DreamCraft's prototype has dazzled visitors and the company has inked more than $60-million of orders, including one from a Chinese theme park.
"I think it will create a unique out-of-home experience with VR that you can't get elsewhere," said Mark Thomas, president of L.A. attraction installer On Track Themes Inc.
DreamCraft is arriving at a time of heightened expectations for augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) technology that immerses humans in digital worlds and has been hyped as the next big thing for years. Tech giants have staked their ground: Facebook bought VR headset maker Oculus in 2014, while Google, Microsoft, Samsung, HTC and Sony have developed VR viewers and/or gaming systems. Venture capitalists have poured billions into VR/AR plays.
While video gamers are seen as the likeliest AR/VR users, possibilities abound across several industries. Thomas Cook has used the technology to offer clients virtual vacations and home improvement retailer Lowe's "Holorooms" allow customers to visualize renovation projects. Volvo and Sotheby's have sold cars and homes using VR, while startup Jaunt has recorded rock shows for VR viewing using 360-degree cameras. A Goldman Sachs report recently predicted VR/AR will balloon an $80-billion industry by 2025, creating "the next big computing platform. … We expect new markets to be created and existing markets to be disrupted."
Mr. Robertson felt the technology wasn't quite ready when he met Mr. Schnabel, who during his 40-year career had introduced the world to the first river rapids ride and a propulsion system that shot roller coasters out of their stations. (Among his greatest hits are Disney's Soarin' Over California and Universal Studios' Back to the Future: The Ride). Mr. Robertson knew little about the theme park trade, but knew what he didn't like about VR games. Players were isolated from others and felt disembodied, unable to see virtual representations of their hand motions. Virtual locomotion while sitting on couches created disjointed, sickening experiences. "Everyone was struggling with this problem," he said.
Mr. Schnabel was starting his latest ride firm when he happened to share a cab with a Victoria game developer last fall. He asked whether the man could recommend someone who knew VR. Within hours, Mr. Schnabel was meeting Mr. Robertson, whose Black Box Games had developed the popular Need for Speed game before he worked on the HoloLens AR headset at Microsoft's short-lived Victoria studio in the early 2010s. Mr. Robertson and his team – including wife and designer Joanne Parker Robertson – were also getting their latest venture off the ground.
While Six Flags Entertainment Corp. has recently added virtual reality to some rides, and entrepreneurs are building VR theme parks, Mr. Robertson wasn't impressed when he visited an industry expo in Orlando at Mr. Schnabel's behest last fall. The "janky attempts" at VR that were on display featured disjointed motion synchronization, poor-quality visuals and passive experiences, he said. "It's all crap," Mr. Robertson says he told his new partner. "Nobody in the amusement industry was really understanding how to use VR and nobody in the software industry was really partnered with a ride manufacturer.We thought, 'This is our opportunity.'"
The two mapped out how an ideal VR attraction should work. It needed capacity for a steady flow of riders and had to be hygienic, an issue with shared headsets in hot climates (DreamCraft's patent-pending solution includes a separate, clean component that plugs into viewers). They decided to build a demo to show they could synchronize the ride's physical motion to high-quality virtual imagery. They wanted riders to be able to interact with other users and see their own hand motions represented virtually, addressing the isolation and disembodiment challenges. Also important: allowing riders to direct their own paths, enabling "a much greater sense of engagement," Mr. Robertson said.
Through Mr. Schnabel's contacts, they secured a free actuator-powered moving platform from a Turkish simulator maker. Mr. Robertson's team worked with Unity gaming software to synchronize the platform's movements with actions in the virtual world. The team developed a ride "story" – involving a flight on a dragon– and farmed out graphics to outsiders, including to Oscar-winning special effects studio Rhythm and Hues. The prototype's seat, bolted to the platform, came from a wrecked Mazda 3. The VR system (initially an off-the-shelf HTC Vive headset and controllers) and a fan, used for wind special effects, were affixed to a console built of spare desk parts.
The team had a working prototype by last April, developed at a cost of about $1.5-million, partially funded by a Chinese angel investor Mr. Schnabel knew. The team invited guests including theme park executives, potential investors and a Globe and Mail reporter, to try the ride, which convincingly creates the immersive sensation of directing a soaring dragon high above a river canyon. "The embodiment thing helps make it feel natural and is huge in terms of unique experience," Mr. Thomas said. After Vernon McGugan, a senior vice-president with Universal Studios Japan, tried it last summer, he accepted Mr. Schnabel's offer to become DreamCraft's chief executive officer. "It … will change the way theme parks look at delivering their entertainment experiences," he said.
Now, the hope is that theme parks will start buying. Rather than sinking capital into rides that change little from year to year, "You'll instead have an experience where it's just as rich visually – but you can just update it with software to keep it fresh," Mr. Robertson said.