You know how you go get froyo, and at first it seems like enough to just top it with a few pieces of fresh fruit. "This is perfection," you think, "the simple pleasures." And then you’re beckoned to the sprinkles, Oreo crumbles, the radioactively pink frosted animal crackers, and piping hot caramel sauce that call your name like a siren. By the time you’re done, it looks like a clown's intestines exploded all over your probiotic treat.
At first glance, the Augmented Thrill Ride Project, by University of Applied Sciences Kaiserslautern professor Thomas Wagner, seems like somebody just went ahead and topped that crazy froyo cup with a full ice cream sundae.
The project fits roller coaster riders with an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset—effectively shutting out the already intense analog experience of a roller coaster for a digital video game. While human bodies ride a track through tight turns and corkscrews, their eyes see even more hyperbolic visuals like a subaquatic submarine ride or a pegasus pulling them through the sky. In one instance, riders were even handed a controller to shoot asteroids as they rocketed their way through space.
Mixing these two channels of inputs—the ride and our view—the project's researchers have learned that they can really mess with our brain's perception. For one, they realized that the track can, in some ways, actually spoil the surprises of a roller coaster because you always see the turns coming. But in the virtual world, they can depict a straight track, have a giant monster bend it out of nowhere, and heighten the excitement through the element of surprise. Furthermore, when the experiment glitches for one of their testers, a rider experienced part of the (virtual) ride backwards, yet they still found the sensations of movement convincing. This has led the researchers to postulate all sorts of wonky hacks to our perception. In fact, they think it's possible to build a very small roller coaster in real space, but slowly unfurl it in our virtual space—kind of like unbending a giant paper clip—to feel like a huge, wondrous environment.
Sure, you could still call this entire project absurd, labeling it a poster child for everything wrong about the way we’ve evolved over the last decade to experience life through a screen rather than through full, vivid life. Or, you could spot a potential burgeoning trend in experience design—one where it’s less about some philosophical debate between reality or virtual reality, and more about a human quest for hyperreality—leveraging every manipulation of our senses possible to create a place where roller coasters become space ship battles and skydiving trips plunge you down into the Earth’s core.
Maybe that reality isn’t life, per se, but it’s certainly living.