do thrill engineers dream of virtual reality?

do thrill engineers dream of virtual reality?


Do you remember the summer of 2013? Oculus Rift were in the middle of a pivotal Kickstarter campaign to launch DK1 – a widely available development kit that would propel us into a 21st century virtual reality renaissance. Virtual reality was far from my thoughts that year. In fact, at that time, it was a medium I thought I’d never work with, with memories of my first encounter from 1992 still giving me nightmares… and neck ache.

No, in 2013 I was exploring the unconscious realities we create during the act of dreaming – particularly lucid dreaming (imagine being able fly in your dream, under your conscious control, in an unconscious state). Apparently about 51% of us have experienced such an exhilarating altered state of consciousness, but it is sporadic and unpredictable for most of us. What is much more common is our ability to incorporate stimuli from the real world into our dreams – sounds, smells, and other sensations – which can help to inform and direct our dream narrative. This dream narrative also draws from our rich resource of experiences and thoughts from the previous day.

I began to wonder whether I could get someone to experience thrill in their dreams. My idea was to choreograph a series of real sensations, to be experienced by my ‘rider’ during their dream state. Could I design a thrilling experience, which my dreaming rider would construct and experience in their unconscious mind?

First,  I’d need to know when my dream rider was in their dream state. Luckily, the most vivid dream states are often accompanied by rapid eye movement, or REM. If I could detect the onset of REM then I’d know when to start choreographing my ride stimulus. I knew REM would be accompanied by plenty of EMG activity (muscle electrical signals). And after searching though some half-baked Arduino projects and hacks, I found the technology to do it.

But what  ride was I going to design for my sleeping riders to experience, and what sensations did I need to create and choreograph to achieve a thrilling experience? I needed a design context, and material to draw from.

Around that time I was working with Thorpe Park. I had been invited to pitch an idea for the launch of their new Shark Hotel, which was just being designed. This presented the perfect context, and the ingredients: a hotel, beds, dreaming guests, with memories of roller coasters fresh in their sleepy minds. If I could gently rock these guests as they slumbered, in a fashion that would subtly mimic the motion of a ride they had just ridden, as they entered into REM sleep, perhaps I could get them to re-experience rides from the day before; or even dream-up their own new thrill rides, limited only by their imagination.

I started talking to friends at Middlesex University about creating a simple motion platform. My idea was to retrofit pneumatic actuators beneath bed legs. However, Middlesex became excited by the videos I showed of Stuart Platforms (6 degree of motion platforms often used by flight simulators), and started imagining the many other applications we might explore together.

So, we formulated plans to develop a generic motion platform, which became the MDXLoco . Our first application was to be the Dream Ride Simulator.

I also spoke to friends at the University of Nottingham about my ideas around sleep monitoring. This line of inquiry developed into a broader interest in the possibilities of neurological monitoring. I firmly declared this interest in the installation and performance Duality: One Body Two Brains, for the Mayhem Horror Film Festival. Duality featured the live re-animation of a ‘brain-in-a-jar’ using real neurological data, which demonstrated the potential of brain controlled installations.

We also started to discuss ways I might monitor and record the motion of a roller coaster, to be replayed on a motion platform. This production technique was developed and utilised in my project V-Armchair, which became a collaboration between both Universities.

“What about Shark Hotel?!!” I hear you cry (give me some room for dramatics here). The Dream Ride Simulator was sadly never commissioned. But all was not lost. The same year I was approached by artist Pat Kane of The Play Ethic, who – as lead curator for Nesta – was setting up FutureFest. Pat was looking to commission new work for this innovative festival, which celebrates and explores the social and cultural implications of near-future technological advancements. And what could say ‘future’ more than Neurosis: the world’s first brain controlled thrill ride created by the world’s first Thrill Engineer. In this ride I creatively brought together all the technical elements I’d been developing, along with many more, including neuro-generative music, theatre lighting and ride FX.

By this time Oculus had successfully released the DK1, and – along with other early adopters- I was keen to explore the delights, and imperfections, this 21st century reincarnation of virtual reality had to offer. It was a natural shift then, to subsume VR into the development of Neurosis, where I started to experiment with how I might create a kind of waking dream state, based on an abstract virtual world generated from each rider’s own brain data (“Ride out of your mind!” was the phrase I could be heard barking at FutureFest).

Today, the Middlesex University research team and I are working closely with NoLimits roller coaster software developers to create real-world ride simulator capabilities for their virtual models. We’re also talking to companies like Frontier Games (with titles such as Elite Dangerous and Planet Coaster the potential to expand these brand experiences is massive).

The spectrum of opportunities that virtual reality and motion platforms are opening up will undoubtedly entertain me for many years to come. However, I’m careful to remind myself never to forget the power of human imagination and creativity, held in the subconscious mind. This is a vital natural resource for any thrilling experience. The most rewarding job as a thrill engineer is finding ways to access, understand, and work with this resource inherent in us all. Yes, technology like virtual reality and motion simulators can help me in this endeavor; but technology should only ever be considered a tool, not the solution.

Would I still like build the Dream Ride Simulator, now that I have the power of virtual reality at my disposal? Hell yes! I’ve yet to experience anything in VR that comes close to the dreams I have. If you buy me a nightcap, I might tell you about them.