Jay Roberts // gloryfish

Battle for Eire

Writing May 2018

Note: this was originally written as a post on r/vive. It's republished here for posterity.

Additional Note: there’s spoilers for the ride here, so if you want to ride it fresh, skip this.

Intro

First, I’m generally pretty nonplussed by motion simulator rides. I typically get a bit motion sick on them yet I find them to be overall less thrilling than a good roller coaster. I went into Battle for Eire not expecting to be blown away but I was very interested to see how they managed to make consumer VR work for an amusement park attraction.

The ride is primarily a refresh of an existing projection-based motion simulator ride Europe in the Air. They’ve rethemed the pre-show, added VR hardware, and created a new show, but the existing motion bases haven’t been changed in any obvious way.

I only rode it once so I may get some specific details wrong (though I made an effort to check my facts where I could). If you have more experience with the ride please post here. My main goal with writing this is to get more detailed information about the ride as a VR attraction out there.

The HMD Mount

Before entering the pre-show area there are carts containing “Magical Equipment”. They call it the “Emerald Mask”. I will refer to it as the “HMD mount”.

The HMD mount is a green plastic head mount with a face mask. This is separate from the actual HMD which they call the “Enchanted Lens”. The mount has three large magnetic areas which the HMD attaches to. There’s no other mechanism holding the HMD and the HMD mount together.

The HMD mounts come in two sizes: “uncomfortable” and “slightly less uncomfortable”. You can see how they fit here:



There is a rigid part that cups the back of your head with a twist knob like the Deluxe Audio strap. However, note that the back part of the mask can pivot up and down and there is no top strap on the headset. So, while the mask can be tightened to your face, all of the weight of the HMD is carried on the top/front of the head. Wearing it felt exactly as good as you would expect having pokey bits of plastic pressed against your sweaty face would feel.

Everyone in line put their HMD mounts on right away so we all looked ridiculous. I didn’t see anyone have any trouble getting the mask on and I didn’t hear anyone verbally complain about them being uncomfortable. The vibe was generally positive. They seemed to fit a wide variety of head sizes and hairstyles.

I am annoyed by polarized glasses for rides with 3D projection so it makes sense that I wasn’t in love with a full head mount.

In any case, it more or less solved the problem of getting people onto the ride and in VR quickly. Most of the finicky adjustment happened before getting on the ride, which is good.

Glasses

I typically wear contact lenses in the Vive, sometimes I wear my glasses. I had my glasses on at the park that day.

The pre-ride safety/instructional video mentions first that “Hats are NOT permitted with Emerald Mask” followed by “Glasses should not be worn”. I took the second direction as more of a suggestion and attempted to put my glasses on inside the mask.

Despite earlier claims The HMD mounts for Battle for Eire are not at all accommodating of glasses. I had to push the frames hard into the mount. I got them in but I’m certain other frames would either not fit at all or might even break. The HMD mount would win in pretty much any glasses fight. The already uncomfortable HMD mount got even worse at that point. I admit I was being a bit stubborn because I was worried my slight nearsightedness would affect my enjoyment of the ride.

I was prepared for a ride attendant to ask me to take them off, which I would have done immedately without argument. However, several attendants saw me and didn’t say anything so I imagine it’s not a hard rule (or they just didn’t care). It probably should be a hard rule, as we’ll see in a moment.

The Ride

After the pre-show you board the ride. It’s a pretty standard motion simulator theater with rows of seats in front of a big screen. Each seat has a holder for a tethered Vive HMD. You can see the seats and HMD holders in this video:


There was single Vive lighthouse hanging from the ceiling in front of the screen pointed at the rows of seats. I looked around for others but I’m pretty sure that one lighthouse provided the entire tracked volume for the entire theater. There are no controllers, just HMDs.

The HMD

Apart from the mounting modifications, the HMD didn’t seem any different from the one I have on my desk. There was a little sticker over the front-facing camera. The entire lens relief portion of a standard Vive was missing on these units. It was just the screen and sensor housing fitted into a custom plastic enclosure. This is important because when I went to put the HMD into the mount there was way less room than I’m used to and certainly not enough room for my glasses. I took my glasses off so they wouldn’t cause any damage and I inspected the lenses. They were scratched up all over, probably from people who did wear their glasses. I cannot imagine what those lenses are going to look like by mid-August.

I put the HMD on and it snapped into place magnetically. It was very easy to put on. It was also easy to take off. My normal HMD adjustment maneuver involves grabbing the headset by the sides and pulling it into position to seat the headstrap. I pulled the HMD off accidentally several times while doing this maneuver. I eventually just left it alone and it never came off otherwise.

The HMDs have the IPD adjustment knob but it didn’t display the adjustment UI. I didn’t see anything that gave me a clue about the underlying software. I also watched all of this Q&A which did not provide any clues (although they did mention that each HMD is driven by a “4 inch by 4 inch i7 8th generation computer”). I’d be interested to know the details of their software and compute stack.

The mounting solution they are using allows the HMD to sit very close to your face. The FOV was higher than I am able to achieve with my stock Vive. I can see why people have made a big deal about Vive mods that bring the lenses closer to your face because it does impact the FOV.

That being said, I don’t see it as a win. The HMD mounts allow easy on/off but they don’t provide any protection from the masses of sweaty park guests pressing their eyeballs onto those lenses. Every bit of PR I’ve seen mentions how the HMD mounts get cleaned between each use. Nothing about the ride experience indicated to me that the HMDs themselves get between-show cleaning.

Someone will ride this ride with pink eye. Someone else will get pink eye from a previous rider. Ick.

The Show

Once you put the headset on you are in the top of a castle spire, presumably in Ireland. This is a fully-rendered environment with per-user visual elements. You can look around and the UI responds to your gaze. The quality of the graphics matched a mid-level Steam environment from before the Home update. So, fine but not earthshattering. A few minutes pass while everyone gets seated and puts their HMD on. In VR you can look around and there are a few instructional messages that fade out when you look at them.

Here we come to my first problem with the VR portion of this ride. The initial placement of the viewer is at the top of a castle spire suspended mid-air above a 100+ foot drop. One of VR’s unique experiences is simulating heights. As soon as you put your headset on, before the ride starts, while people are still messing with their seatbelts, and the safety message is playing, and no action is happening, that is the moment the ride designers chose to use one of VRs great effects.

The young woman behind me screamed in my ear when she put the headset on. I think it was her first time in VR.

After a short intro the ride gets going. You can see what the show looks like in this POV video for the ride:



Note: You can see the shadow of the lighthouse mount in this video.

A static view of the show is projected on the theater screen simultaneously with the VR show in the HMDs (Useful if you take the HMD off mid-ride). The motion base is synced up with the show to provide extra interactivity. Some big fans also provide synchronized gusts of air at appropriate times.

Here we come to my second problem with the “VR”. I use quotes there because the active portion of the show is a way overcompressed 360° video, not VR. The visual artifacting was very noticeable throughout the video but was especially bad during any of the standard tricky-to-compress scenarios.

For example, at 1:10 in the video there is a swarm of creatures. On the ride, you can see visible macro blocking in that whole swarm. Pretty much the whole show is like this and it’s a damn shame. After all of the work that went into re-theming and redesigning the ride, to have the actual VR element looks so bad is a bummer.

Also, the only non-VR effects on the ride are the motion base and the fans. It was a bit disappointing to have a dragon breathe fire at me and not feel the heat of his breath.

The show has so many elements which serve to highlight the weaknesses of the tech. If you can’t give me heat, don’t breathe fire on me. If your encoding can’t handle lots of high-frequency detail, don’t send a swarm of thousands of fairies after me.

The plot is the standard theme park mess of characters and locations and it’s hard to follow. I don’t really blame them for that. Even the best scripted rides can be hard to catch all the details on your first ride. Battle for Eire suffers because Busch Gardens doesn’t have any recognizable characters. At least when you ride Forbidden Journey at Universal you get the basics of “chasing Harry Potter through the Quidditch pitch” even if you miss the details. I didn’t realize the dragon in Battle for Eire was friendly until halfway through the ride.

Now, I did really enjoy the scenes where you soar over the castle. The wind blowing as the motion base tilted and the environment switched to a bright outdoor castle scene really came together for me. It was exhilarating and being able to look around with the HMD was better than being in a standard theater-based simulator ride. Future ride developers should focus on really nailing that. Let people fly and let them look around at beautiful interesting scenery.

The Finale

Finally we come to the finale where the one element of interactivity is present. You can see the whole show in the video above but, for reference, I will describe the ending briefly:

The villain Balor has the Heart of Eire and the riders must fight back. A point of light appears in the air next to the rider, followed by another, and another. The points of light roughly correspond to the locations of other riders. As they appear, laser beams shoot out of them towards the heart. The beams wave around in the air seeking towards the heart.

An additional beam shoots out of the rider’s position and follows their gaze. This beam is entirely controlled by the rider.

Eventually, the power of love reclaims the heart, Balor is defeated, and we swoop back to the tower.

That finale is an absolute mess. First, it’s not obvious to the player that they are controlling a beam as it appears in a jumble of many other beams. My wife did not even realize she was controlling it until we talked after the ride.

Second, the position in space of the interactive beam is a bit…um low. I think the idea is to suggest love pouring out of the rider’s heart. However, in my case, the love felt like it was coming out of somewhere else that was not family-friendly. It was mildly distracting and an unexpected case where a ride intruded on my personal space in a way I’ve never experienced before. By comparison, my wife did not have that experience at all and gave me a weird look when I claimed to have defeated an Irish demon with my cock-laser.

Suggestions

I would suggest some changes to improve the ride experience:

  1. Dramatically improve the encode quality for the 360° video.
  2. Have the rest position for the ride be on a floor-like surface roughly the height of the motion base floor. Reveal the height during the ride for maximum impact.
  3. Let the riders use their love beam during the pre-ride interval. This gives riders something to do while they wait and prepares them to be less confused during the finale.
  4. Utilize the 360° space more effectively. Pack each moment with interesting things to see.

Closing

While I found it to be uncomfortable, the mounting solution is pretty smart. It solves several problems that arise with trying to get 50 people into a VR headset in the space of about 3 minutes. It also makes it really easy for a rider to take their own HMD off at any time which hadn’t even occured to me until it was mentioned in the safety video. So, good for them.

However, I came away from the ride ultimately disappointed as a VR enthusiast. I felt like the ride designers implemented the technology while failing to work towards it’s strengths and emphasizing many of its weaknesses. The result is a ride that isn’t meaningfully better than the motion simulator it started out as and which is overshadowed by the many good traditional rides at the park.

That being said, there is clearly potential here. All of the problems I encountered can be fixed using existing technology. I’m looking forward to seeing who gets it right.