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Surviving the apocalypse on Derren Brown's VR ghost train

Engadget Engadget 15/07/2016 Nick Summers

© Provided by Engadget

Derren Brown is a master of illusion and psychological manipulation. Through a mixture of TV shows and live performances, he's stunned the public by reading minds and influencing their behaviour. But the mentalist has drawn criticism too, for acts that have seemingly failed or underdelivered -- his attempt to "beat" a casino by predicting roulette outcomes being a pertinent example. For his next public spectacle, Derren has teamed up with Thorpe Park to design an elaborate ghost train. Unlike rides of old, it blends virtual reality with physical props and performances. The result is a strange, unpredictable experience that tries to scare and confound in equal measure.

The build-up

The new ghost train departs in the furthest corner of the park, inside an enormous warehouse that's been made to look like an old railway depot. As you enter the queue and meander through its twists and turns, you'll get a taste of the story that loosely connects each part of the ride. A company called Sub Core has been drilling into the Earth for some kind of new, fantastical energy resource. Crumpled posters plastered on walls hint at a rising backlash; they're bright and bold, with phrases such as "leave the bad stuff underground" and "no water, no future, no fracking."

The closer you get to the entrance, the more apparent it is that something has gone horribly wrong. You walk through two contamination checkpoints separated from the main building. One has you staring at a red dot, while a deluge of seemingly random images are portrayed on a screen. Another asks you to rest your head on a small stand while your face is "scanned" for signs of infection. (These pictures are actually used for the inevitable photo tie-in at the end of the ride.)

Before you step into the second room, you'll see a poster which explains the known symptoms of infection. In typical horror movie fashion, it starts with the eyes; victims present a mildly bloodshot gaze, followed by constricted pupils and finally a white, sickly pair of irises. At each stage, the infected become more aggressive and dangerous.

Eventually you'll be led inside the warehouse, where a Victorian train carriage is suspended in mid-air. It's an impressive centerpiece, and throws up an obvious question: why an old train carriage, rather than a modern one? After all, the posters outside suggest a near-future setting where companies are capable of penetrating the planet's core. Maybe it's misdirection, or simply a nod to traditional ghost trains. Either way, you'll have more questions when you step inside -- almost everything, from the seats to the overhead advertising, has been made to look like a regular London Tube carriage. It's like you've just stepped onto the Jubilee line.

Look closer and you'll notice the ads are the antithesis of the posters from outside. They promote "Pure Energy" and other aspirational products, with little sign of the public resentment hinted at before. Hanging above each seat is a HTC Vive headset, modified slightly with headphones and spongy straps to make it easier for people to slip on. Stewards will rush you into a seat and encourage you to put on your "mask," which will, they say, protect you from infection. It's a simple, but clever way of incorporating the hardware into the ride and overarching story.

The first VR experience

There are two VR sequences during the ride. Both take place in a virtual version of the Tube carriage -- the idea being that the horrors are happening right in front of you. You can look around, but you can't stand up or walk anywhere. It's a passive experience, but that's okay given the scares are designed to keep you rooted to your seat. Each passenger gets a slightly different VR experience -- in my run-through, an old lady boarded the train with her dog and told me to be careful while underground. A few minutes later the train stopped abruptly and the doors opened, allowing a fully infected zombie to clamber aboard.

In this section, the characters are portrayed using photogrammetry -- a modelling technique that combines photography and LIDAR, the laser-based equivalent of radar. So while the carriage has been drawn and built like a video game, the actors appear as flat, hologram-like projections. The technique, while unusual, works because you're sat in one spot, minimising the opportunities to turn and notice their non-existent depth. The sequence I saw was also shown through a green "night vision" filter, which helped cover up some rough edges. The advantage of photogrammetry is, arguably, that the characters look scarier and a little more believable than anything you might encounter in a video game.

Some other smart techniques help elevate the tension. The lights inside the Tube carriage (portrayed in VR, that is) will flicker during dramatic moments, stripping your vision. At the same time, some of the ride's staff -- dressed as train stewards -- will be standing inside the Tube carriage and watching your viewpoint on screens mounted overhead. As the zombie stumbles toward you, they'll reach out and brush your leg to accentuate the moment. Then, as a climactic finale, the lights will suddenly turn back on, revealing the intruder a few inches from your face.

Before you can meet a presumably grizzly death, the train will physically lurch to a halt. Actors will ask you to take the headset off and disembark, where a modern Tube platform awaits. At this point, it's easy to get disorientated. Weren't you inside a warehouse before? And a Victorian train carriage? The answer to both is yes. While Thorpe Park is holding on to some of the ride's secrets, you're obviously in the same train carriage, merely decorated in two different styles. The side you board on is dimly lit, hiding what's on the other side. It's a clever piece of trickery.

The second VR experience

There's little time to appreciate the ride's construction, however. Staff will guide you off the platform and into what looks like a Tube tunnel. Here, you're attacked by a handful of infected; human actors approach from different sides and smoke (or is it gas?) gushes out from one end of the tunnel. Train drivers and construction workers will call out with megaphones, pointing to a door that takes you back to the Tube platform.

All told, this section only lasted a few minutes, but I also found it to be one of the most frightening. My group was a screaming and shrieking mess, pushing and pulling one another to avoid the zombie threat. It's hard not to be caught up in the panic, proving that even the best virtual experiences can be trumped by a decent bit of makeup and theatre.

Back on the train, you'll be asked to wear the headset again. What follows is an ambitious reach at Hollywood spectacle -- long, angular monsters begin to tear at the Tube carriage, revealing a cityscape that's fallen into decay. The ground is crumbling, magma is rising and eventually the train is derailed, falling towards the Earth's core and into a fiery oblivion. It's a thrilling sequence, but not a particularly scary one. The monsters feel like crude caricatures ripped from a five-year-old video game. They clamber over the carriage and stare you down, but there's no sense of presence -- like a 4D movie shown at theme parks, it's all style and no substance.

The team behind it all

Derren Brown's ghost train was put together by Figment Productions, a company specialising in video, software development, CGI and 3D animation. In the past they've done a little bit of independent filmmaking, but the bulk of their business revolves around visitor attractions. Merlin Entertainment, the owner of Thorpe Park, is one of its biggest clients, however the company has also done installations for the Chelsea FC Museum and Manchester Central Library. It also worked on Galactica, a rollercoaster at Alton Towers that uses the Samsung Gear VR headset to enhance the experience.

The ride has been years in making. Merlin, Figment and Derren worked through thousands of prototypes, testing and scrapping ideas that weren't effective. At one point, for instance, Figment was using polygonal characters and facial motion capture for the first VR sequence. It looked like a "triple-A video game," which, while technically impressive, didn't feel believable enough to the team. "We want to blur the line with reality," Reveley says. "So it wasn't acceptable for us to even be at a triple-A game level with the characters."

Another concern was the ride's accessibility. With a traditional video game, or a more elaborate VR experience, players can take their time to look around and learn the controls. The ghost train is a more passive experience, but that's by design -- Figment wanted the ride to be fast and immediately accessible. If everyone spent the first 15 minutes adjusting their headset and gazing down the carriage, Thorpe Park would have huge queues and many disgruntled visitors. That's partly why the Vive headsets have been modified -- the wide, elasticated straps mean you can pull everything on, headphones included, with one quick tug.

The ride is short and during its runtime, there are specific moments and characters the team want you to see. While you have the freedom to look wherever you like, it was vital that the VR experience include some subtle nudges and cues. "We spent a lot of time looking at the 'ramp' in terms of what we need from you, the viewer," Reveley says. "When we need you to look around a lot, when we need you to react to things. People need to get it immediately so that when they come out after 10 or 15 minutes, they all go 'yeah that was great,' rather than 'I'm annoyed because it didn't really work for me.'"

A ride worth taking

Derren Brown's ghost train is a unique VR experience and an exhilarating theme park ride. The story is unoriginal though; a patchwork of zombie movie tropes awkwardly stitched together. You'll leave with more questions than answers: So what was the point of the Victorian train carriage at the beginning? It's never truly explained. A mystery to dwell on, and one that probably doesn't have an answer. Regardless, the ride is a thrill. There were moments when I felt scared, moments when I felt tense and moments when a huge grin was etched across my face. As a piece of entertainment, it certainly succeeds.

But as a Derren Brown experience, I felt a little underwhelmed. Many that watch his live performances leave the theatre dumbfounded. There's a sense of the otherworldly, of the magical -- Derren is the first to admit he has no supernatural powers, relying instead on psychological tricks and showmanship. But even then, it's hard to comprehend what he's able to achieve. Sometimes he'll explain his methods, and even then I'm left feeling skeptical or amazed -- he played nine professional chess players simultaneously, and beat half, by remembering all of their moves and playing them against each other? It boggles the mind.

Virtual reality, meanwhile, is a medium I'm now familiar with. I know its strengths and limitations. What developers have been able to achieve using a wraparound display and room-scale motion-tracking. So what was shown, while enjoyable, didn't feel quite so fantastical; so unbelievable. It's probably why I was more impressed with the construction of the ride and how you pass through it. Before boarding the train, I had no idea it would later lead to a Tube platform and a gloomy tunnel system. I didn't expect to be so terrified by the human actors and their exceptional performances. Everything kept me guessing.

Perhaps I'm an unfair test subject. Someone that knew every trick before the magician could perform them. If you've never tried VR -- especially a high-end headset like the Vive -- the ghost train will be a revelatory experience. The sense of immersion is brilliant and the jump scares are likely to draw a few screams -- if not from you, then your fellow passengers. The other sections are a mixed bag, however. I liked the modern Tube platform, the tunnels and being chased by human actors. The second VR sequence felt out of place though, an attempt at popcorn movie action when smaller, subtler scares would have been better.

I'm left wondering just how much involvement Derren had with the ride. Thorpe Park and Figment say he was always in the loop, giving feedback on the VR sequences and the ride's physical construction. But it's hard to see his trademark genius here. There's no grand reveal at the end. Nothing that explains what you were feeling, or acts upon those feelings to do something new. It's a flashy but ultimately hollow experience.

Still, it's an interesting experiment in blending VR and live action. The ride is unique and the way it incorporates the Vive feels both natural and justified. It's not an afterthought, or something that was tacked on to refresh a stagnating rollercoaster.Indeed, the attraction shows how VR and its immersive nature can be mixed in with more traditional and theatrical forms of escapism. A future where the line between virtual and physical reality is near-indistinguishable could make for some truly terrifying and dream-like rides, where the user can never be sure of what they're seeing. A psychological experience like that? Now that would be worthy of the Derren Brown name.

[Experience images courtesy of Thorpe Park]

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