Scientists explore theme park thrills

University of Nottingham scientists are helping to capture the essence of excitement with a live experiment that measures the ‘thrill factor’ of riding a rollercoaster.

Volunteers at Alton Towers will be linked up to a heart monitor, accelerometer, face-cam and other monitoring equipment to give a unique insight into their reactions to one of Europe’s biggest rides.

The aim of the rider monitoring system, developed by computer scientists at The University of Nottingham, is to help establish a definitive ‘thrill factor’ across thrill rides worldwide — and help to shape the next generation of rollercoasters.

Volunteer riders on the Oblivion ride — which features a 180ft vertical drop — will be subject to psychological and physiological tests as part of a ‘Thrill Laboratory’ being run at Alton Towers from September 19-21.

Each day, different groups of 24 Oblivion riders will attend the ‘Thrill Laboratory’ for profiling sessions. Each of the three daily personal thrill profiling sessions includes:

* Psychological profiling — using a ‘sensation seeking scale’ to assess the thrill seeking tendencies of each rider.
* A ride on Oblivion, assisted by thrill technicians. Riders create their own personal ride video, which captures facial expressions, audio commentary, heart rate showing patterns of stress, and the G-Forces experienced on the ride.
* A review of riders’ videos in the laboratory, with analysis and discussion conducted by thrill technicians.
* Mug-shot photographs, exploring riders’ ability to lie through facial expressions.
* Spot the difference competition from Oblivion, to assess focus and concentration.
* Creating memory maps of each rider’s emotional journey on Oblivion.
* An exhibition of all thrill dossiers will be available allowing riders to compare themselves against other thrill-seekers with access to statistics from others tests.

Experts at The University of Nottingham’s Mixed Reality Lab (MRL) designed and implemented the biofeedback and recording technology for the ‘Thrill Lab’.

The equipment allows physiological data to be recorded during the ride, including video of people’s faces, audio, heart rate, galvanic skin response and acceleration. Experts at the MRL are also involved in psychological profiling before and after the event.

The MRL is a dedicated studio facility at the University where academics from a wide variety of disciplines collaborate to explore the potential of the latest mobile technology to shape everyday life.

Professor Steve Benford, of the School of Computer Science & IT at The University of Nottingham and one of the MRL’s principal investigators, said: “Our aim is to understand the impact that these rides have on people and to use this to help shape more responsive and exciting rides of the future.”

For this ‘Thrill Lab’ event, Alton Towers is joining forces with the world’s only ‘thrill engineer’, Brendan Walker, a former aeronautical engineer who specialises in the study of emotionally stirring experiences.

Mr Walker, who will be running the three-day event, said: “Genuine thrillseekers only need apply to take part in this experiment at Alton Towers. Oblivion’s success as one of the world’s most exciting rollercoasters relies on a perfect synergy between extreme physical and dark psychological experiences, giving us a unique opportunity to study the science of thrills and shape the future of theme park rides.”

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