I have worn a lot of different HTC Vive headsets. I enjoy the design, but setting the headset up the first time so it fits you just right can be a little on the tedious side. Which is one of several reasons I was a little uncertain when I heard Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia was going to be filling a room full of many Vive headsets for its latest attraction, Battle for Eire. If the headset takes a while to set up, it means getting people on and off the ride is going to take longer than most other rides in a theme park. Longer wait times seldom translate to a totally positive experience, which could have meant this new VR-based experience was short-lived.
Fortunately for everyone involved, a unique new head strap was built for this version of the Vive to make getting the headset on and off incredibly smooth and fast. In fact, it's so well done I would happily buy this as a mod for my Vive at home.
What you see here is actually two separate pieces which come together to form a fairly standard-looking VR headset design. The front is all HTC Vive, same as you can buy in a store. The back, where the green plastic the ride refers to as the "Emerald Mask" sits, is actually a totally separate piece. When you queue up for the ride, you pick up the Emerald Mask from one of the racks. While you wait in line you fit it to your head and make sure it's comfortable. Then, when you take a seat on the ride, the Vive part of the headset is in a dock next to your head. To connect the two pieces, all you need to do is touch the two halves together.
Three powerful magnets connect to the steel circles on the front of the Emerald Mask, and as soon as you hear that click the headset feels firmly attached. When I shook the headset back and forth it felt as stable as any other HTC Vive I've worn, which was incredible. This ride is a seated experience, so there wasn't a lot of opportunities to get up and spin around, but when the ride was over I needed to pull with a fair bit of force to disconnect the two halves. As I left the room, there was a place to put the Emerald Mask part of the headset for cleaning. According to Busch Gardens VP or Engineering Larry Giles, this part of the headset is sterilized in much the same way a set of 3D glasses for some of their other attractions is cleaned before returning to the rack.
When asked how this design came to be I was introduced to Mark Stepanian, Director of Technical Services at Dreamcraft Attractions. According to Mark, this head strap is the result of nearly two years of testing across 10 headset revisions. The goal was to make the headset lightweight, easy to take on and off, and fit as many different head sizes as possible. The resulting strap can be easily adjusted to form a nice grip on your occipital bone to help balance the weight, which is surprisingly similar to the design HTC is now using in the HTC Vive Pro and HTC Vive Focus headsets. The fairly minimalist padding is the result of the material needing to survive the intensely hot sterilization machine used at Busch Gardens, but even with such a small padded area, the headset was more than comfortable enough to handle the ride.
Battle for Eire will open at Busch Gardens Williamsburg sometime in April, and if you're a VR fan it's worth going just to see how neat this headset strap is. But just in case you need a little more, the ride itself is also pretty great.
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