You are dangling like bait at the end of a 22-foot-long robotic arm, and it looks and feels exactly like you're zooming through space. It's tempting to gaze at distant planets, except that an asteroid as big as a house is hurtling toward you. Just before impact, you blast it with a phaser cannon while executing a series of buttery barrel rolls to avoid the debris. The asteroid bits pelt your ship, rattling you to the marrow. Then, without warning, you're sucked through the blackness of a wormhole–back into reality.
This is the future of the roller coaster, as told by a jolly 46-year-old Brit named Gino De-Gol, founder of an unusual company called RoboCoaster. What fuels his ambitious vision is a belief that the all-American icon of thrill, circa 2005, is fundamentally a one-trick pony. “You are stuck on a track, you know exactly where you are going, and the ride is always the same,” De-Gol says in mock exasperation. What he has in mind is a hybrid ride, one that combines the high G-forces of today´s coasters, the computer-generated trickery of virtual-reality simulators and, eventually, the interactivity of videogames. Propelled through a snaking series of domed theaters, riders will swing far out into a computer-generated universe to come face-to-face with aliens, navigate a pulmonary artery or, if they´re so inclined, chase butterflies through the forest.
In 2002, two years after quitting his engineering job at KUKA Robotics, Europe´s largest industrial-robot manufacturer, De-Gol wowed the amusement industry when he installed the world´s first passenger-certified robot at Legoland in Denmark. His innovation? He attached a double-seated chair to the end of a KR 500—a 5,000-pound aluminum robotic arm more commonly found lifting Mercedes-Benz engines so they can be spot-welded. The arm´s six joints allow it to move any which way imaginable. Using a touchscreen, riders built their own thrills, choosing among barrel rolls, corkscrews and inversions. But with the robot bolted to the floor, De-Gol says, his first RoboCoaster was "more like a really wild bull ride."