I rode half of the world’s longest zipline in virtual reality

I’ve had a lot of virtual reality experiences over the last five or so years, but there has been nothing like flying off the edge of a platform 35 meters in the air and hurtling 30mph down a zipline with a Samsung Gear VR strapped to my face.

I was offered the opportunity to head down to London’s Archbishops Park to zipline on the world’s longest and fastest city-centre zip wire, and I jumped at the chance.

Soon after – mostly because my TechRadar colleagues made me realize how mad the concept was – I realized how terrifying that moment of jumping off could be. But there was no getting out of it now, I had to go through with it.

After a quick safety briefing, I was harnessed up and marched to the top of the zipline to understand what the normal experience is like without a virtual reality headset on my face.

Nerve wracking, sure, but it was nothing like what was set to come. On the second run I would be using the Samsung Gear VR. 

It was a modified version of the headset with the plastic casing from the front removed and some super secure bungee ropes holding in a Samsung Galaxy S7 so it wouldn't fall down and smash on someone's head. I was then asked to put it on at the top of the 35 meter tall tower for my second ride.

While climbing the stairs to the top, my instructor Rory explained how he felt when first trying the virtual reality experience.

“It felt fine, and I wasn’t queasy… it was just disorientating.” One of his colleagues at Zip Now, who had also done the experience before, overheard our chat and shouted out, “Remember to sit down at the end though.”

Sickness is something we’ve all come to accept within virtual reality experiences but I haven’t felt ill in VR since late 2016 when first trying out PlayStation VR and the game Robinson: The Journey. But I’d also not traveled at 30 miles per hour in virtual reality before.

The first picture in my mind was the idea of vomiting over the top of the tennis courts I’d previously swung over when riding the zipline for the first time. The image of covering the Wimbledon-inspired players with my lunch made me even more nervous, but luckily that didn’t come to pass.

After taking a few photos, I was shuffled toward the edge and connected up to the line and prepared to go. Once the VR headset was on, that was it - no turning back now. The only way back is on a long piece of wire at speed.

Samsung Gear VR doesn’t have cameras on the front like the HTC Vive Pro, so once it's down over your eyes there's no way of telling where you are in the real world. I had to follow Rory’s voice for clear instructions to get to the edge.

I put my faith in Rory’s voice, as all I could see in the headset was the default virtual reality apartment that’s standard when you boot up Samsung’s portable headset. I told to sit down on one of the steps less than two meters away from the end of the platform.

Suddenly the wind got a lot stronger, or I was just more perceptive of how high I was sat.

Then I was on my own. I had to point the VR headset at the 4K video waiting for me, tap on the side and wait for the three second countdown to complete. I pressed the button and the next three seconds went by in a flash.

If I hesitated after it told me to jump, the video would just go ahead anyway and resetting the headset would mean holding up the queue of paying customers stood behind me. That was it – I had to jump.

I had that slight moment of panic as I set off and the rope became taught. Suddenly I had the surreal moment of being transported to a gorge full of sand in the United Arab Emirates. 

Samsung's Gear VR isn't the highest resolution experience, so it didn't feel totally like I was hurtling down the Jebel Jais Flight - the world's longest zipline - but it was a totally different experience to my first journey down.

I immediately span around to see the people who'd just set me off on the platform in the UAE and I traveled across the top of the gorge. My eyeline was immediately attracted to looking down to how high I was.

This zipline is a lot higher than the one traveling over tennis courts in London, and my stomach dropped as I looked out over the UAE's landscape that was far below me at this stage.

The experience just uses a 360-degree video recording of someone else riding the line, but as this isn't the dual longest zipline in the world the recording does cut short.

It means you won't reach the virtual reality end of the Jebel Jais Flight, which feels a touch disappointing that you won't finished the whole journey. Instead, you'll come to a halt with a small piece of the UI in the headset warning you that you're nearing the end of your journey so you can brace yourself.

Somehow the video ended at the exact same moment as it was meant to, but if you're heavier or lighter than me you'll likely come down faster or even a touch slower.

This is by far the most terrifying experience I've had in virtual reality, and while I won't be clamoring to jump out of a plane or parasailing with a Samsung Gear VR on my face.

You can now ride the VR zipline at Zip Now in Archbishop's park in London and is open now everyday until September 9, 2018. 

James Peckham

James is Managing Editor for Android Police. Previously, he was Senior Phones Editor for TechRadar, and he has covered smartphones and the mobile space for the best part of a decade bringing you news on all the big announcements from top manufacturers making mobile phones and other portable gadgets. James is often testing out and reviewing the latest and greatest mobile phones, smartwatches, tablets, virtual reality headsets, fitness trackers and more. He once fell over.