The moment I climbed onto the Birdly virtual reality flight simulator, put on the Oculus goggles, and flapped my new wings I was hooked.
Yesterday, I tried Virtual Reality for the first time. I think I’m addicted.
I never played SimCity or created a Second Life apart from my daily one. I never owned a Wii or a Kinect. I like being in my body—in control. But the moment I climbed onto the Birdly virtual reality flight simulator, put on the Oculus goggles, and flapped my new wings I was hooked.
Often on nextrends, we report the technology and ideas shaking things up in the San Francisco Bay Area or Silicon Valley; the local trends we foresee taking hold globally. Today, the innovation so obviously poised to lead the way going forward was hatched in Switzerland, at the Zurich University of the Arts, by lecturer Max Rheiner in the Interaction Design department.
This innovation is Birdly, the full body flight simulator that lets you embody a bird, the Red Kite, and journey through a 3D model (in this case of the city of San Francisco) complete with wind, smell, and sound.
The aerial journey only just began in November 2013 when Rheiner was approached by the BirdLife nature center near Zurich to develop a prototype for their anniversary around the theme “fascination with flight.”
As media artist with an interest in out-of-body experiences, he was happy to swoop in. His design research is dedicated to so-called embodiment design. Virtual reality is a big part of that these days. When BirdLife came calling with their challenge, Oculus Rift had just become available, offering a dramatic improvement over other virtual reality goggles on the market. The timing was perfect.
“Since the dawn of humankind, people have dreamt of flying,” says Rheiner.
Few make it a reality in their waking life, though. Base jumpers and skydivers take on risk to seek their thrill. Hobby pilots need significant financial resources to make their dream of flight come true, and even then they are one step removed. They can pilot the plane, but they cannot be the plane.
Birdly changes that. You truly become the bird, soaring and diving at will. Look around and you can see the tips of your wings, the curve of your tail. Lie on the machine in a nearly horizontal position, arms outstretched on wing-shaped paddles, and already you get the sense of a new, flight-ready form.
Control your flight path by small tweaks of your wing position. Lift your torso for a better view. Flap to go faster and higher (it’s a pretty good workout after a few minutes), even feel the wind in your face thanks to a fan and smell the city below with custom scents created by an Amsterdam perfumer.
During my flight, I cruised the familiar streets I usually walk or bike thanks to the virtual city created by PLW Modelworks and Rheiner’s team. I hovered over buildings I know well from below or inside. I passed under the Bay Bridge and made my approach on the Ferry Building from inches above the water of the Bay. It was thrilling. I didn’t want it to end.
Virtual Reality Renaissance
“There’s a virtual reality Renaissance going on right now,” Rheiner remarks as he makes fine adjustments to the simulator before a big public opening at swissnex San Francisco.
That Renaissance was evident at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco back in March, where every other game seemed to use Oculus to bring players into a virtual world. And it was certainly apparent when Facebook bought Oculus (around the same time) for $2 billion.
Of course, virtual reality isn’t new. It’s been around since the 80s and 90s. But the experience of virtual reality has long suffered from a crucial flaw: it made people sick. It seems that when the brain receives information like “you are on a roller coaster” but the body doesn’t physically experience movement, a lot of people feel queasy in response.
New goggles like Oculus help some. And there are other full body virtual experiences out there aside from Birdly that synchronize the brain with the body, which also helps. Racing simulators, for example, move you around on a platform in addition to tricking your visual system into thinking you are actually on a track.
Birdly is one of the rare virtual reality experiences, however, that puts the wearer inside the experience in first person (or first bird). With Birdly, you no longer control a machine like a car or a plane. You embody it. That’s something novel, and it seems likely to extend far beyond this project.
I can imagine virtual reality in all manner of settings, certainly in social media to become virtually present in all of your interactions, as the Facebook acquisition suggests. It’s such a visceral experience, though, that it makes perfect sense for use in training—swimmer but don’t have a pool, for example?—but also for physical therapy and pain management.
Free as a Bird
Thinking back on my Birdly flight, I realize that I stepped off of that machine having experienced something I’d felt only in dreams. The closest I’ve come in reality has been while Scuba diving in those rare moments where you are in complete control, hands clasped together at your belly, using only small movements of your flippers or a change to your head position to guide you along with the currents.
It’s a feeling of freedom bordering on grace. So yeah, I think I’m addicted. Luckily, even after Birdly packs up and heads back to Switzerland, I don’t think it will be long before this kind of simulator becomes widespread.
Birdly test pilot Thomas Tobler, Head of the Design and Modeling Workshop at the Zurich University of the Arts, has flown the machine several times per day since November, at least five days per week. That’s 70 hours at least of flying time. When the team delivered their first two prototypes to BirdLife, he felt a loss. It would take weeks to build the new model for San Francisco.
“I was really anxious to fly again,” he says. Me too. And I only tried it once.