I was strapped into Birdly, a full-body flight simulator designed to make you forget you’re not a bird. “Press the red buttons and pump your arms to start soaring again,” said Max Rheiner, the Swiss artist responsible for my in-flight experience this week at Swissnex. (Birdly flew here from its birthplace at the Zurich University of the Arts.) The reason that Rheiner could make this simulator now, and not 20 years ago when he first dreamed of helping humans feel like birds, is the arrival of the Oculus Rift. The Rift is the first virtual reality headset with two key features: It’s cheap, and it doesn’t make you want to vomit. Now that there’s a way to provide accurate head-tracking at low enough latency to prevent motion sickness, people who were raised on the promise of virtual reality are starting to experiment.
At first the designers of Birdly took the dream a bit too literally and used a physics engine to model airflow around virtual wings. But it turns out to be hard for humans to fly like an actual bird, learning to flap their wings at the right angle and catch thermals to spiral up. To simulate the effortlessness of dream flight, Rheiner made the interface more metaphorical and intuitive. By twisting your arm you control the pitch of the wing: Tip up to soar higher, and tip down to dive. Catch the air with one hand to bank. To climb faster, you can vigorously pump both wings. Pistons provide realistic resistance, and a fan is calibrated to make the windspeed match your virtual velocity.
It’s admittedly a bit awkward to climb onto Birdly. You bend over a padded frame, strap on a tight headset and headphones, then hook your hands into wooden wings. But then the screen flips on and you find yourself floating above the city, watching your bird-shadow drifting across the rooftops. If you crane your neck, you can see your brown feathers ruffling in the breeze. After a few seconds, flying feels natural.
the experience will soon include smells. Rheiner, working with a Dutch fragrance designer, built a rig to emit little pumps of scented alcohol as you fly. But a realistic cityscape has to include hot asphalt and car exhaust, and it’s tricky to deliver a whiff of those that won’t knock you out of the sky.
While Rheiner’s team was aiming for art, there might also be a future in travel and fitness. Imagine spending an afternoon flying through the Grand Canyon—a beautiful trip, and if you need to flap your wings the whole time to stay aloft, a serious work out. Before a walk to your basement can replace a helicopter ride in Hawaii, though, a compendium of detailed 3-D maps would be required. Promisingly, Google Earth sent 20 people to visit Birdly last week.
An interface like Birdly’s could some day be used to fly a real drone in realtime, says Rheiner. You could fly wherever you want and see what’s happening there right now, no mapping necessary.
A stereoscopic view of Coit Tower, as rendered on the screen of an Oculus Rift. Internal lenses correct the distortion to produce a 3-D experience