If you’ve always dreamed of soaring the skies like a bird, here’s your chance. You can’t fly for real, of course, but you can experience what it feels like thanks to a futuristic virtual simulator called Birdly.
According to the inventor, Swiss artist and software developer Max Rheiner, Birdly stimulates all the user’s senses to give the user a sense of flying, based on human dreams. “People who have dreams about flying, they can just fly without training and they have great feelings,” he said. “We tried to model this experience like those dreams.”
To use the machine, users are required to lie flat on their stomachs with their hands sprawled out. They also strap on special VR goggles that are programmed with real skylines and landscapes of American cities. Tilting the body up and down produces the effect of ascending or diving. The machine even blows wind with the appropriate force and recreates smells that relate to the landscape below. So users experience a salt-air aroma as they fly over the sea, and and industrial odors while gliding over cities.
Birdly started as a research project at the Zurich University of Arts, with Rheiner leading a small group of students. They began experimenting with the virtual reality setup last November, with a simple goal: to embody the experience of flying like a bird through a full-motion simulator. Their biggest challenge was starting with motion-control equipment built from scratch, and tuning it to intuitively match the human understanding of a bird’s flight.
Over six months, Rheiner and his team built and tested several prototypes before finally coming up with the Birdly system. It might go into production pretty soon, although the pricing has not yet been finalized. The makers hope it won’t be used only for entertainment, but during therapy for the disabled as well.
The flying experience Birldy offers is said to be so real that Carrie Fitzsimmons, executive director of Le Laboratoire Cambridge, where the device was on display earlier this month, suffered vertigo while using it. “It’s an immersive experience,” she later said, “and different from any other flight simulators that you would typically use with a joystick. You are actually fulfilling the dream of what it would feel like to be flying.”
The technology is currently touring cities in America, and the response from testers has so far been very positive. Over a 100 waited people stood in line to test the simulator in New York, and organizers actually had to book appointments to manage the crowd. “I’ve always wanted to fly,” said Kip Fenton, an excited tester. “It’s sort of one of those fantasy things where, if I could be an animal, I would be a bird.” His only complaint was that he couldn’t use the machine for long. “I might have been more adventurous if I had known it was going to be that quick. I would pay a hundred bucks to do this for a half-hour.”
“The simulation completely immersed me in the experience of flying, or what my mind believed flying like a bird would be like,” wrote Norman Chang of Tested magazine. “It was almost dream-like. Immersion is achieved through the combination of low-latency head tracking, full-motion feedback (the bed actually tilts on several axes).”
Let’s face it, we all dreamed of flying at least once in our lives, and even though it may never happen in real life, unless you know how to build a working Iron Man suit, at least we may soon have a slightly less pleasurable but still thrilling alternative, thanks to Birdly and virtual reality technology.