Fly like a Red Kite with Birdly
by Rob Rothfarb • August 18, 2014
Who needs a flying car when you can take flight with your own wings? A team from the Zurich University of the Arts touched down at the Exploratorium at After Dark on August 7th, 2014 with Birdly, their interactive 3D full-body virtual reality experience in which visitors flew through a 3D model of San Francisco, embodying a virtual Red Kite, a bird of prey similar to a hawk, using full-motion controls powered by their arms and hands. At the science fiction-themed event, virtual flyers lay face down in the Birdly aparatus, arms extended along flappable wing controls with hands strapped into pedals that allow vertical lift and banking, simulating the function of primary flight feathers. A three degree of freedom motion platform powers the simulation, allowing flyers to feel the gravity-defying effect of controlled flight. With stereoscopic 3D visual system by Oculus Rift, the experience brings you as close to the experience of flying as you can safely get–without leaving the ground. The immersive simulation includes stereo audio and wind effect feedback to heighten the airy experience.
The unique exhibit was developed in 2014 at the Zurich University of the Arts with support from Birdlife Switzerland and brought to San Francisco by swissnex and Swiss International Airlines. PLW Modelworks provided the 3D model of San Francisco and of other cities that the simulation can be configured to use.
I asked Max Rheiner, who co-developed Birdly, what the inspiration was to build the experience.
“People are interested in the dream of flying” he said, and that the team wanted to create a sensation where “you are the bird.” They wanted to engage different senses that humans have, so the platform moves to physically allow you to feel a change in orientation. The VR goggles give a HD stereoscopic, IMAX-like field of view. Headphones and subwoofers give audio feedback as you fly. A fan on the motion platform allows you to feel wind on your skin. The faster you fly, the more wind on your face. He and team are adding another feature to Birdly–olfactory sense stimulation, which will waft smells of the locale you fly through to your nose.
Full throttle flying with Birdly
What happens if you collide with an object while flying? Max said that “you can hit something but you don’t feel it, it’s just a little jarring visually.” During my chance to use Birdly, I ended up exceeding some flight parameters and unceremoniously crashed during my flight amidst the skyscrapers of downtown SF. No bruising fortunately, and an easy restart had me soaring again in a minute!
Fabian Troxler, another Birdly developer, said that participants so far have experienced a low rate of simulator sickness, an uncomfortable sensation which can include dizziness and nausea that is sometimes experienced in 3D motion simulations. He believes this is presumably due to the the degree that the simulator’s physical motion matches the visual updates and also the flyer’s control of their view of the horizon. The Birdly team worked hard to achieve this close match between inclination in motion and what’s being seen.
Ken Fox, a video game designer who came to the Exploratorium to experience Birdly, said “it felt “really immersive… these guys are right on the edge.”
Raj Gokol and Shivani Bhargava also came to After Dark to take Birdly for a ride. After her flight, Shivani said “it felt really exhilarating diving down into the city…I was in control.” Raj added, “I can’t wait to see where this goes!”
Birdly at After Dark
Coit Tower Flyby