© Play HunterStart slideshow Ms Hunter flying Birdly in the physical computing lab at Zurich University of the Arts 1/9
© Birdly/Pictometry International/PLW Modelworks2/9 Manhattan seen from a red kite's eye view.
© Birdly/Pictometry International/PLW Modelworks3/9 Approaching Chrysler Building.
© Birdly /Pictometry International/PLW Modelworks4/9 Banking hard around Chrysler...
© Birdly /Pictometry International/PLW Modelworks5/9 Diving into the skyscraper gorges is a truly mind blowing experience.
© Birdly /Pictometry International/PLW Modelworks6/9 Inhale. Exhale. Continue to fly.
© Play Hunter7/9 You don't want to take the VR goggles off ever again. Except...
© Play Hunter8/9 ...after accidentally crashing into a Swiss aircraft.
© Play Hunter9/9 Max Rheiner, creator & developer of Birdly.
Ahead of me lies the monolithic Manhattan skyline. Beyond, sea and horizon dissolve into a glittering blue. I dive into the skyscraper gorges. My mind goes instantly mental. Vision turns into sludge. My heart skips a beat, or two. After a few seconds, the system calms and readjusts. I bank hard round a skyscraper and soar up again. Inhale. Exhale. Continue to fly. A flock of birds passes by. I hear nothing but the flapping of wings. Wind blows into my face. It’s a new sensation, it blows my mind. When I look to the left I can see the black-brown tips of my wings. I am a red kite in New York. This is not a dream. I’m on my maiden flight with Birdly, a full-body flight simulator.
But my two minutes of bliss are over way too soon. Back in reality, I lie face down and strapped to a kind of winged dentist-chair with wings which I have operated with my arms and hands. When I slip off the virtual reality headset and earphones, a black ventilator is fanning out in front of my face. The hydraulic flight lounger is wired to a computer terminal. It is located at Zurich University of the Art’s physical computing lab.
The virtual reality killer-app
Birdly is the world’s first bird-flight simulator. Its creator, interaction designer Max Rheiner wanted to turn the human dream of flying like a bird into an intuitive and sensory experience: “You can’t practise dreams.” After all, we all dream individually. For Rheiner, virtual reality is the ultimate dream machine. Unlike most other VR developers he doesn’t make you vomit by overwhelming your mind with gimmicks and effects, but fires up your imagination. Birdly is the most immersive and purest VR-application currently on the market. Such is the radical intensity of the flight-experience it also has non-techies queuing up for a ride beyond reality:
“The cool thing about Birdly is that we promise people the moon: “fly like a bird” We assumed everyone would be terribly disappointed after the flight. Our claims are pretty steep, after all. But 90% – even many die-hard critics of VR – are swept off their feet after their two minutes on Birdly,” Michel Zai, the CEO und partner of Somniacs tells. The Zurich University of the Arts spin-off, which is currently in the founding process, sets out to ensure the virtual bird continues to fly high ahead of competition and also takes off commercially.
From bird life centre to Silicon Valley
The making of Birdly is Oscar-worthy. It contains all the key elements: gripping storyline, excellent craftsmanship, tenacity, perfect timing and a dash of madness. Born in Barcelona in 1972 and raised in the Rhine Valley village of Diepoldsau in eastern Switzerland, new media Pionier Max Rheiner has been exploring virtual reality since the end of the nineties. The first wave crashes badly because tech is too poorly-conceived, slow and expensive. For a good decade, Rheiner, by now a lecturer at Zurich University of the Arts, tries to convince his work environment about the potential and usefulness of virtual reality – with moderate success. His breakthrough comes in 2013, when a Zurich bird life centre assigns his interaction design team to conceive a bird-flight simulator. The original Birdly is a padded wood-construction. It flies over its virtual habitat of fields, meadows and forests.
On March 25 2014, the day of the official presentation, Facebook announces to buy Oculus Rift. Since Birdly is one of the first fully-immersive applications of the VR-goggles, its teaser video goes viral, drawing over one million views over the weekend. Influential US tech-blogs and media portals pick up the story. Birdly flies to swissnex in San Francisco, Siggraph in Vancouver, Sundance Film Festival 2015. From April 18 to May 17, the red kite simulator nested in the exhibition “Sensory Stories” at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.
The next chapter is being developed by the sleepless maniacs in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, keen to materialise and monetise their fast and feverish dreams in bits and bytes. Merciless can-do euphoria rules: “VR is about to roll over Europe and the rest of the world. The possibilities are simply incredible. At SXWX festival in Austin, Max and I experienced the madness first hand. It felt a bit like 1997 in San Francisco, when the new opportunities of the World Wide Web suddenly turned everything upside down’, Zai mails in-between negotiating business-deals and closing contracts. Back in the nineties, the Somniacs-CEO wrote internet-history with art group etoy whose actions like digital hijack and toywar attracted worldwide publicity.
Everything is possible
It’s quite possible virtual reality will be the next internet, reprogramming the way we tell stories, communicate with each other and move about in the world. It’s also possible Birdly will burn up as a digital Icarus once the hype about VR has ebbed away. But then, Rheiner and Zai are visionaries smart and down-to-earth enough to stay cool in the hot air of Silicon Hollywood.
Birdly is only the beginning. Next up is the serial production for VR-entertainment uses in leisure parks, museums and tourism. Meanwhile, ground crew in Zurich are working on virtual group experiences, the introduction of interactive elements, gamification and on optimising immersion using sensory and olfactory effects.
A new flight. Blue skies, a panoramic view of the snow-covered alps. In the middle the Matterhorn – a mind-blowing sight, even virtually. “Look to the left”, a voice in the off says. A Swiss-aircraft is on direct collision course. I pump the wings as vigorously as I can to climb but make no headway. Everything goes black. “You crashed,” the display flashes.
The next day, I happen to observe two real-life red kites in the wild, diving recklessly into the depths. We can’t even dream of emulating their elegance. But it’s absolutely worthwhile giving the illusion playtime. Even at the risk of crashing.
This article was originally published in German language in The Ecoist.