“The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be? —it is the same the angels breathe.”
– Mark Twain, Roughing It, Chapter XXII, 1886

In my mind, I’m a free bird (no relation to Lynyrd Skynyrd), soaring over San Francisco’s Coit Tower, the wind blowing in my face, not a care in the world. In reality, my meat body is half a mile away at Swissnex, perched atop Birdly at the Swissnex grand opening a few weeks ago.

Max Rheiner, Zurich University of the Arts
Max Rheiner, Zurich University of the Arts

Birdly is a multisensory virtual reality experience, crafted by Max Rheiner and his team at the Zurich University of the Arts. The player lays atop a custom table that supports their chest, hips, legs, and arms. It’s not exactly comfortable, but it’s not uncomfortable, either, and is acceptable for the duration of the experience. The player’s head is is left free in order to accommodate the Rift. Arms are placed across boards which act as wings and slotted underneath a bracket that allows the player to pull up on the wing; the start button is also positioned on the bracket.

14849335053_cc9c4dbaec_bLike many VR experiences, birdly is one of those things that’s more easily seen than described. For the first time since I’ve been writing about VR, I was initially self-conscious about how I must look to the collection of strangers in the room, sprawled on this contraption. That concern dissipated after about 10 seconds once my mind starting soaking in the experience.

The simulation runs atop the Unity engine, with the birdly rig itself appearing as a USB device dropped into the game. PLW Modelworks was kind enough to lend the team a model of downtown San Francisco so participants could soar over familiar territory.

It took a little time, safely hundreds of feet above San Francisco, to become accustom to my new body. The control scheme is intuitive, and even people without flight experience should quickly pick up on how to operate the surfaces. Want to go up? Rotate your wrists backwards to create lift. Want to bank to the left? Lower your left arm and raise your right. Flap your arms to gain speed. Beside feeling the table pitch and roll and tip in response to what’s happening in VR, the design team created a multisensory experience with the inclusion of a fan, which speeds up the faster you go, and an olfactory module (Flying over forest? It should smell like trees!), though unfortunately the latter wasn’t in operation the time.

Brian smiles after a crash landing
Brian smiles after a crash landing

Once I was comfortable in my new body, I did a nose-dive towards the buildings below, feeling the wind pick up in my face, soaring down streets with buildings to my left and right. Turning corners was a breeze. Later, I flapped my arms to gain altitude, and practiced steep turns near Coit Tower. Sensing my time in the simulation was almost over, I attempted to land, despite being informed that landing hasn’t been built-in to the game yet. I crashed, of course, and my view faded to black.

Birdly team member Fabian Troxler shares more:

It’s always exciting to see people pushing the limits of what VR means, whether it be with fashion, real estate, health, ingenious control experiments like Birdly, or hundreds of other examples. VR offers the immersive environment for creative developers to craft wonderful experiences. Our thanks to the Birdly team and Swissnex for inviting us to check out the system.

About Swissnex (from their web site): Swissnex San Francisco is a platform for the exchange of knowledge and ideas in science, education, art, and innovation. Through our public events and study tours, we highlight the best of Swiss and North American ingenuity and create opportunities for networking among our diverse group of professional contacts in the San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and beyond. We offer workspace in the heart of downtown San Francisco and the resources to help international guests, start-ups, university outposts, entrepreneurs-in-residence, and other visitors succeed.

This article may contain affiliate links. If you click an affiliate link and buy a product we may receive a small commission which helps support the publication. See here for more information.