For some people, I could imagine, putting on a virtual reality headset and getting strapped into a contraption that lets you fly like a bird could be a a bit terrifying. When, you know, you’re suddenly teleported from our world to a virtual one where you are flying hundreds of feet above Manhattan with nothing but the city below your feet.
That seemed to be the experience of the man in front of me who was strapped into Birdly, the VR bird-flying simulation that is currently on display at Le Laboratoire Cambridge from Wednesday to Saturday evening. As he turned left and right with his wings and occasionally dipped downward, he would let out a yelp or two. A large television behind him showed us what he was seeing, which was literally a bird’s eye view of a virtually constructed Manhattan. He even crashed at one point.
So when it was my turn get to strapped into Birdly, I wondered, would I find this experience a little jarring? Would it make me feel sick, as some VR experiences have been known to do?
Turns out, I was pretty lucky. I didn’t get sick. I wasn’t scared, or even just a little. Most importantly, I had an incredible time, and I was sad when I realized it had come to an end after only four minutes. More specifically, I was sad because even if it was a virtual world, it felt magical.
Birdly’s exhibition at Le Laboratoire comes at a perfect time, just as VR is beginning to make a serious play into the mainstream, with the Samsung Gear VR going on sale and receiving rave reviews in November and The New York Times delivering Google Cardboard VR viewers to 1.2 million of its subscribers the month before. 2016 is already shaping up to be an even bigger year for VR, with the Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR and HTC Vive all set to come out.
Birdly was brought to Le Laboratoire courtesy of Swissnex Boston, an organization that aims to connect Switzerland and North America through science, education, art and innovation with programs like this. The VR contraption was developed by Max Rheiner, a Swiss media artist who is the head of the interaction design master program at Zurich University of the Arts.
After I climbed onto the Birdly contraption and got headphones and an Oculus Rift VR headset strapped onto my head, a virtual Manhattan appeared in front of my eyes, and I could look completely around me as if I was there. The resolution of the Oculus Rift screen was a little blurry, but the overall experience was still convincing enough to make it feel immersive.
When I flapped my wings, it felt extremely natural. I could tilt my wings forward so that I could start diving, and I could then tilt them back up so I could regain my altitude. I could also tilt my wings left or right to change directions. And during this entire time, the Birdly contraption I was laying on top of would move around according to my own movements, creating an even immersive experience. Even better, a fan blowing air in front of me would speed up its turbines if I started to go faster.
I realized I had learned how to control Birdly fairly well in a short amount of time, so I spent most of my time diving down near buildings as if I was a pigeon that had lost its mind. Despite my daredevil stunts, I managed to avoid making any collisions, which made me feel even better about the moves I was making. I can probably chalk up my skill to all those hours of playing video games.
Which brings me to an important point: Because I like playing video games and because I have a general fascination with technology, I am predisposed to embracing new experiences like Birdly. I have tried out different kinds of VR experiences before, so trying out Birdly, by far the most engrossing VR experience I’ve had yet, was not jarring by any means. But for other people unfamiliar with VR, like the man before me, this could be a way to get in front of them and demonstrate the possibilities VR holds for the future.