Flying like a bird is awkward – and exhilarating

Reporter Elizabeth Preston tries out Birdly.
Reporter Elizabeth Preston tries out Birdly.

Creator Max Rheiner calls his virtual-reality flying device, Birdly, “the happy machine” because of how exhilarated it makes people. It’s also an awkward machine. Before I can take my turn flying like a bird, I have to shimmy face-down onto a padded platform and strap on a bulky headset. Then I stretch my arms out and flap like crazy.

Once the simulation starts, though, I stop worrying about the ungainly pose I’m presenting to the people around me, both those waiting to use the machine and any curious passersby outside the window. There’s whistling in my ears and a fan blowing a breeze at my face. I’m soaring over New York City.

Birdly is the first virtual-reality device to be demonstrated at Le Laboratoire Cambridge, a culture lab in Kendall Square. This week, anyone who wants to virtually soar through the air can test out the simulator like I am.

“I was always quite fascinated with flying,” Rheiner says. A media artist and lecturer at Zurich University of the Arts, Rheiner worked with two collaborators to create the first Birdly prototype in spring 2014. Rheiner had experimented with hobbies like paragliding and drone flying, but for his virtual-reality device he wanted people to experience flight under their own power. “Flying is one of the oldest dreams of humankind,” he says. “We wanted to make the dream come true.”

It takes more muscle to propel myself than I remember from my own dreams. Following instructions I was given ahead of time, I steer between the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Tilting my hands lets me bank, climb, or dive (with a little stomach lurch). I was assured that if I crash into a building the simulation will start over, but the controls make it easy to fly safely.

I see water in the distance and consider flapping out to sea, but veer right over a Lion King billboard instead. The other people in the room can see what I’m seeing projected on a screen behind me. From the real world, I hear a voice tell me to look at my wings. I turn my head all the way to each side and see feathers where the ends of my arms should be.

Too soon, it’s over. The simulation ends after two minutes of flying, and my goggles come off. I clamber down from the machine, a little disoriented and off balance. I don’t remember ever having to land in a dream. But in real life, it feels like I just stepped off a boat.

Rheiner says avoiding nausea has been a major concern in making Birdly. The creators wanted the experience to feel natural — although naturally, humans don’t fly. So instead they’ve tried to make users inhabit the body of a bird, specifically a red kite. Rheiner says the technologies I’ve just seen aren’t new, but Birdly pushes virtual reality to new places by combining those technologies to create a total sensory experience.

Well, almost total. When Le Laboratoire Cambridge founder David Edwards first talked to Rheiner about bringing Birdly to Massachusetts, he hoped to incorporate the sense of smell. Exhibits at “Le Lab” showcase the intersection of art and science, so Birdly was a natural fit. Additionally, Edwards and Le Lab are part of the team behind oNotes, a digital scent product launching in April 2016. The oNotes app will let people play scent tracks, like soundtracks of fragrances, from a device in their homes or cars. In the end, though, Edwards and Rheiner didn’t have time to build smells into the Birdly installation.

Birdly will be at Le Lab for just four days, December 2 to December 5. It’s free to try, but visitors need to come in person to schedule same-day appointments. The installation is supported by swissnex Boston, an organization that aims to connect Switzerland and North America.