I first heard about Birdly from Brian Kling, a friend and colleague in our Neuchâtel office who tried it out earlier this year at the Lift conference in Geneva. He came back really excited about the exhibit, and his excitement was contagious. Since then I’ve been looking for an opportunity to experience it firsthand. I’m happy to say the opportunity finally presented itself, last week, due in part to a new event being held at Autodesk…
To complement Autodesk’s annual, internal Technical Summit, we’re holding our first Experience Summit (X-Summit) in San Francisco in a few weeks’ time. I’m going to be there to present my own experiences designing UX for VR. Because of my interest in VR, I was also asked a month or so ago if I’d help organise a VR exhibit for the summit – which is being held on the 36th floor of the Grand Hyatt on Union Square – and my first thought was of Birdly. How cool would it be to fly off the 36th floor into a virtual model of San Francisco?
I did a little research and found out that Birdly was in the process of being commercialised by Somniacs.co, a spin-off from Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). I fired an email off to Somniacs, and soon found myself on the phone with Max Rheiner, Birdly’s inventor and head of the Masters programme in Interaction Design at ZHdK. Despite both Max and Somniacs being very accommodating, it didn’t end up working out for the X-Summit, but Max did offer me the chance to try Birdly for myself and to discuss potential future collaborations – relating to CAD-centric interaction design in a virtual space – in Zurich with him.
So it was that on Friday morning I headed across to ZHdK to meet with Max. I recorded a video of me trying Birdly. While Max was able to see what I was seeing on an external screen, I didn’t manage to capture that in the video, so you’re left seeing my reactions to the Birdly experience.
Here’s a quick excerpt I shared on Twitter, in case you don’t have time to watch more:
Here’s the full video:
In the video you’ll see me flying through San Francisco and New York. SF has a fun easter egg where you can fly through a billboard on the side of a skyscraper and end up in the Swiss Alps, complete with a Swiss aeroplane zooming past. Which was kinda weird, considering I was experiencing SF from Switzerland and then ended up back here. :-)
The haptic feedback provided by the hardware is impressive: the rig responds to your movements quickly and the fan accelerates as you dive and your virtual speed increases. When the ride stops you may well feel a touch queasy, but not with the kind of sickness you get from poorly executed VR: it’s more the sensation in your stomach that I imagine you might get from actually flying in this way.
The Birdly experience is powerful, one you can connect with at a deep level, especially if you’ve ever dreamed of flying (and I’m lucky enough to have had a recurring dream about this, albeit infrequently). In fact that’s very much the experience Max was aiming for: while you see feathered wing-tips when you look at your hands (which is too cool), the images you see – delivered by Oculus Rift – are clearly based on the human optical system: Birdly is not an attempt to replicate perfectly the sensation of being a bird. For instance, Max has also deliberately avoided using real physics, because that experience is ultimately underwhelming. Max describes the model they’ve used as “fantasy physics” – tailored to feel much more dream-like and compelling.
Hence the name of company “Somniacs”, which emphasises the dream state they’re working to replicate. And also hints at the fact that Max and his colleagues are maniacs, in the nicest possible way.
It was really interesting talking to Max: he originally started Birdly as an art project – exploring the possibilities related to this style of interaction – but felt under pressure to start commercialising it after its incredibly positive reception at events such as Lift, South by South West and the Sundance Film Festival. So while they hadn’t initially intended to become a commercial start-up, Max and his team are putting a great deal of energy into making Birdly ready for wide-scale use, taking it beyond the current prototype stage.
I wish Max and his fellow Somniacs every success as they proceed with their venture: I look forward to more people being able to experience Birdly for themselves!