Flights of Fancy

Birdly, a first-of-its-kind flying simulator, is part of The Tech’s newest exhibit, Reboot Reality, opening May 2017.

Here’s Max Rheiner’s greatest magic trick: He took a table, a fan, some paddles and a VR headset — and brought humanity’s oldest dream to life.

Rheiner, the head of the Master of Arts in Interaction Design program at the Zurich University of the Arts, is the inventor of Birdly, a virtual reality experience that captures the feeling of flight. Users lie on a table that tilts and dives. With their arms in wing-like paddles, they steer virtual avatars through the sky, exploring open expanses and cosmopolitan cityscapes. A fan controls the whoosh of a dive bomb and the gentle breeze of a leisurely glide.

And now Birdly has come to roost at The Tech, the first institution to offer Rheiner’s invention a forever home.

It’s the kind of idea that could only be born with equal parts technology and art, so it’s no surprise to learn that Rheiner has a foot in both worlds.

Max Rheiner, senior lecturer at the Zurich University of the Arts

Made @ The Tech: When did you first become interested in virtual reality?

Max Rheiner: It started in 1989 when I read “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace. From there I got really involved in thinking about virtual spaces. I had coded since I was a kid and had programmed games and graphics. Virtual reality was a perfect combination. VR was one of the reasons I went from electronics into art school in 1998.

Made: Why did you choose bird flight as the experience to capture with VR?

Rheiner: Flying is humanity’s oldest dream, they say. For myself, I’ve done paragliding, and I’ve liked using aerial drones. I also teach interactive design at Zurich University of the Arts. These are interactions that are going over the normal boundaries of keyboard and mouse. I’m interested in virtual reality and full-body immersions. So flying for me was the ideal case, because flying as an experience would engage the entire body — not just the eyes.

Made: Has your background combining science and art made you a better engineer and artist?

Rheiner: As an engineer your perspective is, you have a problem, and you want to solve the problem. But in the arts, it’s sort of the opposite. You start with an idea, and the whole thing explodes and goes off in different directions. Sometimes in engineering you have to watch out that you don’t only think in the terms of problems and solutions. In art and design you think in a way of, what’s possible?

Made: What were some of the design challenges with the Birdly project?

Rheiner: There were really a lot of them. Flight simulators are the oldest simulators we have, going back to the first World War. Morton Helig’s Sensorama also had all of these kinds of elements, so the idea was not really new.

But a challenge unique to Birdly was to morph the human anatomy to a bird and feel like you can fly very intuitively. It sounds simple, maybe. But design-wise you have to find out the ergonomics. How do you lay on the table? What kind of movement makes you sick? What kind of action triggers the ideal feeling of the virtual reality experience?

All the aspects on their own may not be overwhelming, but you have to address every element of the experience. I always bring this up to my students: Virtual reality is like a house of cards. You can do everything very nicely, and it may look great, but the weakest part destroys the whole card house.

Made: What have been some of your favorite reactions from people who have experienced Birdly?

Rheiner: It’s the reaction most people have when they get off the Birdly, they take off the glasses, and they just smile. They don’t rationalize the experience; they just enjoy it. People really smile and feel free. I talk with my colleagues: Why is it that everyone gets a smile? Does the act of flying make you happy? A subconscious memory of being free from all danger?

Made: What is a possible application for VR that you are excited for?

Rheiner: Education has high potential for virtual reality and augmented reality. When we talk about virtual reality, most of us think about entertainment and gaming. But education can profit massively, if you can have students learn more applied theoretical stuff in an environment that will capture their attention. As we’ve seen with Google Earth in VR, even geography becomes so much more interesting because it goes out of the dry, textbook environment and into the world.