Insights EDU

Fulfilling the Dream of Human Flight with Virtual Reality

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Aleko Lilly | Head of Business Development | Somniacs

26 Jun 2020 | 4 min read

One of the most challenging aspects of any virtual reality experience is attaining the end user’s sense of reality – achieved only through creating experiences similar to ones they already understand. In an example as simple as walking in VR, the challenge comes with the user’s tendency to focus on any parts of the experience that don’t align with their normal interpretation of walking.

The Birth of Birdly

This problem was even more prevalent during the production of our virtual reality simulator, Birdly®. Birdly® was born in 2013 out of a research project at the Zurich University of Arts; our goal was to create a simulator that bridged the gap between virtual and real, allowing the user to experience a complete feeling of immersion.

We concluded that our immersive vehicle would be human flight. This made sense for two reasons. Firstly, everyone has an idea of what flight might feel like, but no one has any idea what it is actually like to float through the skies on the wings of a bird. Secondly, at the basis of humankind, there is no more deeply rooted desire than to fulfill this dream.

Nevertheless, the work from concept to product has taken a very long time. We pushed through the initial research project in about six-months – more based on an academic timeframe than anything else – and introduced the first prototype Birdly® at the venue of one of our sponsors, Birdlife Sanctuary just outside of Zurich.

Prototype Machine - Human Flight Simulator

From Research Project to Commercial Success

With the introduction of Birdly® we found that we had had great success in attaining our goal. Users were treated to an experience untethered from what they understood of reality that nevertheless felt real. Most often they emerged from their flight with a feeling akin to one they had had in dreams. Moreover, they were able to enjoy the experience in a unique way, without focusing on how it did not match up to expectations, or their lived experience. They could immerse themselves in the world of Birdly® and feel something totally new – a virtual reality that felt real.

What has come since the initial launch of Birdly® and the founding of SOMNIACS, the spin-off startup responsible for commercializing both the simulator and the portfolio of experiences that go with it, has presented additional challenges in keeping these feelings present at all times. 

The initial challenge in bringing this untethered feeling to a market readiness was a technical problem. How do you find, or create, the right manufacturing environment for a machine that needs to be both complex and simple at the same time? And, how do you make sure that you are able to produce the same full-body immersion on a machine that will be used thousands of times in a commercial environment? 

These are often manufacturing hurdles when creating a new product, but the precision required for Birdly®, coupled with its uniqueness, threw up a particular set of challenges that five years later we’re still finding new ways to solve. We have an incredible partner in Zurich that manufactures nearly all of our simulator, but we’re still building our own computers to go in them as well as producing some customized technical parts on our own. It is in fact, quite difficult to find a manufacturer that can do all the things required when combining machinery with technology on this scale.

Current Production Simulator of human flight experience

Our second major challenge revolved – and still revolves around the custom content we create. With a unique operating system, Birdly® experiences require a unique set of parameters to develop. But beyond this, we are constantly answering the ongoing question of how to ensure that each experience untethers the users mind from lived reality, while offering them the chance to understand immersion and embodiment. 

While we’ve nailed down the standard human flight experience, we continue to take on new challenges, looking to reinvent the mechanics to extend the possibilities on Birdly®. We’ve asked, can the motion in flight be similarly translated to swimming underwater? Can we find a way to add to the fulfillment of dreams by finding a way to put our users in space? What are the requirements to give people the feeling of a wingsuit flight? What about becoming a butterfly? By continually asking these questions and then using Birdly® to answer them, we are always looking for new opportunities to drive the virtual reality world forward. If we can give people the chance to emotionally connect with experiences they would otherwise never have, we believe we’ll be able to open up virtual reality beyond its traditional enthusiasts and extend the experience in many more areas.

Image from Jurassic Flight - a human flight experience from Birdly

Bringing it to the World

Our final challenge has been finding the right way to bring this unique experience to the world. As most in the virtual reality world know, VR is not mainstream yet and to put Birdly there, we are constantly asking a lot of questions. What is the market for something with virtually no peers or competition? How do you find people that understand the initial goals of an immersive VR experience who also have a solid grasp on the commercial environment? What is the place in the VR world for a game that doesn’t fit the standard LBE mold, but also doesn’t offer a traditional simulator experience?

These questions around our business and our beliefs have only led us to work harder and dive deeper into our goals. If we can help people untether from their lived experiences and enjoy completely new ones without incurring high risks and costs, then we have allowed them to connect with the world in a way that heightens their empathy and understanding. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of VR?

About the author:

Aleko Lilly is the company’s Head of Business Development responsible for all Sales and Marketing activities. Prior to joining SOMNIACS in early 2020, he worked in business development and sales leadership in Seattle, USA, most recently with Zillow Group. Aleko has twelve years of experience as a sales and team leader in both small and large businesses. He holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Linfield College in Oregon, USA and an MBA in entrepreneurship from Seattle University Albers School of Business and Economics in Seattle, USA.