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This VR Demo Let Me Soar Over San Francisco Like a Bird

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

AUSTIN, Texas — I look at the Transamerica Pyramid before me, gaze down at the streets of San Francisco some 800 feet below, and start flapping my arms. Because I am a bird.

I have not grown feathers or a beak, but I have folded myself face-down into a padded recliner, and I have an Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset on my face. I’m experiencing a demo of Birdly, hosted by Google at a SXSW exhibit space for the Google Fiber broadband service coming here.

The relevance of a bird simulation to a $70 a month gigabit fiber is left as an exercise for the reader.

The Birdly project, by Zurich-based Somniacs, starts with a 3-D computer model of San Francisco that’s displayed to you in the Oculus headset’s two screens (one for each eye). The vista changes as you look up, down and around. And you use your arms to raise, lower and flap large paddles — your wings — on each side of the recliner.

Headphones bring you the sound of the breeze and of other birds. And to complete the illusion, a fan blows air at your head, faster if you flap harder. If nausea sets in, you can press a red button on either paddle to stop the demo.

As I flapped my arms up and down, I banked past the Transamerica Pyramid’s cap, looked right towards the city’s piers, the Financial District, and the Bay Bridge, and decided to have a look at Coit Tower. I raised one arm to roll left, then vigorously flapped to cover the distance. As a few fellow avians flew past me in the other direction, Telegraph Hill rose up to meet me. I banked around the tower, seemingly only a few feet from its cast concrete.

(I was close enough to expose the limits of the 3-D model: The tower’s distinctive arches looked blurry.)

I resumed flapping, hoping to pick up speed, and make my way out over the Bay — and then time ran out on the demo.

On their site, the developers (Max Rheiner, Fabian Troxler, Thomas Tobler, Vladimir Jankijevic, and Thomas Erdin) say they’re working to add smell to Birdly’s sensory experience: Flying over a farm, for example, might get you the scent of dirt. But they haven’t gotten that “olfactoric feedback” out of the lab yet.

The world may not be overflowing with practical applications for a bird simulator. But I don’t care. For two minutes, I lived the dream of flight. And it was convincing enough that I was annoyed to have to use my own feet to walk four blocks to my next SXSW appointment.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.