© Somniacs SA

„Flying through the urban jungle as a bird is a very special kick”

Max Rheiner is making the dream of flight a virtual reality. In an inter­view, the head of the master’s degree program for design inter­ac­tion at the Zurich Univer­sity of the Arts explains how it’s done and why moving air plays an essen­tial role.

How did you come up with the idea of building a simu­lator that lets people fly?

We wanted to do research on how immer­sion in virtual reality can be expanded to involve the entire body. To do that, we needed a fictional starting situ­a­tion; usually simu­la­tors just simu­late machines like a tractor or an airplane. We wanted to build a simu­lator where you feel like a different crea­ture and don’t notice that you’re oper­ating a machine. From a design perspec­tive, I found flying to be extremely inter­esting because it’s one of humanity’s most emotional dreams, and I’ve been involved in it a lot myself through paragliding and drone flights.

And how did you actu­ally start the project?

Max Rheiner, head of the master’s degree program for design inter­ac­tion at the Zurich Univer­sity of the Arts.

It’s funny, while I was thinking about these ideas, a bird advo­cacy group contacted me. They wanted to set up an exhi­bi­tion about bird flight. So we started a project with the goal of being able to fly like a bird with help from virtual reality. The impor­tant thing was to involve as many senses as possible. Virtual reality usually addresses the eyes and ears, but I was deter­mined to include senso­mo­toric and tactile expe­ri­ences. So we got to work with a small team and put together the first proto­type.

How does the system work?

The user lies on his belly on a machine that has three degrees of freedom. It can go up and down, forward and back, and can tip to the side when it takes a curve. The arms are attached to wings that the user can flap to move forward. Steering is done with the wrists; we made a conscious choice in favor of very intu­itive steering since many people have limited motor skills and we can’t expect the coor­di­na­tion of a drummer. The user also wears VR glasses and head­phones and faces into a head­wind produced by a fan. For the head­wind, we chose fans from ebm-papst because their speed can be adjusted to simu­late different flight speeds. They’re also extremely quiet. Simu­lating wind plays a crucial role for the expe­ri­ence with the simu­lator. Along with visual impres­sions, the wind or wind resis­tance is a very impor­tant way for people to expe­ri­ence speed. Our senses pick that up through our skin and our hair.

What kind of feed­back have you received about your proto­type?

It was put into service for the first time at the exhi­bi­tion by the bird advo­cacy group in 2014. Guests got to fly as red kites through the kite’s natural habitat, and the feed­back was entirely posi­tive. Then we got the oppor­tu­nity to present the project in Silicon Valley, which was also a great success. That was at the time when VR wasn’t really on the market yet, so the timing was really good. Other invi­ta­tions followed, for example to the Sundance Festival, to research confer­ences and the Cannes Film Festival.

Were you still able to manage all that from the univer­sity?

Not really; that’s why we founded a sepa­rate company called Somniacs in 2015. The name is a combi­na­tion of “somnia,” which stands for dreaming or sleeping, and “maniacs” because you have to be a bit crazy to do some­thing like this. In 2016 we began commer­cial produc­tion of the simu­lator, which we now call “Birdly.” Our customers primarily include research museums working in fields like ornithology, natural history and tech­nology. But enter­tain­ment parks are slowly putting out their feelers toward VR and getting inter­ested in our product.

What kind of envi­ron­ments can customers fly in?

That depends on the customers. We’re flex­ible because we develop both the hard­ware and the soft­ware completely on our own. For most simu­la­tions, we’ve moved from the red kite to the eagle because it simply works better inter­na­tion­ally. Besides natural land­scapes, we quickly set up cities like New York and San Fran­cisco, and we want to do that more in the future. Flying through the urban jungle as a bird is a much different kind of kick than gliding over fields and trees.

How much are you still involved with Somniacs today?

I juggle things a bit to balance my work in the company and at the univer­sity. I’ve also made some changes to the subject area that I lead. The master’s program is now strongly focused on immer­sive expe­ri­ences because I believe that’s a huge and inter­esting market. It’s also an exciting social and tech­no­log­ical phenom­enon. And it’s not only about VR, it’s also about augmented reality, over­laying reality with virtual elements.

Besides design and concep­tion, such ideas need a lot of tech­nical exper­tise. What role does that play for you?

Espe­cially at a design school, it’s impor­tant to me that people get insights into the tech­nology — not just as an end in itself or a way to solve prob­lems but as a means of expres­sion. When I use tech­nology, I can solve a problem like getting from A to B, but I can also shape the expe­ri­ence of travel, I can define how I get from A to B. That takes both: tech­nology and design. With respect to Birdly, I really like a quote from the avia­tion pioneer Otto Lilien­thal. It goes roughly, “Inventing a flying machine doesn’t mean much. Making one means more, but flying one is what really matters.” It’s simply about the feeling of flight, every­thing else is secondary.

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