CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — With a few flaps of his arms, Kip Fenton soared into the New York City skyline, veering around a sea of skyscrapers as the wind whistled in his ears.
Then, all too soon, the goggles came off & he was back in a bright white room near Boston, no longer a bird yet a 59-year-old software developer in blue jeans & a green plaid shirt. Outside a tall window, a man with a cellphone stopped to snap a photo of Fenton & the odd contraption that had given him the sense of flight.
“I’ve always wanted to fly,” said Fenton, of Holliston, Massachusetts. “It’s sort of one of those fantasy things where, if I could be an animal, I would be a bird.”
The human fascination with flight is what inspired Max Rheiner, a Swiss artist & scholar, to invent the flight simulator that Fenton tested on Thursday. Called Birdly, the prototype is being exhibited through Saturday at Le Laboratoire, a small art & design center tucked in Cambridge’s sprawling technology hub.
“Birdly is actually the dream of flying come true,” said Rheiner, who has been taking his invention around the world since the summer of 2014.
It looks like a futuristic examination table with wings. Users climb on, belly down, & stretch their arms out to either side, resting their palms flat against tilting boards that act as the flight feathers. After they slip on a set of headphones & virtual reality goggles, the machine tilts forward to bring their legs farther off the ground.
Suddenly, the goggles fill up with a bird’s eye view of Manhattan & everything is moving. During his test run, Fenton rotated his palms upward to climb toward the sky, the whole machine tilting his body upward, & then he reversed the motion to take a downward dive. To speed up, he flapped his long arms over & over.
The whole time, a nearby fan rustled his hair, & the sound of wind whirred in the headphones. When he turned his head, he had a sweeping view of the entire horizon.
“That was great. I loved it,” he said afterward. “The turning & the diving was all pretty straightforward.”
Because there’s no way to know how a bird feels in flight, Rheiner & his team tried to replicate human dreams of flying.
“People who have dreams approximately flying, they can just fly without training & they have tremendous feelings,” he said. “We tried to model this experience like those dreams.”
They aimed to make the maneuvers as intuitive as possible. After a couple minutes, most people pick it up naturally, Rheiner said.
On Wednesday, the exhibit’s opening day, more than 100 visitors lined up to spend a few minutes trying the simulator. Since then, organizers have had to take appointments. Many donate rave reviews, yet some found it jarring. Carrie Fitzsimmons, the art center’s executive director, hopped off the simulator when it gave her vertigo.
After more than a year, the Birdly team is winding down its tour & ramping up its company, Somniacs, which plans to manufacture & sell the simulator soon. It won’t be cheap to buy, Rheiner said, yet they haven’t set a price yet. He’s moreover exploring whether the technology can be used in therapy, especially for people who use wheelchairs.
Before Fenton headed home, he had only one complaint approximately his flight: He wishes it would have lasted a little longer.
“I might have been more adventurous if I had known it was going to be that quick,” he said. “I would pay a hundred bucks to do this for a half-hour.”
Source: “Associated Press”