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Reality is for the birds: New VR simulator lets people 'fly' over cities of the world

Birdly's "Jurassic Flight," in which users can fly through a landscape inhabited by dinosaurs, is seen in this image provided by Somniacs AG.
A person is seen using Birdly in Zurich, Switzerland, on Sept. 24, 2019. Users lie flat and put on goggles, while flapping their arms like wings. The fan in front of them gives the impression of being in the open air. To the right, the images they are seeing are shown on a TV mounted to the wall.(Mainichi/Tomoko Igarashi)
Max Reiner, head of Somniacs AG, the company behind Birdly, is seen in Zurich, Switzerland, on Sept. 24, 2019. (Mainichi/Tomoko Igarashi)
The New York skyline as it appears when using Birdly is seen in this image provided by Somniacs AG.

ZURICH, Switzerland (Mainichi) -- Local venture firm Somniacs AG is offering people the chance to spread their "wings" and fly with a virtual reality (VR) setup called "Birdly," in which users can soar through a VR recreation of famous world cities. The company's head, Max Reiner, 47, says that he wants the device to fulfill the common human dream of flying.

To experience Birdly's VR world, users lie on their front on the machine, and place their arms on wing-shaped sections to their left and right. They then put on goggles and choose where they want to go. From there, they have roughly two minutes to experience the world from above.

The locations that can be flown through are based on real photographic data of major city skylines. The company has also made its own animated dinosaur world called "Jurassic Flight," where users can glide through vistas featuring the prehistoric creatures.

This writer chose New York. When it loaded up, my vision was filled with the glass and concrete of the city's skyscrapers. I flapped my wings, and ascended above the buildings, where a flock of birds flew past me. With a fan installed in front of the device to blow air into your face, it really felt like I was flying through the air.

Reiner majored in media arts at Zurich University of the Arts and excels at creating works with computer graphics. From a young age he longed to fly, and says he was influenced by the works of Studio Ghibli's Hayao Miyazaki, including "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind."

The company intends to unveil a sea turtle edition in the near future. It hopes it will be used as study material for learning about environmental issues from climate change, by setting the experience in a part of the ocean where coral is dying. Reiner says that a story is necessary to get people thinking about protecting the environment.

A prototype of Birdly was produced in 2014, and around 50 have been sold primarily to museums and other institutions in North America and Europe. A single unit sells for between 7 million and 10 million yen. As of October 2019, no company in Japan has bought one. But, the technology was exhibited at the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC) 2019 in the city of Chiba, in the prefecture of the same name east of Tokyo, in October.

With VR, you put on a headset to enjoy 360-degree images of visual worlds. According to International Data Corporation (IDC) Japan, the market for both augmented reality (AR) and VR worldwide was somewhere around 960 billion yen (about 8.9 billion dollars) in 2018. That figure is expected to almost double to approximately 1.8 trillion yen (about 16.85 billion dollars) in 2019, representing a rapidly growing industry. The technology is seeing active usage outside of gaming, in fields such as sports training.

(Japanese original by Tomoko Igarashi, City News Department)

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