If you are someone who has dreamed all your life of having the gift of flight — of soaring up in the air in unlawful defiance of gravity — here’s the thing you don’t want to think about the moment your wish is granted: drool.
That was what was at the forefront of my mind in one of three flights provided by Austin-based iFly Holdings at its North Austin location off U.S. Route 183. In the cylindrical, vertical wind chamber, air pushes you and your flight suit up and if you bend your legs right and extend your arms, making your body into a slanted X, you float. With the help of a much more air-agile helper, you can soar and spin.
Me, I drooled. It happened right away as I was soaring up, a loose bit of fluid escaping my mouth probably because it was agape at what was happening. And I thought right away, “Did anybody see that through the glass? Did I just contaminate the chamber?”
My embarrassment only lasted a few seconds and it wasn’t at all related to why I was taking on this flight: it was a lead-up to trying out iFly’s new virtual-reality option. Last week, iFly introduced an add-on starting at $20 that replaces the iFly helmet with a smartphone-powered VR headset. The experience is meant to simulate a skydiving freefall over locations including Hawaii, California, the Swiss Alps or Dubai.
David Kirchhoff, CEO of the company, said VR is something that iFly has wanted to bring to the mix for a long time. About two years ago, the company announced it was testing the idea but wasn’t yet ready to offer it to the public.
“The idea of a virtual reality flight experience has been a dream of the iFly brand for more than two decades, but the technology wasn’t there,” Kirchhoff said.
The software iFly uses for the experience does one thing right: Instead of immersing the flier so completely in the VR world that they can’t see what they’re doing or get acclimated, it uses a camera view so fliers can see their instructor and enter the chamber before the simulated skydiving begins.
When I put on the VR headset-equipped iFly helmet, I couldn’t wear my glasses, but the headset has a focus knob that allowed me to bring the world back into focus to compensate. As I entered the iFly cylinder with the VR headset on, the instructor reminded me to relax and extend my legs as I had on the previous two non-VR flights.
I fell forward, allowing the air to hold me up and raise my body to a horizontal position. The instructor held me by the strap on my flight suit and activated the VR skydive.
And suddenly, as my body was in the real world suspended on a blast of air, my face was taking in a video view over Hawaii. I could see tiny landscape and a skydiving coach in the sky guiding me. I turned my head around and could see the sky, the horizon, the oncoming patches of island below.
As I focused on the 13,000-foot drop in the VR video and not on what was happening to my real body (thank goodness there wasn’t another drooling incident), I tried to convince my brain that I was falling, that this was real, that my stomach should be experiencing that drop you get on a roller-coaster fall.
It never came. Instead, I got the sensation of wind on my body and hovering, even as the VR me was supposed to be falling a great distance.
The video was over in about a minute and the real iFly chamber came into view. I was led down and out through the exit, which has two rubbery grips that help you pull yourself out .
The headset came off, my glasses came back on, and I was once again just another human with two feet planted on the stupid, boring ground.
VR is a really tricky technology. For me, as a user and viewer of VR games and short films, the sweet spot has been otherworldly animation, visuals that surround you in a vibe or experience without asking you to move around too much, or games that make you forget you’re in a simulation.
At the moment, iFly’s VR option feels like a really noble first attempt that’s going to be effective based largely on the enthusiasm a flyer has for VR itself, and how good that person is at switching their brain to a mode where the sensation of falling can be felt. I’m sad to say it didn’t really work for me, but I can’t say exactly whether that’s a problem with the tech or my own physiology. I’ve never done real skydiving, so it’s hard for me to say if I was really missing something.
Mason Barrett, iFly’s director of product development, said response so far to the VR flights has been “fantastic.”
“We’ve tested the experience on people from all walks of life, from those who are still 10 years too young to go skydiving who have found it incredibly exciting, to professional skydivers with more than 5,000 jumps under their belt who tell us it feels just like the real thing,” Barrett said.
Barrett said the goal was to offer stunning vistas and that more offerings are in the works, some perhaps not of this world.
“In addition to continuing to develop more content around new destinations and new aerial activities like wingsuit flying, we’re also looking to push the frontier on digital content creation,” he said. “We don’t want to be limited to only places where you can go skydiving. Imagine the possibilities when you aren’t bound by the limits of reality any more — zooming through space, flying alongside dragons, or soaring with your favorite superheroes all become possible.
Like a lot of add-on options that are meant to enhance an already overwhelming experience, such as seeing “Avengers: Infinity War” in 3-D or adding A1 sauce to a perfectly fine and juicy steak, I think VR indoor skydiving might add a layer to something already fun and great that may have limited appeal.
But it’s nice that for this company, at least, even giving people the gift of flight isn’t enough; experimenting and trying new ways to let people get more out of it seems like a good idea.
Just keep your mouth closed while you do it.