Brian O'Neill: How to feel like our fine feathered friends
April 20, 2017 12:00 AM
Paul O'Rourke, senior vice president of marketing and communications at the Allegheny County Airport Authoriy, tries out the new full-body virtual reality experience Birdly at the National Aviary.
Rich Hudic, executive director of Allegheny Regional Asset District, reacts after trying the new full-body virtual reality experience Birdly at the National Aviary.
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I had never wondered if penguins were envious of birds that can fly until I rode Birdly, the new full-body virtual reality machine that had me flying over Manhattan for two and a half exhilarating minutes.
When I got off it Wednesday morning, I couldn’t help notice the African penguins across the hall at The National Aviary. They were looking at me sideways and OK, sure, that’s the only way they can look. I nonetheless had to feel for the knee-high swimmers.
It’s bad enough their cousins, the Emperor Penguins, tower over them in both height and Hollywood heft. Now they might suffer from flight envy because humans are going to be flying beside them all the live-long day, making many of the same sounds they’d make on a roller coaster because the simulated soaring is just that real.
Birdly opens to the public at 10 a.m. today. For an additional $8 any aviary visitor can buy a timed ticket so there should be no lines. The two and a half minutes go quickly but, honestly, I didn’t wish my trip longer.
I knew it was only a pair of high-tech goggles giving me the bird’s-eye view, but it’s a full sensory experience down to the sound of wind blowing through the headset. I’d climbed into a prone position and grabbed the handled wings and then — voila! — I had some of the world’s most expensive real estate beneath me.
I was told if I flew down low between the buildings, I could hear cars honking, but I stayed high, thank you all the same, and flapped myself over the skyscrapers to the relative serenity above Central Park.
When my trip ended suddenly, it had been just the right amount of scary.
“It took us a while to find the sweet spot,” Kassia Janesch, the aviary’s marketing coordinator, said.
The 150-second ride seems to be enough to satisfy without too much anxiety kicking in. Anyone can see what the flyer sees on a screen beside Birdsy, and when Deanna Garcia, a WESA-FM reporter, followed me in the rig, there was a moment when she deadpanned midflight, “OK, that’s terrifying.”
We both took a second turn. Lauren Stahl, the interpretive educator who guided us, offering tips as we flew, said people get a bit disoriented but most were like us: “Both nervous and excited, and excited to get back on it.”
Craig Davis, president and CEO of Visit Pittsburgh, tries out the new full-body virtual reality experience Birdly at the National Aviary Tuesday on the North Side. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)
On my second ride, I went Full Icarus, flapping for all I was worth for the Empire State Building. The payoff — and this is so counterintuitive it took some coaxing — was flying straight into a sparkling billboard. From there, I went into another dimension, from color to black-and-white, with King Kong himself grabbing at planes from atop the building.
That was cooler than the other side of the pillow.
Yet when I was offered the chance to dive down for a second sparkling billboard, I pulled up instead, the vertigo getting the better of me.
Ms. Garcia got to soar over the Alps and a third alternate reality of pink clouds over a lake.
The machine invented by Swiss startup Somniacs has a list price of $190,000 — so, sorry, kids, don’t be looking for it under the Christmas tree. There are only two in North America, this one and another at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif.
You don’t need to know the way to San Jose; this aviary is in West Park on the North Side. Pittsburgh International Airport is Birdly’s presenting sponsor and the gadget will head over there, too, May 22 through the 25th. It’s expected to be there and at the Allegheny County Airport a few more times this year.
I had new respect for birds when my ride was over. Birds may be emblematic of a carefree life but Birdly is no Barcalounger; there’s plenty to keep a flyer occupied. It’s a seamless fit with the aviary’s 500 birds of 150 species, many of them endangered, providing visitors with ever more empathy for the creatures.
The aviary is working to create itineraries for these trips so people will have more guidance on where they might fly before they get wings.
I just hope the 20 penguins also get some love from those flocking to this new attraction. It snuck up on us again this year, but this coming Tuesday is World Penguin Day. Sidney, Disco, Elvis and the others at Penguin Point may be feeling downright mocked by all the excitement across the hall. Stepping off Birdsy can leave a man wobbling like a penguin until the land legs come back.
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