I’ve never quite got round to throwing myself out of a plane. Somehow, I wake up every day and find something marginally less terrifying to do with my waking hours and here we are. Jumping out of a virtual plane while floating three feet from the ground and being held by someone standing up, however? That I can get behind.
Which is how I ended up at iFly’s new VR experience near Universal Studios in LA this week, dressed in a jump suit, strapped into a Samsung Gear, and floating over Hawaii while bemused tourists wandering the retail center outside the theme park gawped and ‘grammed.
iFly has wind tunnels across the U.S. (and indeed much of Europe) and says it’s flown 9 million people since 1998. The addition of VR headsets, though, is a very new thing and for $20 more than their standard package price, it’s an insanely addictive add-on.
You begin your virtual journey with the standard iFly experience, getting kitted up and briefed on the flying rules. Essentially it comes down to keeping your legs straight, your head facing forward and your mind chilled. Fall into the wind and let the force (and an instructor) do the rest. There are a few hand signals but that’s about it.
My first flight went … OK. I spent some of the time flailing and falling down to the grille, much to the amusement of the guy operating the wind machine, but by the second practice run I had it mostly down. At Universal CityWalk, the tunnel is in the middle of the lively shopping center. In terms of entertainment value for passersby, it’s between a branch of Margaritaville and a band playing covers of The Killers — literally and otherwise.
Once I’d, ahem, mastered the art of free-falling, my instructor Joe strapped on the Gear. At first you can see through it to the real world, albeit with hardly any sense of distance or depth. Once you’re at the tunnel entrance it switches to virtual mode and you’re in the plane, watching someone count you down, and then you’re off.
It’s pretty stunning. While the wind whipped up to 120-mph-plus and my body hit terminal velocity, I watched Hawaii’s scenery hurtle towards me, safe in the knowledge that sudden death was an unlikely ending.
The films do a great job of replicating the thrill of skydiving, with fellow divers performing tricks, clouds whizzing by to give a sense of speed and the all-important parachute opening above before you flop back out of the tunnel to safety. It goes by so fast you’ll want to line up for a second trip immediately.
The camera operator stayed pretty much static while filming the flights, so your body tends to mirror theirs, which avoids the usual motion sickness issues associated with VR. In fact, iFly’s Director of Product Development Mason Barrett insists no one has yet had an issue with queasiness. There are no inner ear issues either, as you’re not actually experiencing any pressure, although you do wear earplugs under the helmet.
IFly currently offers four destinations to virtually experience — Hawaii, Dubai, the Swiss Alps and Southern California — with more planned. The company is focussing on “locations on every sky diver’s bucket list,” Barrett says, with some ambitious plans for future films.
How does BASE jumping in a virtual wingsuit sound? Or barreling through a fantasy world, perhaps joining a Quidditch game with Harry Potter or flying parallel to Iron Man? Those are the kind of dreams iFly is hoping to realize if they can get a major studio on board.
Virtual skydiving has been a dream of the company’s since its inception two decades ago, but technology has only recently caught up. In the past, the experience would have involved a white screen next to the tunnel, Barrett says, but consumer grade tech offers a much more immersive experience. And it could be great for those that can’t fly IRL, whether due to fear or disability. Kids can take a virtual dive from 8, Barrett says, while you can’t legally leap from the plane until you’re 18.
You can fling yourself out of a virtual plane at any one of 28 places offering the iFly Virtual Reality experience across the country.
You just need to be over eight years old and weigh less than 260 pounds. Those aged between 8 and 12 can only do it once per day.