Locarno: ‘Breakthrough’ Birdly Project Presented at Fest

Entertainment industry watchs emerging gadgets with possible application in storytelling

LOCARNO — Virtual reality (VR) Birdly project was presented at Locarno fest as part of the Industry events on Saturday, Aug. 8.

Geneva International Film Festival Tous Ecrans acted as the host of this case study presented by Somniacs shingle CEO Michel Zai. Panel had as title: “Birdly, the Swiss New Frontier.”

Somniacs is a Zurich-based company specialized in Fullbody VR Experiences. Although initially, the company is not focused on its cinema applications, Birdly project has aroused big buzz and curiosity in the filmmaking community.

This VR sophisticated flight simulator has been described in prominent newspapers as a “breakthrough in entertainment technologies.”

Birdly digital project was initially developed at the Zurich School of Art and Design and has been presented at the Geneva International Film Festival Tous Ecrans, Sundance New Frontier and South by Southwest fests. It had a U.S. premiere at San Francisco at the end of July 2014.

Birdly won first price of Virtual Reality Contest and Laval Virtual Award at the 2014 Vancouver Siggraph (International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques).

What is Birdly exactly? Basically, it is a device with a bird-like structure where a person can lie down on the stomach and put on a 3D glasses; according to his/her sensations and movements, the machine releases customized movements and 3D visuals.  It’s a special combination of hardware and software.

“From Icarus to Jules Verne, flying as a bird has been one of the oldest human dreams. With Birdly, it finally came true. I can imagine that we soon will find Birdly’s machine all around the world, in theme parks, theaters halls, gaming house,” ventures Emmanuel Cuenod, Geneva International Film Festival director.

After having test the machine with thousands of people, the feedback is highly positive according to Zai: “We promise people nothing less than to make a dream come true (flying like a bird); the danger of disappointing people is huge, but after returning to the ground most people tell us that flying Birdly is extremely vivid, intuitive and wild. Many people told us that they never experienced anything that is so close to actually flying. Some even call the experience consciousness-expanding or compare it to the effect of mind-altering substances,” Zai explained to Variety.

Another big advantage of Birdly over previous VR experiments is that “many VR-experiences (especially the ones that involve a lot of motion) struggle with its cognitive dissonance (the same principle that makes people sea-sick on a boat). Birdly involves the whole body of a participant and this helps to avoid motion-sickness and nausea,” Zai pointed out.

“I hope that visual artists and filmmakers will use Birdly in narrative ways. Imagine what creators such as Vincent Morrisset, Spike Jonze or Aaron Koblin could do with this technology. I am pretty sure that Michel Gondry will fly on Birdly, if he has a chance,” an enthusiastic Cuenod said to Variety.

Somniacs has received many inquiries from the movie business arena, and Zai says that very interesting talks are ongoing.

The interest comes mainly from U.S., and adds fuel to the debate about how the content will be consumed or experienced in the future.

“We think that this development is not so much about cinema at theaters, but combining and merging lots of elements, principles, effects and techniques that are used in cinema production with VR. A new breed of directors has already started to explore and develop this new territory,” Zai said.

The keyword for this paradigm is interaction. The audience is not sitting anymore in a cinema chair and following the prepared and fixed visuals of a director. New participants are exploring the story, and they will be able to create their own “dolly shots” and even further: depending on interactive elements the participants will influence the story itself. They can meet other participants in the story, etc.,” Zai added.

Simultaneously to this event, Locarno fest hosts also a summer session of the virtual reality Hackathon Storytelling for Science project, jointly organized by CinéGlobe/CERN and Geneva International Film Festival Tous Ecrans. Session took place on the shores of Lake Maggiore, where 25 participants worked on the production of four virtual reality projects that will premiere at the 21st Geneva International Film Festival Tous Ecrans from November 6-14, 2015.

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