iFLY Uses Virtual Reality To Bring Skydiving To Earth
There are different types of thrill seekers in the world. Some will boldly strap themselves to an experienced skydiver, board a plane and jump out at 13,000 feet to experience 60 seconds of free fall. Others might have enough courage to spend 60 seconds in one of the 38 iFLY locations around the world, including on the Royal Caribbean Anthem of the Seas cruise ship. These giant wind tunnels propel air at over 100 mph to simulate flying.
Now, through the power of virtual reality, these two experiences have merged into one — allowing anyone the experience of skydiving without needing to ever get into a plane. Or offering a stepping stone — much closer to the ground — for those thinking about taking to the skies for their first jump.
International indoor skydiving company iFLY has partnered with agency T3 to test virtual reality in its Austin, Texas, location. Using Samsung Gear VR mobile headsets (which offer an untethered and secure 360-degree video experience), guests can choose from one of five experiences and enter the wind tunnel. There’s a BASE jump, a wingsuit experience and three different skydiving scenarios (a group dive and solo dives over the Alps and near the Sydney Bridge in Australia).
“We always say in the wind tunnel if you close your eyes it’s difficult to tell the difference between simulation and real skydiving,” world championship skydiver Chris Dixon said. “With the VR goggles, I could keep my eyes open and the experience was pretty impressive.”
Dixon, who has made over 2,500 real jumps around the world, joined iFLY back when the company was much smaller, and called Sky Venture. He started as a trainer in the Orlando location and moved up to trainer before taking over as lead instructor, and later business development lead, for the company’s Austin headquarters location.
Dixon won the inaugural World Cup of Indoor Skydiving in Austin a few years back, which he can add to his outdoor world skydiving championships. He said he fell in love with indoor skydiving because he can spend an hour in the tunnel, which provides a much longer adrenaline rush than the 45 seconds of free fall in the frigid outdoor air.
Indoor skydiving is also much more spectator-friendly, given the glass tunnel. And that opens the door for introducing new people to the outdoor sport.
“There is the possibility of creating some training tools for new skydivers,” Dixon said. “For example, a student could experience their first couple levels or jumps of the certification process. They could simulate seeing the hand signals and checking their altimeter in VR. This would make the visual more familiar, and the student could focus on the skydive.”
At the height of his skydiving, Dixon used to do 20 jumps per weekend. He was part of the 2012 world record-setting largest head down vertical formation, which featured 138 skydivers jumping out of six planes. These days, he spends more time skydiving indoors, although he still gets into a plane when he can with friends.
For this first foray into 360-degree content, T3 CIO Ben Gaddis said stock 360 video was chosen and stitched together into one- to two-minute experiences.
“Chris Dixon and a lot of guys at iFLY guys are cameramen and they do a lot of filming of their dives,” Gaddis said. “So we can work with them in the future.”
iFLY customers currently buy time inside the wind tunnel by the minute. Gaddis says a VR user could go through one dive, hit a button and flip to another and stay in for additional minutes.
T3 is also polishing the current 360-degree videos for use at home. Given the millions of Samsung Gear VR headsets around the globe, Gaddis said the plan is to sell this content to anyone interested in experiencing a skydive or wingsuit flight in the comfort of their own home.
“Although it won’t be as immersive as being in wind tunnel, I’ve watched people do it outside of the tunnel and they still get a bit of that feeling,” Gaddis said. “You see people catch themselves.”
Of course, the best way to replicate the wind tunnel experience is to lay face down on the floor.
“The point of view is more in line if you lie down, so that if you look left or right it puts you in the frame,” Gaddis said.
Virtual reality makes a lot of far-reaching activities very real for people. For example, Gaddis said there are people who can’t do skydiving because of health issues or back problems.
“We’re bringing bucket-list experiences to people who couldn’t participate otherwise,” Gaddis said.