NYU Team Creates iBird, Avian Simulation

NYU computer science department shows off high-flying educational tool.

Aug. 12, 2008 — -- Thousands of years ago, ancient Greeks told the story of Icarus, the boy whose father built wings of wax so that he could fly. Since Icarus, the dream has been to soar through the sky with the gentle yet powerful grace of a hawk or eagle.

Although airplanes have provided that capability in a rather indirect way, the sensation of actually flying, of slicing through the sky in a manner controlled only by one's own movements, has been tried many times, to mostly disappointing results.

But last week I visited a group of students and faculty at the New York University Media Research lab who have taken aim at this failure by creating the iBird, a "bird-flight simulator" that gives one the sensation of flying through a virtual world without ever leaving the ground.

"We wanted to make people feel like they are a bird, to create a truly immersive experience," Ilwy Rosenberg a doctoral student at NYU and one of the iBird's creators, said.

Though the onscreen bird more closely resembles a cute but angular canary than a dashing falcon, according to Ken Perlin, the founding director of the Media Research Lab, the virtual bird is constructed using a progressive algorithm.

"That's not animation you're seeing," explained Perlin, who also serves as faculty adviser to the rest of the team. "You're seeing responsive characteristics based on movement. Intelligence is built into the bird."

In short order, the lab invited me to try out the "wings," and let me take flight. I immediately learned two things about flying -- that it is incredibly fun, and equally difficult. But I had been watching one of the NYU students, who was fluid and graceful at the controls, and I reassured myself that I'd fly like an eagle in no time.

To guide the iBird, I grabbed two controllers that hung from the ceiling at about shoulder height. Then, as if my arms were wings, I flapped furiously to send my virtual companion -- projected on a large screen in front of me -- hurtling, rather awkwardly and completely out of control, through the air.

My virtual bird jerked from side to side, dove and then shot up suddenly in my spastic attempts to control its flight, I was blasted by "wind" gusts from an array of fans on the ground. The fans read input from the flapping and varied their speed and direction to hit me with blasts of wind similar to what the bird would be feeling during what I like to call my expertly executed evasive maneuvers.

Luckily, it is literally impossible to "crash" the bird -- believe me, I tested it -- and with a little practice, I was a respectable avian aviator.

With the wind in my face and even the sound of wind rushing past, I pumped out a few strong, deliberate wing flaps and truly felt as if I were flying.

The purpose of the iBird, however, is not just to humiliate or entertain but to educate.

"It simulates the basics of aerodynamics," Rosenberg said. "Our intent is to get people to learn, not by textbooks but by experience. We want to get people excited about flight."

While the programming for such a system may be complex, Perlin insisted that installing the device, in a classroom, for example, would be exceedingly affordable. From the software to the fans, the entire operation would cost less than $100 to install, assuming a projector was already present.

And the iBird is just the beginning. It's the first fully functional prototype in a brand new initiative out of the Media Research Lab called Spiral, or science, playful interface research and learning, which aims "to make low cost, immersive games and experiences to introduce kids to science."

"These are results that could be easily duplicated," Perlin told ABC News. "Given the low cost and relative simplicity of [the iBird system], we're hoping we can influence the way people will think about and teach science."

Even more than the iBird's practical and near-future applications, Perlin is excited about all the possibilities he says he has not even considered yet.

"This is just a test case, a prototype," he said. "This is now a platform for other experiments, other experiences."

But when watching his students flap strongly through the virtual sky to the sound of rushing wind and a soothing, gallant sound track, Perlin gets a sense that with the iBird, even the sky is not the limit.