I rarely turn down the chance to try something new or strange. Reptile expo with live demos? Sounds great. Monster truck rally? Yeah, why the hell not. Vape show in town? Sure, I’ll check it out. Indoor virtual reality skydiving? I AM THERE. Who cares that “indoor virtual reality skydiving” as a concept doesn’t make a lick of sense? Let’s give it a rip!
Indoor skydiving sounds a little strange at first, but it’s really quite simple. Using a vertical wind tunnel and a powerful set of fans, you can “fall” in an enclosed environment while the wind suspends you on a cushion of air. By controlling the position of your hands, arms and legs, you can fly higher or lower, and move around inside the tunnel.
Vertical wind tunnels are often used by the military and professional skydivers to practise, without having to go through the trouble of dropping thousands of feet out of a plane all the time.
So how would virtual reality be incorporated into this already wild experience? Only one way to find out!
After a little research to make sure that iFly, the company running this whole thing, was indeed a real place and not just some guys with a giant fan in a warehouse blowing people into the air, my camera guys Tom, CJ and I headed up to the company’s facility in Westchester County, just north of New York City, to see what it was all about.
We checked in and filled out some (mildly suspicious) waivers asking us if we had any oddly specific shoulder injuries. We then got suited up in some jumpsuits, popped on a couple helmets, underwent a quick training session, and got ready to enter the chamber.
From the outside, it looks as though the people inside the wind tunnel are simply floating there serenely, relaxing almost. But as soon as you get inside and those 160km/h winds start blasting your entire body and face, you realise, “Oh shit, I need to actively be ‘flying’ inside this thing.”
Proper muscle movement and body placement are essential. Turning your hands a fraction of an inch to the right or left will send you spinning away if you aren't careful. Just staying balanced while floating was quite the process.
But honestly? It was fantastic.
Once you start to get some control, it’s a fun challenge to try to fly higher and move around in different ways. Watching the instructors do flips, mid-air cartwheels, and all sorts of wild tricks made me want to practise and work my way up to their level.
If you want to train that much though, it’s going to cost you. Two two-minute flights start at $US89.95 ($122), and the virtual reality experience adds on another $US44.95 ($61) — so in total you’re approaching to the tune of $US150 ($203). You better absolutely LOVE skydiving, or have a hefty savings account.
The Australian branch of iFly offers two 50-second flights starting at $89, but unfortunately VR isn't currently available.
My first two two-minute flights were VR-free, to get me accustomed to flying in the tunnel. Then I popped back out to get setup with iFly’s proprietary VR helmet.
To be clear, the VR itself was not proprietary - it was a Samsung Gear VR headset modified so you won’t crack your skull open in the wind tunnel when your surroundings disappear.
The hardware and content have their limitations. Since iFly uses a Samsung Gear VR and simple 360-degree video, it isn't the most fully-immersive VR experience because it lacks some of the interactivity you’d get from an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
That said, it isn’t half bad. The experience is perfectly timed so that the instant you “fall” into the chamber, the diver in the video is just jumping out of the plane. Feeling that wind hit your stomach while watching the ground fly up towards you is pretty wild!
The video is high quality, and there weren’t any headtracking or fidelity issues, so I didn’t experience any problems with motion sickness. There’s no sound from the video (you’re wearing earplugs from the get go) but I’m gonna guess the noise from the wind tunnel is pretty accurate as far as the sound of rushing air goes.
Still, I ran into the same problem I do with all VR experiences — my brain will forget about the real world for a few seconds, but ultimately be brought back by some external stimulus.
In this case however, it was easier to focus on the dive because most of the external stimuli added to the experience. My brain instinctively knew I wasn’t skydiving, but it could buy into the idea for chunks of time.
It also lacked some of the fun of the original experience — I loved seeing what my body was doing and how my movements affected my flight in the tunnel. The headset blinded me to some of what was so exciting in the real world.
It’s worth noting that iFly is going out into the real world and shooting skydiving experiences to recreate in VR. For most people (even someone might skydive for real), it’s an interesting opportunity to dive in a place you otherwise normally wouldn’t be able to. I got to fly through the Swiss Alps! Tom got to see what it would be like to skydive in Dubai! The experiences themselves have the power to take you far away from home.
However, iFly said it’s also pursuing some more fantastical flight experiences (maybe we’ll be soaring through space or over Middle Earth), and that prospect excites me even more.
Overall, iFLY is a VERY fun indoor skydiving experience, with a somewhat less engaging VR experience tacked on top. It made for an interesting addition to the flight, but ultimately wasn’t the main attraction for me. It’s an amusing approximation of real skydiving, but not a perfect substitute (which seems to be the case for all VR experiences at this point).
For people who are scared of real skydiving, I’d certainly recommend it as an alternative. For people seeking an adrenaline rush, I’d say just go for the real thing.
Now that it’s over, I mostly just want to jump out of an actual plane. I had a blast diving indoors, and the VR portion gave me a tiny taste of what it might be like for real. My mind’s made up now. See you on the other side!