I'm watching someone on the edge of a helicopter as he counts down with his hands. Three, two, one, and we leap. Well, I don't actually leap. Instead, I fall forward into an iFly indoor skydiving wind tunnel and I start to float. In my helmet, I'm falling toward the Alps while the "countdown person" and another skydiver pull off incredible midair acrobatics. It's like Cirque du Soleil with less makeup and fewer French accents.
This is all happening at indoor skydiving facility, iFly in Union City, California. This week the company introduced its virtual-reality flying experience to 28 of the company's 37 locations. In addition to the usual float-above-a-giant-fan, patrons can put on a VR helmet for about $20 more than the usual cost of about $70 (prices are determined by region) and experience what it's like to leap out of an aircraft above Hawaii, Dubai, Southern California and the Alps. After two "jumps," I'm a fan.
IFly has been wanting to add VR to its tunnels for 20 years. It wasn't until recently that the technology was up to par and mobile enough to be unleashed in a chamber with winds over 100 miles per hour. The company has strapped Samsung's Gear VR to specially made helmets that sort of make you look like an evil robot soldier from the future.
The footage you see is courtesy of multiple jumps over the aforementioned locations using the GoPro Fusion 360 degree camera. The result is something that enhances the indoor skydiving experience for beginners. Without VR, indoor skydiving is already fun. But, after about 45 seconds, you realize that until you master all the crazy maneuvers the employees are pulling off in the tunnel, you're going to be looking out of a tube at people waiting in line to get into a tube. It's great, but the scenery is ... well, lacking.
Virtually jumping out of an aircraft above Hawaii or Dubai, now that's something worth looking at. Plus, it's a great use of VR, which frankly hasn't taken off as well as its fans had anticipated. I personally am not a fan of putting a computer on my face for long periods of time. The technology is amazing, but the public doesn't seem ready to have something strapped to their eyes to consume their media or play video games.
But an out-of-home experience like the one from iFly and the VR roller coaster at Six Flags delivers on the promise of a virtual world in bite-size portions without a huge outlay of cash.
For a lot of us, maybe VR at home just doesn't make sense. At least for now. We stare at screens all day already and maybe attaching one to our faces just isn't in the cards for the foreseeable future. But for folks that are happier without a ring of zits around our eyes, thanks to an Oculus headset, there's a chance to immerse ourselves in the future for a few extra dollars in a wind tunnel.
As my "jump" ended and the parachute was deployed inside the VR world I had been falling in, my coach directed me to the tunnel exit. Samsung's pass-through feature had been turned on and I was looking at the real world through digital eyes. I thought about how I'm still not interested in buying a VR headset for my home. It just doesn't appeal to me. Still, I pulled off my helmet and when I was asked if I wanted to do it again, I replied, "Yes, yes I do."