#525: Flying in VR: How Mindride’s Airflow Takes Immersion to the Next Level

mindrideOne of the most immersive flying experiences that I’ve had a chance to have so far was Mindride Airflow. I had a chance to try it out last fall at VRLA, and the weightless harness combined with a variety of different wind speeds gave me a deep sense of immersion and presence beyond what I would’ve expected. I had a chance to catch up with Yehuda Duenyas and Ben Kato to talk about their experiential design process that prioritizes the depth of immersion and quality experience over anything else. We also talk about how Airflow normalized a real-life skydiving adventure for Duenyas, and the different haptic techniques they’ve used to cultivate a deep sense of embodied presence.


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Music: Fatality & Summer Trip

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So on today's episode, I'm going to be talking about the most immersive flying experience that I've had a chance to have within virtual reality. So at VRLA last fall, I had a chance to try out MineRide's Airflow. So I was suspended horizontally from this harness and wind was blowing in my face as I was flying around within this VR experience and it was very immersive and actually it kind of tricked the primal elements of my brain. It felt very immersive and one of the most amazing flying experiences I've had a chance to have within VR. Now, I wanted to take a step back before we dive in and talk about an experience that I had at the Experiential Technology Conference. It was from 2-Bit Circus, and the experience was essentially that you're being raised up on this window cleaner, and you go to the top of this building. And you're on this motion platform, and it's moving back and forth. You're kind of rocking around. And the whole point of this experience is that you jump off the side of this window washer and see what happens to your body when you are trying to actually step off. Now, I was watching this from the distance and my mind was like, OK, this will be no problem. I'm just going to step off this platform. It won't be a big deal. But yet when it came right down to it, when I tried to actually step off, my body was like, nope, don't do that. And it was this tension where I actually had to kind of break presence in order to step off, because my body was telling me this is actually not a very safe situation. What are you doing? And so I just wanted to share that little anecdote because I think that there's things that are happening within our body at an unconscious level that we're not even fully aware of. And this experience of mind ride is starting to stimulate different dimensions of that, being horizontal as well as blowing wind both in my face but my entire body. And those are enough cues to kind of trick my mind into having a deeper level of presence. So, we'll be talking about Mine Ride and Airflow today with Yehuda de Yunis as well as Ben Cato on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the Voices of VR Patreon campaign. The Voices of VR podcast started as a passion project, but now it's my livelihood. And so if you're enjoying the content on the Voices of VR podcast, then consider it a service to you in the wider community and send me a tip. Just a couple of dollars a month makes a huge difference, especially if everybody contributes. So donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So this interview with Ben and Yehuda happened at VRLA at the Los Angeles Convention Center on August 5th and 6th, 2016. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:03:03.814] Ben Kato: I'm Ben Cato. I'm a designer for MindRide.

[00:03:06.237] Yehuda Duenyas: And I'm Yehuda. I'm the creative director, chief experience designer. I don't know. I'm also MindRide. Great. So what is MindRide? MindRide is an experiential entertainment company. And we make immersive experiences. And we often leverage new technologies to make those immersive experiences. And we're here at Virtual Reality Los Angeles, the VRLA conference. And we're exhibiting our new version of our flying simulator, Airflow.

[00:03:37.106] Kent Bye: Yeah, so maybe you could just describe to me Airflow.

[00:03:41.522] Ben Kato: So Airflow is a 4D flight simulator, a human flight simulator specifically. We basically give people the freedom of flight, you know, as the dream of flight.

[00:03:50.635] Yehuda Duenyas: For me it's like your dream of flying and it's a dream that we've all had. It's a mythic human narrative. And I think that's part of what MindRide does is we try to deliver experiences that you've only dreamt of or have only really existed in your dreams and try to physically manifest them into a conscious way to experience them at any time.

[00:04:12.558] Kent Bye: Yeah, so I actually had a chance to try out the Airflow, and I had an amazing time. I thought it was a lot of fun. I think a lot of people, when they hear about VR for the first time, they sort of think of the things that they want to do. And they say, oh yeah, I want to fly around. And actually, a lot of times, flying around isn't all that interesting, because it looks a little bit like a skybox. And you don't have a lot of depth cues, and you're not actually feeling any of the haptics of flying. With Airflow, I think it was the first time that I was actually feeling the wind blowing in my face and if I'm going faster and slower, it's sort of varying how much wind is giving. To me, it felt like there's a big part of my primal brain that just thought I was flying around. It just gave it so much more visceral believability and really gave me the VR giggles a lot of just being like that joy of being able to fly around in that way.

[00:05:03.498] Yehuda Duenyas: That's awesome. I love the VR giggles. I think that's fantastic. I'm super happy to hear that. I think the wind is a... a deep component of the experience, and I think the primalness that you spoke about, I identify with that. You know, the fans, kind of high-powered digital fans that we're using, and they ramp up and ramp down faster or slower depending on your arm position. Also, just to explain to everyone, we have these sensors on your arms, and so we're really creating the controller out of your body. So, you're hanging in a harness, and you've got these two sensors on your arms, which I'm hoping that you just forget about after we put them on you. and you basically just use your arms to fly, and there's different arm positions that you use, which we're trying to build them to be more and more intuitive. And then once you really understand the control mechanism, there's a lot of subtlety and nuance and creativity that you can use in how you go about flying through this environment. And you can go up to, you know, 30,000 feet or dive down to, you know, hit the ground if you want to. And it creates a great sense of freedom and also really can put you into a flow state. So we've had some people who come. We give people at the conference only two minutes to ride because we're trying to ride as many people as possible. But when you come to our shop, you can ride for as long as you want. We've had people ride for 20 minutes at a time and we'll take some photos of them and keep watching and then we'll go and send some emails to some people and we'll poke our head back into the shop and people still fly, you know, they're still there flying and it's really beautiful to see that we can create this experience that really just can put you into a flow state and transport you to another world.

[00:06:45.331] Ben Kato: I think the fans actually mitigate a lot of the motion sicknesses. It's kind of inherent in a lot of VR, especially flight simulator VR, where you're actually kind of floating and moving through space a lot faster than you would if you were just walking or traversing in other ways. So it really mitigates that feeling of queasiness. So it gives you actually a longer time in VR. It's actually extending the time that you can really be in the moment just by how simple and minimal you can give you just with some fan control.

[00:07:14.181] Kent Bye: Yeah, from just thinking about it, you wouldn't think that having wind blowing in your face would make that much of a difference. But it's not just your face, it's your entire body, and I think that there's something about that level of haptics that I think is something that is pretty simple on the outside, but it has such a deep impact of really just selling the whole experience. and I've done other different flying type of experiences but that combined with also being in kind of like this floating state where my body is just horizontal and I'm hanging and I kind of just feel weightless in a lot of ways.

[00:07:50.333] Ben Kato: Awareness is a big component of that, of feeling suspended. It also, you know, is a different ride position that you would be for any other thing where you're actually sitting on a table or feeling gravity, this actually takes away a lot of that gravity and really does make you feel like you are floating in space because it feels like you're just wearing a vest that lets you levitate.

[00:08:08.552] Kent Bye: Now, just in terms of a VR design, you made the decision to kind of have a heads-up display. And typically, I'm not a big fan of that, especially if it's locked to your face. But I wonder if something like that is helping mitigate some motion sickness. Because in some ways, you have this little guide to see what your arm position is to see how you're turning. So was that something that you found has been giving some people some orientation to help mitigate with motion sickness?

[00:08:35.445] Yehuda Duenyas: It's a new feature. This is the first time that we've presented it publicly. These guys worked on it in the shop while I was away for a couple of weeks. And when I came back and tried it, I was really surprised at how much it did mitigate the motion sickness because for me, it gives me sort of an anchoring focal point very close to my face. I also feel like it's helpful for people to just understand, it helps with your flying control because you can see your pitch and your yaw and your speed a little bit. So I've noticed that it actually helps in a certain way, but it's a totally new feature. Airflow has been a series of experiments for us in user experience, haptics, and creating physically immersive experiences in VR. And so we're just continuing to iterate and to add new features and take features out. so that we can really understand what's that minimum effective dose or that triangulation of senses that you need to activate to really make you feel like you're there and doing it. And so a question that I ask people is, and I'll ask you too, did you have a moment in it that you actually did feel like you were flying or that you said, oh my God, this could be potentially what it's like to be flying. Not that any of us know what it's like to fly without anything on us. You know, I'm curious if that's something that you felt.

[00:09:56.350] Kent Bye: Well, there's different speeds of the wind that is blowing against you. And so I found that I definitely preferred putting my arms next to my side. And then when I looked down, there was a moment when I felt like I was like dive bombing down to the side of a mountain. I did kind of get this feeling of like, oh, this feels like I'm actually flying through the air and having that really strong wind. And the times where it doesn't is when I put my arms out and I just kind of suddenly stop. And I'm just like, OK, well, that's not what this would actually feel like. And so there's little things like that could break the presence a little bit. But I definitely had some moments where I just felt like I could be zooming around. And I kind of wanted to do the thing that people do if they jump off the side of a mountain But I also get very motion sick and so I know that it actually is more comfortable when you don't have a lot of optical flow or things that are showing you the movement and you're not actually feeling it. So I'm curious if the air and the wind would be enough for me personally to be able to simulate like a base jump where I'm like, feel like I'm just above the ground and kind of like flying through the air.

[00:11:02.886] Yehuda Duenyas: Yeah, I think maybe you mean like a squirrel suit, like one of those wing suits that the parachutists wear.

[00:11:08.669] Kent Bye: Exactly, yeah, when they're kind of flying down the side of a mountain in that way.

[00:11:11.891] Yehuda Duenyas: Yeah, that's really amazing. I have an interesting anecdote, which is I went after a conference recently, we presented Airflow at the Abundance 360 conference, the Peter Diamandis conference, and some people at the conference said, hey, we're going skydiving tomorrow, you should come with us. So I said, okay, I've never been skydiving before, I'll go. So I drive down the river, you know, past Riverside and, you know, meet my instructor and get all suited up and he talks me through what we're going to do and I'm feeling very calm and we get into the fuselage of the plane, there's like eight other people in there with us and all different levels of people that are going to be jumping out of the plane at different places. And as we're circling up to 12,000 feet, I'm looking out the window and I'm feeling extremely calm. I thought I was going to have to pee in my pants or just have like total information sensory overload that I wouldn't really be able to be cognitively understanding what's happening. I was completely calm. And then when it was our turn to jump out, we were the last people, we get to the door of the plane and I lean out and I look out of the plane. I'm being worn like a baby too in the front, so I didn't have a lot of responsibilities in this. I just had to go along with it and he was going to pull the cord and do everything. Still, I looked out and I was really shocked. I recognized this landscape because of our airflow experience. I had visually come to terms with what it would be like to be hanging that high off the ground, feeling the wind and looking out. and then we jumped and it was a big adrenaline rush but it was so comparable to the airflow experience in a way and what was interesting to me is I felt like the main difference was that I have my nervous system has a higher resolution than our VR experience. And so the resolution of my nervous system is responding at the true-to-life resolution that that is, and then our VR experience is at a lower resolution than that. But it was shocking to me how comparable the experiences were and how much it actually prepared me to jump out of an airplane, which I really thought I would be absolutely terrified to do. So it was just an interesting form of learning.

[00:13:21.837] Kent Bye: So we're here at VRLA, which has a lot of VR veterans. But I imagine that you're showing it to people who have never tried any VR at all. So I'm just curious if you have any favorite stories of people who have tried Airflow.

[00:13:35.221] Yehuda Duenyas: I mean, a lot of people, this has been their first time that they ever put a headset on. was hanging in our harness about to go on this flying experience.

[00:13:45.765] Ben Kato: A lot of those people haven't ever been in a harness before as well so it's a whole new experience actually just getting into the ride before you're even riding just the whole sort of suiting up and that whole sort of flight experience is all part of it. So I think people really react well and really get in the frame of it quite quickly even before they get in the headset because we've set it up so that it is a paced out event to get in a harness and get ready to go and learn how to fly and then go fly.

[00:14:14.766] Yehuda Duenyas: We've had some real orgasmic reactions, like, oh my god, oh my god, you know, we have had some really incredible, superlative, sort of over-the-top responses like that, particularly from people who haven't experienced VR before, don't know what to expect, and so it's always rewarding for us when we hear you know, oh my god, this is so cool, or a huge giggle or a laugh or, you know, someone lose, you know, they get the feeling of losing your stomach a little like when you go over a roller coaster or something like that, you know.

[00:14:45.807] Kent Bye: And so this seems like it's an experience that it's an installation. Throughput is always a challenge with these types of experiences, getting as many people who want to experience this high level of immersive experience in VR. And so I'm just curious, where does this go in the future? And what kind of context do you expect people actually using it?

[00:15:06.624] Ben Kato: throughput is really an issue I think right now we're doing like maybe seven people an hour something like that so it's low and we're working for a single unit I think really the way that we would have to scale is that we would just have multiple units and that kind of ties into I think kind of what we would want to do in the future is actually multiplayer Because right now it's a very singular flying experience, but I think it would be quite a bit more expansive to actually be flying with your friends, even multiple locations. So to be flying with your friends across the country or across the world, and still be able to fly in the same space, I think would be really exciting. And that's really, I think, the way to really conquer the sort of throughput is really just by scaling, which I think we can do.

[00:15:41.200] Yehuda Duenyas: I like this idea of a set of connected experiences that are around the world, potentially. or just in multiple locations and that they're all networked together. So I like this idea of a decentralized theme park in a way that takes place in these little pods. And Airflow is really the beginning of a platform for us. We have a lot of control over a lot of different physical elements. So we can control fans and heat and rumblers and CO2 blasts and there's tons of different things that we can control. including gaming content, all based on physical sensors. And we've used a wide range of different types of physical sensors as well. There's the sensors that Ben built for the arms, you know, these actual arm controllers, but we've used EEG sensors. There's tons of different types of physical computing platforms that we've experimented with and used. So, I really see this as the beginning of a platform for a way to really physicalize VR. And for me, the first couple years of VR were just kind of these weird lonely... I mean, beautiful and amazing and, you know, your mind reeled at the possibility. But they were kind of lonely. I'm still lonely in VR. I'm really interested in the companies that are doing the social platforms where you can connect with other people but you know our background is immersive theater and live experience and like being in a club or a concert dancing with people, you know, like feeling people. And so a lot of VR is beautiful and incredible, but still lonely in my opinion. And I see a lot of people working to rectify that. And I feel like to add to that lonely aspect of just unsocial so far, it's also physically alienating. Like there's a lot of, you know, a lot is just going on visually. And there's a lot of companies also that are sub pack and there's a bunch of people who are really trying to add more haptic and more sensorial aspects to this. So we're really trying to build a platform for that and find again, like what that triangulation is of, you know, you need a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and then you can create an experience that's so much deeper and to get more to that true to life resolution.

[00:17:59.393] Kent Bye: Great. So what's some of the big next steps for you and some of the big problems that you are really setting out to try to solve?

[00:18:06.238] Ben Kato: Well, just in terms of Airflow right now, it's just about developments and just adding more, bringing in more content as I think really part of the focus of what we want to do now. Some content partners to develop for the platform that we have, and as well as making new experiences. And I think so much of our experience has been in making basically live experience which I think really plays into making non-gaming virtual content because a lot of content here is basically from a gaming derivative in a lot of ways so I think what we tried to do in a lot of ways is really go for kind of broader human experience and that's specifically what we try to actually embody in VR is human experience.

[00:18:46.900] Yehuda Duenyas: I love I'm really I love I can't wait to try the VR rave tomorrow. I'm really excited about there's some things I'm really excited to try for those reasons the things that are real expansions on social conventions that we already have that are taking them into a digital realm and really expanding our idea of what it means to even be a social human being. I feel like those are really exciting experiments for me. And this is all, for us, it's all just a big experiment still. So many questions of, like, the what's next question and how, you know, eight out of ten people who talk to us speak to us about the business plan and monetizing it and, you know, why would you do this if you didn't know how you're going to sell it to begin with? And I feel like that's a mind state that I guess I fortunately don't always, I don't always have. I feel like we really want to create beautiful things. And I think that we're artists in that way. And that, you know, experience is our medium in a way. And that VR is one tool in that toolbox of experience.

[00:19:49.982] Kent Bye: Yeah, I really respect that because it's something that was a very unique experience that kind of put me into an experience within VR that I've never had before because likely it's not low-hanging fruit that is very easily turned into a high-volume venture within VR, but I feel like There likely is some sort of niche and it could be a little bit more of a boutique like you sign up for an hour Session to go fly around. I mean to me I would absolutely love to book an hour session to go explore a 3d mesh of the earth through like Google Earth type of just fly around and to really see from a high level different cities that I may be familiar with but I've never been able to actually see.

[00:20:32.482] Ben Kato: And I think that... I'd like to be able to fly through the solar system or through the cosmos or even through the galaxy. Like literally be able to cover, you know, light years in VR is something that I haven't necessarily seen. I'm definitely interested in also in sort of procedurally generated stuff as well looking, you know No man's sky and really large-scale procedural generation of universes is something that I think is really interesting and something that we can tap into as well Flying to the metaverse.

[00:20:56.619] Kent Bye: What are you have any anything that you want to fly through?

[00:20:59.622] Yehuda Duenyas: I want to fly through I want to fly through someone's body And I'm really into scale, so yes, like the universe, like the Eames's Power of Ten, like I really love that, you know, since forever I've always loved that piece. And I love that you expand out to the outer reaches of the universe by the powers of ten and then you go backwards and then you go to the atomic level. And there's those similar distances, those ratios are very similar, but on an atomic scale. So I really love playing with that idea of scale.

[00:21:31.658] Ben Kato: I'm really actually interested in specifically making kind of an LHC, Large Hadron Collider kind of simulator of airflow, where you're flying around at light speed and particle level, and you would be flying with other particles, and you could actually hit someone else. And sort of basically the idea of the quantum level of flying.

[00:21:51.785] Kent Bye: High high speed you know at light speed 99.99% of light speed and then we'd create tiny black holes Great well and finally what do you see is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable

[00:22:11.388] Yehuda Duenyas: The ultimate potential of virtual reality, well, I see it in all the stuff that we're wearing now, I just see that going away and I'm excited for all of this content to be generated from inside my nervous system. So that's one thing I feel like, you know, in sort of a longer trajectory future vision, I feel very encumbered by all this apparatus that we're, you know, we're developing all these things that we wear and we're putting more and more things on our body and I want to get to a point where we can strip those things away and be sort of bare humans again, albeit completely augmented and rewired and remade from the inside out. I feel like that is a very unique and interesting vision. And then when that happens, then we have the opportunity to, you know, merge all of our minds together and we'll have, you know, there's the internet of the HTML pages and then there's the internet of things and then there's the internet of humans. We're all actually connected in a very intense way, sort of metaphorically, like when people say everything is connected and we're all connected, we can actually more literally be physically connected. So I don't know, I have big dreams and big sort of sci-fi fantasies for the possibilities. Ultimately, I want to create experiences that lead to a better sense of well-being for people, that connect people to each other, that inspire peace and love between humans. And maybe we have the opportunity to really change the narrative in culture right now. We live in a very bizarrely violent, crazy world. So I'm hoping somehow through this new medium we can really develop a new language and create a new sense of well-being among people. That's my real hope for it.

[00:23:59.968] Ben Kato: Oh, well, that's quite a broad hope. Right now, I mean, in the near future, I definitely see just hardware advancement as kind of the next step. But really, I've seen just within virtual reality, getting closer and closer to holodeck, that sort of holodeck idea of being able to transport yourself to any given space. And, you know, as VR has now become about the whole space around you with room volumes and HTC Vive, I think, you know, that's where basically moving towards holodeck and creating other realities. that you can really be in. And the more you can be in it, I think this is really kind of what's going to define that. And then maybe it's not virtual reality at that point anymore.

[00:24:37.112] Yehuda Duenyas: Well, I mean, we both have kids and my daughter has flown in the airflow. She's nine now and she's been flying in it since I guess she was eight a year ago. And to her, it's not really virtual reality. It's just reality. I know this has been said before. It's nothing new. But it's just reality to her. So it's interesting, all these sort of perversions and permutations of reality that we're creating. It's exciting. Honestly, we just want to have a good time. We just want to have fun. And we want to deliver fun to people. And we want to create delight and joy. I feel like that's a big motivation for us.

[00:25:14.174] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. So that was Yehuda de Yunis as well as Ben Cato of MindRide and they have an experience that was at VRLA called Airflow. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all this was the most immersive flying experience that I've had a chance to have so far and There's just really something super compelling to having your body suspended and kind of feeling this feeling of weightlessness as well as with the wind hitting my body. It just was able to give me enough cues to my primal part of my brain that it just gave me this really deep sense of immersion. Now, what else I really found interesting about this interview is that I got the sense that MindRide isn't necessarily trying to create experiences to maximize their number of profit and revenue, but they're actually just more artists who are trying to create the most immersive experience that is possible. And to me, there's obviously a bit of an economics question of how they're going to actually be able to sustain this in the long run. Are they able to have the logistics and the throughput and the scale to be able to actually make this into a viable business venture? as artists as an experience it's definitely one of the more immersive experiences and I think really shows the power of the body because I think we often underestimate the impact of having these 4d effects of either wind or in this case I think the effect of your body actually feeling weightless and flying around because a lot of the experience of flying around is not really all that visual actually because you can go into a VR experience and look at the visual stimuli of flying around, but that's a lot different than actually feeling that sense of weightlessness and having all the haptic feedback of what it would actually feel like in the air as you're flying around. So the body is super important in this concept of embodied cognition, where we're actually using a lot more than just our brain to form our perception. But we're actually taking this whole sensory experience of our entire body, and that we don't actually really know how our reality is constructed in our mind. But we have a sense that it has something to do with combining both what's happening in our neuroscience of neurons firing, but also all this input that's coming in through our body, as well as our emotions. So just looking at humans as this holistic perceptual system, you start to look at how do you cultivate and really deepen this intense sense of presence. And I think that Meinride's actually on to something here with their experience of airflow. The other really interesting anecdote about this interview was just Yehuda's account of actually going skydiving and that there is some sense of all the time that he had spent within Meinride had kind of normalized to a certain extent the process of going up into an airplane and jumping out of an airplane and you know his body had some sense of what that might feel like that gave him a more of a comfort than had he just never done this experience before to jump out of an airplane which i think is really interesting to think about some of the implications of you know the anecdote that i shared at the very beginning of two-bit circus of As I'm standing on this window washing platform and then the instruction is to step off, how much is that going to train my body to say, okay, well, it's actually okay to disregard and ignore your body signals when you're in these highly dangerous situations. But overall, I'd say that the lesson of an experience like Airflow from Mine Ride is that the body is actually giving a lot more depth of presence than we can fully really understand at this point. I don't know how feasible it is going to be if we're going to eventually have these harnesses that give us the sense of weightlessness, or if we're going to have these super intense haptic devices within our home, or if this is going to be the type of technology that's going to only be in the arcade type of experience. Are you going to have to go out of your home to really get the full immersion of what's possible in virtual reality? I think that's certainly going to be true for a while in terms of just the cost that it takes to be able to have an experience like this, this fully, deeply immersive experience that's very focused on the flight experience. You know, maybe people will enjoy it so much that they actually get it into their home because they want to fly around. But I suspect that experiences like this are going to end up in the VR arcades just for the short term. And maybe into the distant future of virtual reality, we'll see more and more of these sophisticated type of haptic devices coming into our homes. So VRLA is going to be happening again this weekend. And I'm looking forward to actually trying out a lot of the other new motion platforms that are out there, just because you'll be able to have these types of experiences that you can't really have anywhere else at this point. So that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and become a donor. Just a few dollars a month makes a huge difference. So donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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