The Wait for "Top Gun" Virtual Reality Is Over

Illustration for article titled The Wait for Top Gun Virtual Reality Is Over

Let's be honest: Aerial acrobatics are about as badass as it gets. Unfortunately, they're not too accessible for the average person without the thousands of dollars and years of training it takes to get a pilot's license in a high-performance plane. But New Zealand company Air Sports Ltd. envisions a world where we'll all get to duke it out on our computers with actual pilots — and those pilots will be flying real planes in the open air. In the first test flight of Air Sports Ltd.'s Sky Challenge, gamer Ernest Artigas sat on the ground and faced off against two airborne flyboys, completing a virtual obstacle course that was projected into their cockpits. Check out this video footage, and get ready for online air sports that are half-virtual, half-reality.Artigas was up against Castor Fantoba, the number four aerobatic pilot in the world, and test pilot Bruno Van Waeyenberghe. Fantoba and Waeyenberghe took off from an airfield in Lerida, Spain; using a combination of GPS (global positioning satellite technology) and INS (inertial navigation systems), their Extra EA-300L aircraft were able to follow the virtual course while in the air. In the end, Fantoba beat Artigas by 1.5 seconds.

This wasn't just for fun, either. The dynamic nature of the virtual course makes it an ideal possibility for pilot training; every time Artigas, Fantoba, or Waeyenberghe missed an obstacle, his finish line was postponed. According to the BBC, though, the two pilots are nervous about the increased presence of virtual reality in flight:

Air Sports aims to ramp up the virtual experience in the cockpit. It is considering projecting images of obstacle courses on to the retinas of pilots. Nevertheless, safety concerns are an issue. One of the pilots from the trial reported feeling detached from reality in his cockpit. Peter Newport is wary of pushing boundaries too far. "We wouldn't suggest this is carried out by amateur organisations. We are working at the top of the game, using highly skilled pilots. Until virtual reality is better understood, widespread use should not be encouraged."


If anything is going to be projected onto a pilot's retinas in flight, it had better be damn accurate. Until GPS and INS are better than human eyes at giving pilots an instinctive sense of where they are and how they're moving, too much made-up scenery in the cockpit is probably a bad idea. Still, the Sky Challenge test flight went well, and this partially virtual competition is a great way to bring both pilots and flight simulator addicts together to revel in the glory of the free sky. Air Sports Ltd. plans to develop Sky Challenge into both a mini-airshow and a multiplayer internet video game — so get ready to pit your joystick hand against the aerobatic pilots of the world. [Sky Challenge]

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When you consider that the Rocket Racing League, which just got FAA approval, does the same thing only at incredible high speeds, why would anyone watch this?