When drones and virtual reality come together in an out-of-body experience

Raphael Pirker, the entrepreneur behind Team BlackSheep, asked me if I saw the birds. Tilting my head up at the foggy skies above the hills of Moraga, California, I couldn’t see them — my view didn’t change, no matter which way I turned my head.

I had forgotten that my eyes were not my own — they belonged to a drone named Gemini.

I tilted my head back down, instinctively looking at the controller in my hands, even though I couldn’t see that either. My view, still of the mountains and the foggy sky, stayed the same. My thumb nudged the left joystick forward, and my line of vision went up until I finally saw three black birds circling near me, their outlines a bit fuzzy.

My body was a hundred feet below, standing on a hilltop a half hour east of the San Francisco Bay. The birds were high in the sky, and my drone, with its camera pointing toward them, was now flying at the same altitude. The buzzing eventually scared them off, and I thumbed the joystick down and guided the drone back toward me.

My body came into view: white goggles strapped to my face, controller in my hands, shoes soaked in the wet grass. It was the first time in my life I had stared at myself — from outside of myself.

Gigaom staffer Biz Carson tries her hand at flying a drone.
Gigaom staffer Biz Carson tries her hand at flying a drone.

First-person drones

Before last week’s adventure in the East Bay’s hills, the one time I’d test-flown a drone was inside the Gigaom office, where the GPS didn’t work and the slightest flick of my finger on the handset sent the drone straight into the ceiling and crashing into the floor. Drones are meant to be flown outdoors, where GPS coordinates can pick them up and guide them, and you’re left tracking a whizzing orb in the sky with your eyes and maneuvering it via a controller it in your hands.

But that day in Moraga, I was with my Gigaom colleague Signe Brewster and drone advocate Raphael Pirker, who was in town from Hong Kong where he runs Team BlackSheep to go drone racing. It’s a natural progression for drone hobbyists, Pirker explained. Once they get good at flying around, people turn competitive and start racing in a kind of Star Wars–style pod-racing thing of the future.

First-person-view drones, or FPV drones, operate a little differently from the hobby drones you most often hear about in the news. They’re operated by relaying the video stream from the drone’s camera into a pair of virtual reality goggles, instead of piloting the device by just watching it in the sky.

But it’s not virtual reality in a typical sense. Most VR products tout a 360-degree experience — you can stand in a room and look all around it. FPV drones have a fixed view, so you can’t see what’s around the drone, only what the camera on the drone is seeing. Compared to Microsoft’s HoloLens project, FPV drones are not considered augmented reality either since you’re not using your own eyes to see reality with a projection upon it. In the Fat Shark–branded goggles, my peripheral vision was all black, but my eyes were focused on the green hills and gray horizon — not a virtual environment, but a future use case for VR technology.

Because of the battery life, most FPV drone flights last less than 10 minutes. After six minutes of seeing the world through the eyes of a machine, I got spooked and handed over the controls. But if you get the opportunity to fly for six minutes, you should take it.

Eyes in the sky

The course was laid out below me: four flags and a bush that I was supposed to weave this mechanical piece of plastic through.

Instead, I just wanted to hover high above the course, flicking my right thumb on the control pad left and right to turn the drone’s camera – and my eyes – around the vista. Otherwise it was mostly quiet as I flew above the hills, except for me chattering anxiously to those around me. The drone was too far away for me to hear its buzzing.

I don’t know what I expected flying to feel like. I’ve never hovered above land before, on a hot air balloon or while paragliding or skydiving. The closest feeling I could compare it to was being at the top of a roller coaster, where you look out as you teeter at the top before gravity pulls you back down.

Biz Carson, right, navigates an FPV drone while Raphael Pirker, far left, and Olivier Ancely, middle, watch the same feed on a screen.
Biz Carson, right, navigates an FPV drone while Raphael Pirker, far left, and Olivier Ancely, middle, watch the same feed on a screen.

Flying, via a drone’s perspective, abandons those physical limitations. I didn’t have to worry about parachutes or inflating or deflating a balloon to go up or down. I nudged a joystick up to be among birds. If I had accidentally crashed the drone, the loss would have been a couple hundred dollars of plastic and my ego — not my life. It’s an out-of-body experience that doesn’t require death to be a part of it. I could have always turned the camera around to look at myself, my physical body, to make sure I was still there on that mountain top — and then moved my fingers and flown on.

As I handed off the controls, Pirker’s friend did a barrel roll with the drone, flipping it in circles in the sky. When was the last time my vision had been spinning like this?

I felt like I was a kid rolling down a hill, that spinning vision of earth, sky, earth, sky, earth, sky. My eyes and my mind were detached from my body.

As the drone came in for a landing, my body came into view once more. I wasn’t covered in dirt. I hadn’t been rolling down a hill. I had never been flying in the sky, or scaring away birds. My feet were still soaked through on a soggy mountain top.

I took off the goggles, my vision once again, disappointingly, my own. Grounded.