Evidence of Human Birdwings flying hoax piles up
By Eric Mack
March 21, 2012
"Human Birdwings" creator Jarno Smeets and his Android-powered, mechanically-assisted flying machine are creating a stir again. Gizmag originally reported on Smeets' effort to fly like a bird when he posted a video of his first test flight, in which he appeared to hang in the air a few feet off the ground for a second or two. In the video of his latest attempt, he's shown soaring around in the air, and a lively debate over the validity of the video is already heating up.
Smeets claims to have flown 100 meters (328 ft) in the latest attempt, which now has over one million views in less than two days on YouTube.
His home-built "birdwings" consist of a rather ingenious combination of a large kite re-fashioned into a sort of over-sized hang glider, which is connected to a backpack harness and a central motor that actually flaps the wings. The motor takes its cue from Smeets himself, though, who flaps his arms bird-style and Android smartphones strapped to his sleeves communicate via Bluetooth with an Arduino board on the backpack that then translates the human arm flaps into flaps of the larger wing assembly.
The project has been in the works for many months now, and Smeets has documented the process thoroughly in his blog and increasingly in the media.
Even Smeets' first, and rather unimpressive, test flight was met with skepticism, but now that the latest video (you can watch it at the end of this post) seems to show him and his contraption flying around with ease, a number of sources are pronouncing the video a fraud while others still say it could be the real deal.
One Gizmodo reader who claims to be a pilot with an aeronautical engineering background commented that some things in the video just don't add up to actual flight:
"Just look at the wings. They're not showing load at any time. The fabric from the old kiteboarding kite—that's what the wings are made of—never loads up. If the wings were producing lift, the fabric would be tight, it would look like it was inflated. It never does. "
A purported hang glider and engineer also offered similar critiques, while Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters fame says he doesn't see evidence the video was faked:
"It seems reasonable to accomplish, and is something I have wanted to try for a long time. I am suspicious because there is not much detail shown of the actual machine, but that does not mean anything other than they don't show it all."
Internet marketing expert Brent Coker says that he is "85 percent sure" the viral video is a marketing ploy by one of the companies whose products are used in the project. Smeets has repeatedly pointed out that the craft is powered by a pair of HTC Wildfire smartphones and a Nintendo Wii controller.
That would be a pretty elaborate plan for the purpose of a little brand recognition, however. Over the past eight months, Dutch journalists and others have reported on Smeets' project and visited his workshop. He's also documented the painstaking process of creating the main wing itself and assembling the motors, none of which have any branding attached to them.
In another Gizmodo post, the consensus among a team of CGI experts at Industrial Light and Magic is that the video is a fake. They point to one tell-tale sign of a hoax that Gizmag readers initially pointed out in my first post about the Human Birdwings project weeks ago - a mysterious dot that suddenly appears on one side of the wings after the camera pans away and back.
Smeets' response to these claims of fakery weeks ago was that the test flight video had been cut together from multiple takes.
But the CGI crew also notes that in a much earlier video, where Smeets shows a software-created prototype 3D model, the modeling software being used is a package often used by CGI artists:
"I would think if this was the engineering vid it claims to be they would be using a 3D modeling program more suited to physics based modeling. Also the toolbar they have loaded atop the program is the 'Cloth Simulation' area of the program, which is used create such effects as fabric wings moving through air ... hmmm. This isn't 100% proof but it is strange for them to have such a detailed ANIMATED model in a CG program rather than a engineering one."
Another CGI expert weighs in, claiming that the shaky camera work is a deliberate means of being able to cover up CGI mistakes, and goes so far as to stabilize a clip to demonstrate his point. It's pretty convincing evidence that the entire thing may be a hoax, but the question remains - why?
Smeets has not yet responded to requests for comment.
It would appear that the fakery has now been confirmed. Dutch CGI artist, Floris Kaayk - who was posing under the assumed identity of Jarno Smeets all along - has apparently appeared on Dutch television and confessed that the videos are the result of CGI. The TV appearance was spotted and tweeted by one Sjoerd Jan Henstra, and picked up by Gizmodo. So that's that. Hopefully.
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