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The Wright Brothers: From Kitty Hawk to Virtual Realty

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December 17th, 1903 was a day that changed the world forever. On that day, a pair of seemingly ordinary bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio launched what looked like a propeller-driven box-kite along the Atlantic Ocean beach of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina — achieving history’s first powered flight.

Fast-forward 112 years. Most people today are familiar with the Wright Brothers — Wilbur and Orville Wright — but very little else is known about them. In fact, there probably a better chance that somebody could tell you who your favorite celebrity is dating at the moment than the name of the Wright’s first powered airplane, now is on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Significantly, it is the only aircraft in the entire Smithsonian museum that has a separate and dedicated exhibit hall all to itself.

Why would such a famous plane — an aircraft that achieved the world’s first powered flight, and occupies such exalted exhibition space at the most visited museum in the world — be a mere afterthought among today’s public?

“I think people just don’t really understand what an achievement it was that Wilbur and Orville did on that cold December day in 1903,” says investment banker-turned-film producer Jonah Hirsch, sitting in his office in Beverly Hills.

Hirsch, who has spent the better part of the last 5 years attempting to secure funding for a feature film about the epic story of the Wright Brothers laments, “Studios want super-heroes, they want war, they want vampires — nobody seems to be interested in human achievement anymore except the indie financiers. To do this story justice, the film can’t be done on a typical indie budget so the options aren’t very good.”

Not somebody to give up easily, Hirsch turned his sights on making an IMAX movie for the museum audiences.

“I grew up around the Washington, DC area as a kid, and every year we would visit the Air and Space Museum on school field trips,” says Hirsch. “Without question the best part of the visit to the museum was buying the freeze-dried astronaut Neapolitan ice cream from the gift shop, and then settling in to watch the IMAX movie ‘To Fly’.”

Hirsch was visiting the museum on a trip to discuss the feature film with the Smithsonian’s top Wright Brothers historians, Dr. Tom Crouch and Dr. Peter Jakab. To his surprise, the same IMAX film he saw as a kid, was still playing at the Smithsonian. One of the original IMAX movies made for the museum’s giant screen, “To Fly” has been in continual exhibition at the museum for more than 30 years. Hirsch and his partners bought tickets and watched the iconic 40-minute movie. Afterward, Hirsch turned to his partners and said, “We’re making an IMAX movie”.

Hirsch had never made IMAX movie — but he didn’t view it as a problem. Hirsch and his partners hired well-known Hollywood creative talent to develop an original script. They also hired acclaimed street artist Shepard Fairy to create original artwork for the project in an attempt to make the project “feel a bit hipper” for today’s audiences, and hopefully, more attractive to financiers.

The project started taking shape in October of 2014. James Knight, one of Hollywood’s leading visual effects and motion capture experts who was part of the pioneering never-seen-before motion capture techniques with James Cameron on the epic blockbuster AVATAR, joined the effort and started scoping-out the project. Knight, the youngest member of the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Sci-Tech Committee, was looking for something different — different than the typical 16-hour-day grind required the blockbuster hits he’s worked on, including The Amazing Spiderman and Hulk.

“When I first heard about the Wright Brothers project, I was immediately interested,” says Knight. “If I wasn’t working on films, I’d be teaching history at university — and this was a perfect opportunity to blend both.” A die-hard British soccer fan (football, more properly), Knight’s distinct Burberry’s uniform and High Street accent were a regular at weekend matches. There he met another die-hard soccer fan and ex-pat living in Los Angeles — Roy Taylor, an executive with computer processor and graphics maker AMD.

Taylor frequently scours the Los Angeles scene for talented virtual reality developers and unique ideas. He was immediately interested in the Wright Brother’s project, and suggested something even better than an IMAX film: a “virtual reality” experience.


“IMAX films give the viewer an ‘immersive’ entertainment experience, but virtual reality — VR — enables a feeling of realistic ‘presence’, of actually being inside the experience,” says Knight. After a technical discussion while lunching at a local Hollywood hotspot, Taylor arranged to have an Oculus DK2 VR headset and a very high-powered notebook PC sent to Hirsch so he could experience firsthand what this virtual reality buzz was all about.

Knight set up the VR demo in the conference room, and Hirsch donned the VR headset. It only took about 30 seconds. Hirsch pulled off the headset and said, “OK — we’re doing virtual reality now.”

Working with Crouch and Jakab at the Smithsonian, Hirsch and his team have attempted to re-create the most accurate two minutes of history ever viewed in a virtual experience — right down to minute details of the aircraft, including which side of the battery the ground cable is connected — with every detail thoroughly researched and reproduced.

“Never before in the history of cinema has six months of production been devoted to creating two-minute piece,” says Hirsch. “Even Spielberg takes small liberties on his historical films for the sake of a great story — but we could not, as we had one mission, and one mission only:  to recreate history as it was.”

Viewers of the piece will be able to able to walk around, pause, rewind, and see the historic flight from different vantage points on the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, where it all began.

If only Wilbur and Orville Wright were alive to see this virtual reality re-creation of their first flight. They might conclude that the future has no need of an airplane, because virtual reality enables everyone to visit with each other in virtual space (though making that a reality is still years away). Hirsch and his team are busy working on their next historical piece, and plan to create a series of historical events that are best suited for the VR experience.


When asked whether he plans on still pursuing the IMAX or feature film, Hirsch answers, “Absolutely,” but then pauses and smiles, “The ability recreate history in a virtual world is something that has never been done before, and is much more exciting to me. What better story to recreate and first experience than the Wright Brother’s historic flight.”

“First: The Story of Wilbur and Orville” will be available for viewing at E3 for people attending AMD’s Fiji card launch event on June 16, 2015 at the Belasco Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.

PS: The name of the Wright Brother’s plane – the name nobody knows — was simply called the “1903 Flyer”.

Sasa Marinkovic is Head of VR Marketing for AMD. His postings are his own opinions and may not represent AMD’s positions, strategies or opinions. Links to third party sites are provided for convenience and unless explicitly stated, AMD is not responsible for the contents of such linked sites and no endorsement is implied.