Houston, We Have A Fake: Human BirdWings Guy Is An Animator [Updated]

Well, the evidence is mounting, and it looks like I may have let my eagerness for the possibility of self-propelled flight (of the Wii-sensored flapping variety) get in the way of reality. Yesterday, we covered Jarno Smeets, a.k.a. The Human BirdWings guy, supposedly taking off on self-built wings on a flight that he claimed spanned over 100 meters. However, the CGI experts are calling BS on the semi-self-propelled flight. And while this still doesn’t prove it’s a hoax directly — in fact, Jamie Hyneman of MythBusters yesterday laid out an explanation of how it could be plausible using modern tech — it sure isn’t looking good for old Jarno. Update: And today, Floris Kaayk revealed that there is in fact no “Jarno Smeets.” It was all a big, fat avian hoax.

Today, Gizmodo has had itself a talk with Ryan Martin, the Technical Director at Industrial Light & Magic (George Lucas’ CGI guys), who was firmly of the mind that Smeets’ flight did not fall within the realm of the possible and was a fake, albeit an impressive one. He said:

Okay, so I don’t see any glaring visual problems, but that’s expected when the quality is as shitty as this. But that’s the first thing that makes me question its authenticity. They’re able to afford to build this thing, but can’t invest in proper video equipment, or… a tripod. If I were to make a fake video with the intention of going viral, I would make certain that the quality was as poor as possible to disguise any flaws in poor cg work. Another big visual issue I have with this video is the stability of his head during flight. Try and keep your head that still while waving your arms up and down when they aren’t attached to a giant wing contraption. Still, it seems almost too crazy to be fake and I was unable to find other glaring flaws with the video.

Not only that, but 12 or so other employees at Industrial Light & Magic weighed in to express their skepticism over not only the questionable camera work, but the very physics. Many pointed out not only the apparent stillness of his head during flight, but the sheer muscle power it would take to power something like this with his arms, where in fact legs tend to be a far better source of power.

Among the other employees that weighed in, there were explanations like this one:

The most efficient for human transportation appears to be a fixed wing aircraft. You can get very good results from a good laminar wingform and a low power engine/motor. His wings will definitely not provide the aerodynamics to haul a 180 pounds in the air. The largest bird had a 23 foot wingspan, and was only 171 pounds. It also had very large pectoral muscles to handle the power needed.

The bit about the contraption requiring large pectoral muscles, etc. in order to work doesn’t really consider all the evidence, I would argue. Not that these CGI guys don’t know what they’re talking about, but it might be good to watch this video before you judge — as one of our commenters pointed out. In this video, Smeets explains how the movement of the wings is possible given the congress of the tech of WiiMote/Wildfire, etc., using sensors that detect the movement of his hands, etc. to reduce the workload. He’s not actually flapping them himself, or at least not in the way you might first picture in your head.

Again, this doesn’t prove plausibility. It remains so confusing, after all the skepticism that’s followed him, why … if he were about to do something not unprecedented but still noteworthy nonetheless … he wouldn’t make sure to set up a tripod, or actually film the landing. And, in the end, in spite of my initial reaction, that’s where I err on the side of issuing a mea culpa and agree that this is bullshit.

It’s hard to see past considering he set up YouTube accounts, Facebook and Twitter accounts, made fifteen videos, involved quite a few people, set up a blog — and basically went to some great lengths to ground his entire experiment in (at least somewhat plausible) physics. On his Facebook Wall, there are more than a few touching messages from people believing it’s true. Obviously, he might have done it for the ad revenue from YouTube, or for sponsorship, or to drum up interest for his visual effects studio — that certainly wouldn’t be a surprise.

However, in the comment section of our post yesterday, some jokingly suggested that MythBusters should take a look at Jarno’s flight. And, in fact, they did. Jamie Hyneman wrote a post yesterday. Although he was appropriately suspicious, he laid out how such a flight is possible thanks to modern tech. Here’s an excerpt:

The flight itself is not as impressive as it may seem, given a bit of a headwind and or a very slight incline; running and gliding close to that height and distance might be possible without any flapping or motors. My guess is that the motors are in fact helping, but that 10 hp would likely have made such a glider go much further by using conventional propellers. The battery packs the guy is using may also not last more than a few minutes–but we don’t see how many he has on him.

The device is also something that is only possible in recent times, given proliferation of these types of high torque, high power density brushless motors, high voltage speed controllers and lithium batteries, off the shelf carbon fiber components and so on. I like that the attempt and could see such a design mainly being used as a relatively quiet and compact way of hang gliding. I could also see being able to stay up in the air a bit longer by having the ability to move forward into helpful currents–much like large soaring birds do. These guys could likely improve performance at some point by having hollow wings, which can be done at similar weight but without losses associated with loose fabric.

Of course, this all could just be a really smart marketing stunt from GoPro (who makes the helmetcam he apparently uses), but we’ll hold off on that level of cynicism at least until Smeets responds. And speaking of that, I’ve repeatedly reached out to him asking for his reaction to the skepticism and to Gizmodo’s debunking to no avail. We’ll stay at it and will update if and when we hear more. But for now, let’s go ahead and call it a fake and move on.

But what do you guys think? Busted?

Update: It appears that, although Smeets claims on his LinkedIn profile to have worked at Pailton Engineering Limited, the company told Wired that no one named Jarno Smeets has ever worked there. In short, it looks like his LinkedIn profile is faked.

So, there you have it. From me, a full mea culpa, and a promise not to let any more Smeets hoaxes get the best of us.

Update 2: The video in which Floris Kaayk admits it was all a fake is below. (Press “cc” for subtitles.) I’m sure he’ll become a legend in the animation/visual effects community, and plenty will be lining up to be part of his next project. So kudos to him for taking us all for a ride on his fake, fake wings. He certainly had me fooled, as semi-self-powered flight is something that has captured the imagination of many — for millennia. Of course, the result of all this could be that we all become a little more jaded, thanks to a team of Belgian hipsters. But, I don’t want to let bitterness win the day, so congratulations, “Floris.”

Now, as a YouTube commenter pointed out: Go grow a beard, because there are a lot of people who are going to want to punch you in the face.

Video here, and Gizmodo’s post here.


Update 3: The Human Birdwings/Revolver Media team explains the motivation behind the project …

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