Thinking Tech

Exclusive: The man with mechanical wings speaks

Posting in Design

The Human Birdwing project's Jarno Smeets addresses some of the criticism surrounding his controversial human-powered flight video, which many experts have labeled an elaborate hoax.

It wasn't surprising that it took only a few hours for a video that seemed to show a man with mechanical wings flying like a bird to become an Internet sensation.

After all, mankind has been trying to do that since, well, forever. But as news spread, many called it a hoax, with several viewers and experts pointing to visual evidence that casts a serious cloud of doubt over the video's authenticity.

(Unfamiliar? You can watch the video here.)

Tech site Gizmodo showed the video to animators and special effects artists at Industrial Light and Magic, most of whom derided the feat as a slight of hand trick that integrated CGI manipulation and clever editing. Human-powered flight expert Dr. Todd Reichert of the University of Toronto argued that with the equipment, the man in the video would have to run at impossible speeds to achieve leftoff.

"Unless this guy can blow by Usain Bolt in a sprint, he's not going to reach takeoff speed by running," he told The Huffington Post.

Also, an investigation by Dave Mosher at Wired.com found that the personal details of the inventor Jarno Smeets, called "Bird-Man" in that report, couldn't be verified. For instance, while his LinkedIn profile lists Philips Design and Pailton Steering Systems as places of employment, no one at either company knows who he is.

While the whole project now sounds pretty fishy, the man at the center of the controversy agreed to answer a limited number of questions via e-mail in an attempt to address the some of criticism that have been leveled at him.

SmartPlanet: How did you come up with the idea or design for Bird Wings? What made you believe that what you came up ultimately would work?

Jarno Smeets: The history of the project is documented on my blog, including the whole backstory.

SP: Is this an entirely personal project, as you stated, or were there other sponsors or outside parties involved?

JS: It is a personal project with no commercial sponsors involved.

SP: Why did you choose to document the project through your blog and YouTube? Wouldn't it have been more credible to showcase it elsewhere in collaboration with a more objective entity, like a television program or a university?

JS: Because i strongly believe in the involvement of the audience. This has been a typical DIY project and I love the open source nature of it.

SP: Skeptics charge that the video of you flying is a hoax. Some of these criticisms suggest you may have used CGI manipulation and clever editing as well as arguments that the equipment is flawed and that the stunt is physically impossible. Do you have a response or at least an opinion about these doubts?

JS: There has been an elaborate debate about it, which I have been following with great interest. I understand all the doubts, as that obviously comes with a project like this and I consider this as an essential element as well. But I prefer to leave to it to everybody on their own to decide what to believe or not.

SP: You can prove the critics wrong by either posting the raw footage or putting on a live demonstration for the media and experts. Do you plan to do so? If not, why?

JS: No, I dont plan to prove anything

SP: What are your future plans for the project? Do you plan to post more videos, improve the invention or market it in any way?

JS: I have reached my personal goal and dream and that was all it was about for me.

Update: [3:45 PM E.T.] Mere minutes after I posted this interview, it's claimed that another video emerged. This time it shows Jarno Smeets, which is not even his real name, admit to faking the flying video, according to a user on Twitter. Apparently, he had used animation tricks to hoodwink almost everyone into believing he actually flew. Although he neither confirmed or denied to me that it was a rouse all along, I think you can read between the lines. Read the details on Gizmodo.

Update:[4:15 PM E.T.] Here's his confession on Dutch TV via Wired.

Photo: Jarno Smeets

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure