It sounds too good to be true: A Dutch engineer named Jarno Smeets has released a video (below), which appears to show him flying like a bird, using little more than the power of his arms to achieve liftoff. The video has quickly spread around the Web in true viral fashion, with more than 850,000 views on YouTube, and the project has been reported as real by publications like Wired and Time magazine. But a quick look at the comments sections shows that the public isn’t buying it.
Smeets’ suspicious winged contraption, known as the “Human Bird Wings project,” was built using kite fabric, carbon windsurf masts, Turnigy motors, and the accelerometers from Wii controllers and an HTC Wildfire S smartphone. According to his press release, the unique setup “allowed [Smeets] to move his arms freely without any risk of breaking them.” Smeets says the design, which took eight moths to perfect, was inspired by the work of his grandfather and Leonardo DaVinci.
Watching the video, it’s nearly impossible not to get excited. Human-powered flight — actual flight, not gliding — has been an unreachable dream for probably as long as humans have had imaginations. It’s also impossible not to suspect that the whole thing is a giant marketing gimmick. Interestingly, however, a few noteworthy sources (like “Mythbusters'” Jamie Hyneman) have said that the alleged feat is physically possible (tho improbable), and there is no evidence so far that the video was made using CGI. That of course doesn’t confirm that Smeets really flapped his wings and took off. But it does narrow the chances that we’re all being played for fools.
After Wired covered the story straight, the publication’s resident science expert, Rhett Allain, analyzed the video using motion-tracking software. His conclusion: “Let me just say that there is nothing in this video that indicates it must be a fake.”
That said, a number of pilots and hang gliding experts tell Gizmodo that the video is most certainly fake, since the telltale signs that Smeets is actually flying (like the fabric in the wings going taut) are entirely absent. Moreover, it’s appears that Smeets is lying about something — his employment history. Belgian website Humo reports that two of the places Smeets claims on his LinkedIn profile to have worked — Philips Design and Paliton Engineering — both denied that he was ever employed there. Another damning detail is that, since the video came out, Smeets has refused to give any interviews (at least as far as we can tell). Indeed, he never responded to our email, sent out yesterday, asking about the video.
Obviously, this one is still, ahem, up in the air. And regardless of whether this is real or simply a very fantastic example of viral marketing, it’s still quite an achievement.
Watch the video below:
UPDATE: A reader just clued us into this video (below), in which visual effects artist Daniel Lang “debunks” Smeets’ allegedly historic flight. In two instances, Lang says he sees evidence that the flight video (above) is simply very well executed CGI. While we are definitely skeptical, we’re not 100 percent sure that this is conclusive evidence of a hoax, per se, but it’s certainly more believable than a guy flying like a bird with some homemade contrivance.