Archery is a versatile pastime. You can enjoy it outside or fling arrows at an indoor range. You can shoot with a group or practice on your own. However, there’s one constant: Shooting arrows requires a safe range. Not everybody has the luxury of having a backyard range or easy access to a commercial one. But Kay Niu, then a member of the UCLA archery team, created her own way to safely practice anywhere.
Niu developed Project Aero, a virtual archery training simulator, as her senior project at UCLA. “I decided I wanted to combine both passions as my final school project,” Niu said. “I majored in design and media arts, and archery was a large part of my time there as well.”
Despite joking that she minored in archery, Niu didn’t plan to pursue the sport in college. She took it up during her freshman year after a chance encounter. She just happened to walk by the archery club festival on her way to the dorms. She gave it a shot and was hooked. Niu soon began competing on the school’s archery team.
“At first it was about the satisfaction of hitting the center of the target, as well as figuring out what makes my arrows group together,” Niu said. “As I went to tournaments and made good friends while competing, the love for the sport was also loving the community.”
Studies and competition kept Niu busy, and she realized she wasn’t the only archer who didn’t always have enough time to shoot as many arrows as she hoped. And that’s where Project Aero came in. “I hypothesized that if you don’t need to walk to go pull your arrows, you can get off more shots in a practice period,” Niu said.
With Project Aero, archers can shoot anywhere, without arrows. So there are no safety issues. The system uses a high-end virtual reality headset. The archer pairs this with a custom-rigged bow and release. They draw the bow and aim at the target through an HTC Vive headset. When they’re ready, they squeeze the trigger on the release.
Project Aero does more than just allow student archers to practice in their dorm rooms. Niu designed the system so competitive archers can practice shooting at popular tournament venues. This helps archers get a feel for the place without having to travel. She also adds a crowd to simulate fans. Her initial design is for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics venue. However, her program can be customized for other locations.
“It’s a visualization tool to get a feel for the look and sounds of the venue while allowing you to get a sense of shooting a bow,” Niu said. “You can shoot in the championship shoot-off at the Vegas Shoot or any other venue you can think of. Since most archers can’t practice at competition venues, it’s important to get acclimated as quickly as possible.”
For many competitive archers, visualization and mental training is an important part of prepping for a tournament. By slipping on the headset, archers can see, hear, shoot at and walk around the venue. It’s valuable practice you can do anywhere.
“Imagine going over your shot process while in a loud crowd in the gold medal match, seeing the sheer scale of the venue, the energy of the fans in the stand for the first time,” Niu said. “With Project Aero, it won’t be your first time. You’ll have done it countlessly in the headset. It can mean the difference between hitting the 10 or the 9.”
Project Aero isn’t currently on the market, but Niu hopes to revisit the idea of making it available commercially in the future. And while she thinks virtual archery provides big benefits, you can still find her at the range quite often.
“I am always at the computer due to my work and gaming hobbies,” Niu said. “It’s very nice to have something to force me to leave the screens and get away from the digital life I lead. Most, if not all, of the time I’m a lot more refreshed when I come back from the range.”
A chance encounter in college changed the trajectory of Niu’s life. Through archery, she developed a group of friends and professional connections, a successful senior project and a lifetime hobby.