By Mike Singer – 20 October 2006
On the flight to this year’s Avsim Conference and Exhibition I remembered something my buddy Daryl Shuttleworth said upon seeing me at last year’s conference in San Diego (I’m paraphrasing here):
“You know, I wasn’t going to come, and then I changed my mind and I hopped on a plane, and the whole way down here I was thinking, man this is gonna be GREAT! A whole weekend hanging out with other simmers talking shop. We’re gonna spend TWO WHOLE DAYS looking at the latest technology, hangar flying, brainstorming, going to lectures, playing with new toys and — ” Daryl stopped in mid-sentence and looked me in the eye like only a trained actor can do. He grinned. “We’re such geeks….”
Indeed. And I had such a great time at Avsim 2005 that it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me to head to Washington, D.C. for this year’s event.
The trip there was a long one since my direct flight from Seattle was cancelled and I was rerouted via San Francisco. After an exhausting day of traveling, I finally made it up to my hotel room, ready for some desperately needed sleep. My initial elation upon seeing a comfortable bed with TEN pillows and a fluffy duvet was immediately replaced by dread as I heard a loud roar. I walked to the window, opened the curtains, and saw a 747-400 just off Dulles lumbering into the night sky. So much for sleeping. I think I spent half the night standing there watching airplanes.
It was a fitting way to start the weekend, and it only got better from there. I demoed Flight Simulator X. I saw some of the latest software and gizmos the third-party community had come up with. I attended a bunch of really interesting lectures. But mostly, it was great to see everyone again. Flight Simulator the product may be all about technology and the simulation of technology, but the hobby is all about people. And this community has some amazing people in it.
One reason Flight Simulator is unique is because it appeals to such a diverse group of users, and this is obvious when a bunch of us get together. At this year’s conference I met little kids who were experts in airline operations. I met retired airline pilots who use Flight Simulator to fly their old routes. I met college students who dream of being software developers, and software developers who build add-ons that push the limits of what Flight Simulator is capable of. I met excited Americans who talked so fast I could barely keep up, and other simmers from far away lands who did a great job communicating with me in English since I didn’t speak French, or Spanish, or Russian. In an era when our differences make front page news, when people spend less and less time interacting with each other in person, events like this are important. It’s amazing, really, to think that a computer simulation can spawn such enduring friendships.
Six of us from Microsoft attended this year’s event. At work we all focus on separate areas of the product, so it’s always enlightening to watch other people use it. More than once over the weekend we found ourselves in awe as we watched someone demonstrate a feature that we didn’t even know about. One guy landed the Bell helicopter on a dock, and the reflection of the spinning rotor blades in the water was so visually stunning that I made everyone within shouting distance come take a look. So yeah, we’re proud of FSX.
The questions we got asked this time seemed to be more advanced than those in previous years. Instead of “What joystick should I get?” it was “How about support for 64 bit?” and “Should I buy more RAM and a new video card now, or should I wait for Microsoft Vista and DX10?” Some folks were interested in the answers, others were really just looking for an excuse to talk shop.
Our reason for attending this year’s conference was not just to demonstrate FSX — we also wanted to demonstrate our commitment to the community. We did this in our presentations, in a keynote speech at the dinner, and in private conversations with users and developers. Folks seemed to appreciate our involvement. After my presentation on the new Missions system, my friend Ray Bedard (a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) told me that his head was spinning with ideas about how to use it in their training programs. An impromptu demo of our new Tower Controller feature for multiplayer gave him even more to think about.
From academics to gamers, there was a buzz at this year’s conference unlike anything I’ve ever felt at a Flight Simulator-related event. The community seems to be growing, and maturing. The presentations were the best we’ve ever seen, and if there was a central theme to them this year, it was the potential of PC-based flight simulation as a tool for real-world aviation marketing, training, and proficiency.
A big thanks to the Avsim team for inviting us, to the vendors and attendees for all the great conversation, and to Brett, Hal, Mike Z., Adam, and Tim for sharing demo duty so that I could attend some lectures and check out all the other booths. The venue in D.C. was great: a bunch of us on the team made it over to both the nearby Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and the National Air & Space Museum downtown, and we all agreed that it was quite something to see airplanes in person that we had only known through Flight Simulator.
This year there were, as always, a handful of outsiders amongst us. A bunch of spouses, kids, and parents who were successfully conned into the trip by the promise that “We’ll make a vacation of it!” I was impressed by the efforts these folks made to humor us. Foremost amongst them were the AirSimmer booth babes (an Avsim first!), who kept telling me how “interesting” it all was and how much they were “learning about airplanes.” But come on, who were they kidding? I’ve been on bad dates before. Besides, I was too distracted by the fact that I was missing Wayne Smith’s talk on “Flying Helicopters on VATSIM” to care much what MODELS thought of me.
Next year I’m gonna wear a T-shirt so there’s no confusion: “I’m not a geek. I’m a virtual air traffic controller.”