PC Flight Simulation – Understanding the Hobby (Part 2)

By Derek Davis – Editor of PC Pilot Magazine

Hardware

The one area that has had the greatest impact on the development of PC flight simulation is the technological advancement in computer hardware. Specifically we have seen stunning innovations and performance increases with regard to CPUs and GPUs. Multi-core processors, increased memory on graphics cards, multiple graphics cards operating together in one machine, allied to an increase in hard drive and memory capacity, have combined to dramatically increase the computational capability and processing power of computers over the last few years. Ultimately these bigger and faster computers have allowed the developers to produce more sophisticated and detailed products. For flight simmers there has always been a trade-off between level of detail and frame rates. Although fluidity of flight is of paramount importance, flight simmers also want to be able to fly within a virtual world that is ‘convincing’ in terms quantity and quality of detail. Over the last 20 years we have gone from wire frame environments to fully textured and lit virtual worlds!

Allied to this development in computer hardware has been the advancement in flight sim peripherals that add authenticity to our hobby, as well as help to immerse us further into our virtual worlds. Hence a sub-industry has developed in providing real dials and cockpit components, to the extent that people can now re-create their own home-built cockpits. These ‘real’ and physical components help the flight simmers to interface with the virtual world in an authentic fashion. In fact, home-built cockpits have markedly risen in popularity in the last five years.

Examples of such innovation include: Consoles, rudder pedals, joysticks, yokes, navaids, avionics and throttle quadrants. Advancements in how we interact and view our virtual world have also been made with the development of items such as TrackIR – head tracking device – and multiple monitors (to facilitate a greater viewing area). Other innovative devices include those which are designed to emulate various forces and vibrations which would be felt in the real world such as pre-stall buffeting, increased forces on flying controls etc. Examples of these include Force Feedback joysticks and the quaintly named “Buttkicker” – the latter of which transmits vibrations, based on sound technology, through the seat of your pants!

There is also a more specialised market for a range of sophisticated and relatively more expensive components. Although available to the general public, these are primarily designed for more serious and organized flight training held in flying schools, which is reflected in their prices! Included in this range are again, consoles, Joysticks, Yokes, Avionics and throttle quadrants.

Another innovation is VoxATC, which is simply ‘Intelligent’ Air Traffic Control. This piece of software enables the user to interact with ATC using their voice instead of the keyboard.

Of all the ‘peripheral’ innovations that have been produced over the years, the one piece of technology which has had the biggest impact on the more ‘general’ user in this hobby is Natural Point’s TrackIR head tracking device. TrackIR’s design is an innovative solution to the inherent limitation of our screen-bound hobby. It gives us the ability to view our virtual three-dimensional world, in a natural three-dimensional fashion. In short the TrackIR allows us to look around our virtual world just by merely moving our head. With the device translating our head movements to the screen, the TrackIR has elevated that intangible sense of immersion to a greater level and has therefore changed the way in which we view and interact with our simulated environment.

Software

Now we’ll take a look at the actual software itself. PC Flight Simulation software can be divided into two main categories – the ‘Host’ software and the third-party add-ons. For the GA and Airliner enthusiast, the popular ‘Host’ software is Microsoft’s Flight Simulator – the latest version of which is Flight Simulator X. The other contender is X-Plane – but this, in comparison, has a much smaller following.

The Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise has been established for 25 years. As a result a whole third-party add-on industry has grown up around this one product in its various versions.

Here are some of the features of Flight Simulator X

Aircraft
There are a wide variety of Aircraft – from an ultralight to a 747-400 jet – the aim of which is to showcase the diverse types of aircraft and flying that exist today and also to give the user a taste of what it’s like to be a pilot.

Missions
A new concept to the Flight Simulator franchise is the inclusion of missions. Missions provide immersive structured objectives which are designed to teach, challenge, and entertain the user.

Shared Skies
Another component of the product is called ‘Shared Skies. This module is a completely overhauled multiplayer system which makes it easy to fly online with others. Users can fly in different aircraft, together in the same aircraft, or as an air traffic controller.

Scenery
The introduction of Flight Simulator X has brought with it a new a dynamic living world which lets you fly over a landscape teeming with moving vehicles (on land and sea), other aircraft, birds, animals, and more!

Some useful links

PC Pilot Magazine – www.pcpilot.net

Microsoft Flight Simulator – The Essential Guide – http://goo.gl/TuKfyd

Claim your FREE issue of PC Pilot magazine – www.pcpilot.net/freeissue/

PC Pilot Magazine

PC Pilot brings sense and expert opinion to the exciting and often daunting world of flight simulation. Contributors include many real-world pilots and aviation professionals to ensure that what you read is as real as it gets! Published bi-monthly, each issue of the magazine is packed with detailed news, advice, reviews, features and views on all aspects of flight simulation. Each issue also includes a free CD. Find out more at www.pcpilot.net