Flight Simulator is back, and it’s real: Microsoft uses cloud to help classic franchise soar again
by Alan Boyle on September 30, 2019 at 12:01 am September 30, 2019 at 12:02 am
RENTON, Wash. — Thanks to Microsoft’s hyper-realistic new version of Flight Simulator, I now know what it’s like to fly a Cessna 72SP Skyhawk airplane over my neighborhood … then crash it into the next street over.
And in connection with a daylong preview of the pre-alpha version of the simulation software, I got to fly a real Cessna almost as close to my real neighborhood. Thankfully, without crashing.
Both adventures were eye-openers for a guy like me — a guy who had never taken a flight lesson before, and whose only previous experience with flight simulation programs has been to crash (or nearly crash) virtual spaceships.
But even a newbie like me can appreciate the effort that went into the first full refresh for Microsoft’s classic Flight Simulator in 13 years.
“Flight Simulator is actually older than Windows,” Jorg Neumann, head of the Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise for Xbox Game Studios Publishing, told me. “It’s the oldest franchise we have. So there’s always a desire to revitalize something like this. … This was just the right moment in time. It’s what I call convergence: We needed the right tech, we needed the right tools, we needed the right partners to really bring this back.”
Rendering tools have come a long way in the past decade, putting Hollywood-level graphics within the reach of game developers. Earth imagery has taken off, thanks to aerial and satellite-based reconnaissance. And cloud computing has opened new vistas for dealing with the massive mapping databases that have been created.
All those trends converged in 2016, when Neumann and his team started remaking Flight Simulator.
The project represents a renaissance for a title that served as an early demonstration of the potential of personal computers. First unveiled for the IBM PC in 1982, Flight Sim, as it’s known to its many fans, was effectively grounded as an active project a decade ago when Microsoft closed the Redmond studio that made Flight Simulator.
Microsoft went on to launch a spin-off called Microsoft Flight in 2012, but it never really took off and was shut down after several months. Another sequel, Flight Sim World, was made by Dovetail Games under license from Microsoft and launched in 2017, but it went off the market last year. A version of Microsoft Flight Simulator X is available on Valve’s Steam platform, but its underlying technology dates to 2006.
Much has happened in technology since then. The revitalized Flight Simulator, whose advent was announced in June at the E3 expo in Los Angeles, takes advantage of Bing Maps’ global imagery and the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. Then it adds artificial intelligence to flesh out the details, right down to populating the skies with clouds and putting leaves on the trees that I crashed through.
“We plant 1.5 trillion trees every day,” Neumann joked.
The result? Realistic re-creations of landscapes ranging from the city centers of Paris, New York and Seattle to the water tower and the recently rebuilt elementary school in my Eastside neighborhood.
That goes for everyone’s neighborhood, including Neumann’s.
“When I fly over my house, my car is parked in front,” he said. “It’s not just a simulation. It’s the real world.”
Creating a world to fly over
This month’s sneak preview, presented at Rainier Flight Service in Renton, was aimed at showing off the pre-alpha version of the new Flight Simulator for journalists, bloggers, influencers and seasoned users of Flight Simulator (known as “simmers”). Attendees were required to hold back on their reviews, their photos and even their tweets until the embargo lifted today.
One room was set aside for computer workstations, equipped with a Logitech simulation yoke and throttle as well as a Thrustmaster set of rudder pedals and a David Clark headset. Each workstation was emblazoned with an attendee’s call sign. (I made mine up specially for the meet-up: “AlienBoy.”)
The workstations for our pre-alpha tryout of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator were personalized with call signs. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)
“You’re the first people in the world to get a hands-on today,” Neumann told the standing-room crowd. But before they set us loose, Neumann and other developers in charge of the project explained how they kicked Flight Simulator’s level of reality up several notches.
Developers used a variety of strategies to create a virtual planet. They relied principally on 2 petabytes’ worth of Bing Maps’ aerial imagery, stored on Microsoft Azure servers. To re-create the 3-D look of 400 cities around the world in even finer detail, Flight Simulator draws upon high-resolution photogrammetric scans.
But wait … there’s more: Flight Simulator uses rendering tools that draw upon AI to fine-tune the 3-D imagery and fill in the gaps, ranging from remote stretches of terrain to buildings that are obscured in Bing’s pictures.
“Sometimes some aerial pictures can be covered with clouds,” said Lionel Fuentes, lead programmer at Asobo Studio in France, which partnered with Microsoft on the graphics. “Some areas are blurred on purpose.” (Fuentes later told me that the blurred-out areas are filled with generic graphics rather than, say, accurate renderings of missile silos.)
Asobo’s developers also dug deep into the physics of how light is scattered by hazy skies, how clouds are built with multiple layers of moisture, and how those clouds reflect and refract light. If you dial Flight Simulator’s settings just right, you can spot a double rainbow shining through a rain shower as you fly over a virtual Seattle.
A virtual rainbow shines amid sprinkles during a Flight Simulator flyover, with South Seattle College at the center of the image and downtown Seattle in the background. (Microsoft Pre-Alpha Illustration)
The same attention to detail was devoted to replicating the physics of flight — right down to the way raindrops stream across the windshield, and the way air flows around a mountain to create turbulence.
“It goes down to very small things, like trees, buildings. They also create turbulence when you fly over, like, downtown areas,” said Sebastian Wloch, co-founder and CEO of Asobo Studio. “So we simulate all that.”
The developers made high-resolution scans of cockpits as well, ranging from the trim little Cessna that I flew to big commercial jets.
Because so much data resides on the cloud, you’ll need a high-throughput connection to enjoy Flight Simulator to the max..”The better your bandwidth, the better your experience,” Fuentes said.
But if you’re bandwidth-challenged, don’t fret: The software is programmed to take maximum advantage of the connection that’s available. There’s even an offline simulation mode that’s based on real-life data, as well as a provision for pre-caching terrain data on your hard drive.
Thin blue lines trace how air flows over a mountain in Flight Simulator. (Microsoft Pre-Alpha Illustration)
Simulated flying vs. real-world flying
The new Flight Simulator is designed to let hard-core simmers dig deeply into the minutiae of instrument checklists, or allow newbies like me to skip the preliminaries and dive right in. High-fidelity audio replicates the sounds associated with takeoff, landing and in-air maneuvers. The controls let you display the full cockpit view, turn your virtual head to look out the windows, go to an outside-the-plane view or even get rid of the plane and look straight down.
Is the experience true to life? Wloch swears that it is.
“All of the aircraft have been designed and/or reviewed by people who have a lot of hours on the aircraft,” he said. “Every aircraft is different. We wanted them to not only be right on the numbers, but also feel right.”
To do that reality check, Microsoft partnered with airline pilots who put in tens of thousands of flight hours comparing the simulation with real-world flying. In one case, flight data readings were compared with the virtual plane’s performance in Flight Simulator — and pointed up a previously overlooked discrepancy in how the software calculated fuel consumption.
Since I’m a newbie, I can’t compare the new Flight Simulator with previous versions. But I can confirm that even a newbie can get a Cessna off the ground. I took off from a virtual version of Renton’s airport, and in just minutes I was flying over Seattle and Bellevue. Sure, I crashed when I tried to land back in Renton — but I marveled that I was able to stay up in the air for as long as I did, the first time around.
Adventurous fliers can try their hand at stunt aerobatics in Flight Simulator. (Microsoft Pre-Alpha Illustration)
That first flight turned out to be a classic case of beginner’s luck. For the next dozen times after that, my plane spun leftward into the trees just as it rose from the runway. I had to ask for help, and found out I should be using the rudder pedals to push the plane toward the right. (I totally ignored those pedals until I asked.)
I must have gone up in the air 40 times in all, and landed successfully just once. Several times, I crashed into the virtual trees of my own neighborhood in Bellevue while trying to get a close look at my house. It was pure frustration — and pure fun.
Then it was my turn to go up in a real Cessna with Justin Fancher, a flight instructor at Rainier Flight Service. He insisted that I take the left seat, which usually goes to the pilot in command. As we strapped in, Fancher told me Flight Simulator helped him prepare to be a pilot. “When it was time to actually train, I was less overwhelmed,” he recalled.
Fancher handled the controls from the right seat for the takeoff, but once we were in level flight, he let me take over. I’m sure I gripped the yoke a little harder than I needed to, but I successfully steered the plane through a turn over the Issaquah Alps for a close-up look at Snoqualmie Falls. Then I continued westward to Seattle.
I found that flying the real Cessna was easier than flying the simulated version. For one thing, Fancher adjusted the trim wheel so that the plane naturally stayed level. Heeding his advice, I led each maneuver with a push on a rudder pedal and followed up with a turn of the yoke — the opposite of what I was doing in the sim.
Fancher took back control of the plane so I could snap some pictures of the Seattle cityscape, plus shots of my neighborhood as we flew over Bellevue.
After Fancher landed the plane back in Renton, I found out why so many of my simulated takeoffs took a bad left turn. It turns out that Flight Simulator takes account of the slight weight imbalance when there’s just one pilot sitting in the cockpit’s left seat.
“If you’re alone, it’s going to have a small tendency to roll left,” Wloch told me. “It’s pretty subtle, but it’s there. If you fly the plane in the real world and you’re alone, you’ll notice you constantly have to push it right a little bit.”
If that bugs you, you can change the settings to balance the weight.
What’s next for Flight Simulator
Flight Simulator fans will get their first chance to sample the new version en masse as part of Microsoft’s “Tech Alpha” test program, which is due to begin in late October. To start the application process, head on over to FlightSimulator.com.
Microsoft will be fine-tuning the software and moving into beta mode over the next few months. The finished product will be released in 2020, starting with the PC version and following up with Xbox. There’ll be a multiplayer option as well.
“The baseline is, you can be online with friends,” Neumann said. But he and his team at Microsoft are still debating how much farther they’ll take the multiplayer concept.
“Somebody in the audience today said something about a co-pilot,” Neumann said. “We actually had that idea two years ago. We looked at it, and it didn’t seem like a high priority. But if the community tells us it is a high priority, then we will certainly look at that again.”
In one sense, Flight Simulator 2020 will never be finished. Because so much of the terrain imagery is stored in the cloud, it can be regularly updated with new construction and shifts in geography.
“The world is a living place, and it always evolves,” Fuentes said.
Fuentes and his colleagues at Asobo Studio have already seen that evolution in action: They’ve noticed shifts in the beaches around France’s Arcachon Bay on the Atlantic coast, possibly due to climate change and sea level rise.
Flight Simulator’s version of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk airplane soars over the simulated terrain of the Cascade Mountains. (Microsoft Pre-Alpha Illustration)
Flight Simulator will reflect those and other changes in the years ahead, with Microsoft making adjustments to keep pace with the real world and the world of cloud computing.
“We think of this whole thing as a 10-year journey,” Neumann told me.
Based on my one-day tryout, I’m ready to sign up for the journey — not so much to learn to fly, but to travel the world that Flight Simulator has built. And I’m probably not the only newbie in that frame of mind.
“Because we have reached a level of definition of the world that is so great you can actually enjoy the world as it is in real life from home, there is in this Flight Simulator iteration probably something that speaks to anyone,” David Dedeine, chief creative officer at Asobo Studio, told me.
“It’s what I call the tourist dimension,” he said. “Everyone is interested in seeing the beautiful places on Earth. Now, for the first time, this will be possible in the sim.”
Could there be new types of simulations from Microsoft that let you walk through those beautiful places, instead of flying over it? Neumann had a cagey answer.
“There are discussions about all kinds of things, almost overwhelmingly so,” he said. “Anything could be done, once you have the entire Earth.”
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