There are two types of virtual reality flight simulator games. One type includes titles with native support from the developer. The other type includes titles that need third party technology to work with VR. Virtual Reality brings with it exciting possibilities, but also significant performance challenges for developers.
Why is VR challenging for developers? Frame rates. Any software must provide at least 60 frames per second in order to be used with VR, and preferably over 90. Flight sim software has always struggled to provide high frame rates because of the expansive and detailed environment it models. Consequently, the software choices come down to a trade-off between performance and features, and I’ll elaborate on that more next.
Titles with Native VR Support
First of all, here are the flight sim titles with native VR support (as of Nov 2017): DCS World (modern military), IL-2 Sturmovik and War Thunder (both WW2), Aerofly FS2 (civil and military airplanes) and Elite Dangerous (sci-fi). These titles have good VR performance, which means they operate at high frame rates and look stunning.
The tradeoff is their limited features for flight simmers. They do not have global maps, weather options are limited, aircraft systems are not completely modeled, and they have limited choices in aircraft. Now before I get angry messages, DSC World is deeply detailed in aircraft systems and environmental fidelity, but only with the limited choices of aircraft and geographic area.
Furthermore, I’m not saying these virtual reality flight simulator games are undesirable. Each one is spectacular in its own way and the immersion is breathtaking. Indeed, once you try these titles in VR, you may never go back to a flat screen again.
Titles Without Native VR Support
The flight sim purists will point out that the titles I mentioned above were games, and the ones I discuss next are SIMULATORS. The three full-featured titles are Prepar3D, X-Plane 11, and FSX Steam. Can you fly these in VR? Yes, but only with Fly-Inside software and a Leap Motion device. Again, performance becomes a problem because these titles can’t hit consistently high frame-rates for VR.
Lastly, Dovetail Games’ Flight Sim World currently has no VR capability at all.
Using Virtual Reality in the Real Word
Once you strap on a VR headset, that is your new world. Forget using keyboard commands, you can’t see the keyboard. You may even lose track of your mouse or beverage. Everything must stay in the same place so you can put your hands on it without looking. This is why I strongly recommend a framework to hold your controls in place, like the DIY Side Joystick Frame, the DIY Center Joystick Frame, and the DIY Easy Helicopter Collective. These projects are for serious flying, so they include a mounting point for rudder pedals.
Add a trackball mouse, because it is priceless for VR flying. Use a drink holder and note it is hard to drink from a regular travel mug while wearing a VR headset. Use a cup with a straw. Also, set up a fan because VR headsets are warm and they make you warm too.
Marcin Strzyzewski invited me to do an interview for Onet online in Poland. Onet posts articles on a wide range of topics so I was happy to provide info about building flight simulator cockpit. Below are Marcin’s questions and my answers. Please let me know what you think of my responses.
1. What is the biggest fun in flight simulation?
Flight simulators can do many different things so that depends on what interests you. Think of the flight sim pilot population as three parts: Part 1 are the people that enjoy flying airliners with their flight simulator. Many of these users join Virtual Airlines and fly the same routes in the simulator as they would in real life. They fly online with other users that serve as air traffic control. Part 2 are all the pilots that used to fly in real life, or plan to fly later in real life, or they are active pilots now. You see these people using their simulator for civil airplanes and helicopters like the ones you would find at a flight school. Active pilots can fly a lesson in real life, then practice the same lesson at home with their simulator. Part 3 are the gamers and casual users. They fly space simulators or air combat simulators or maybe they just play around and fly for fun. This also a large and important population.
For me personally, I enjoy all the above. But most of all, I enjoy designing and building cockpit enclosures for home flight sims. I call these Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Flight Sims.
2. If some of our readers want to start making their own simulator, what is your advice?
First of all, know what type of aircraft you simulate the most. For example, a helicopter simulator project will look a lot different than an airliner simulator project.
Second, know your budget. If you live in a country where PVC pipe or lumber is really expensive, you should know that before you start. If you will buy new displays or new controls, start looking for sales. Retailers usually run a sale every month or two.
Third, and perhaps most important: negotiate with your spouse. A flight simulator will take up space in your home that can’t be used for other things. I designed both large and small DIY Flight Sims, but they all take up some measure of space. I recommend you talk this over with your spouse prior to construction. Note: if you can make the case that your children or grandchildren will somehow benefit from your flight simulator, this can help.
3. What is a most common mistake of the beginners?
The most common mistake is never starting the project. Actually, just getting started can be the most difficult part. No matter how large or small the project, you finish them all the same way: one step at a time, over and over, until you are done. I think my DIY videos help because you can see the building process before you personally start construction on your project. Just. Get. Started.
4. Building flight simulator cockpit sounds pricey is it in fact?
The most expensive components are the ones that keep going down in price: computers, graphics cards, touch-screens, and large HD displays. Therefore, these items get better and cheaper every year for building flight simulator cockpit. Other components are the flight controls and switch panels which can be good retail models, or more expensive premium models to fit your budget. My videos show how to build cockpit enclosures with materials from a home improvement store. Those materials are inexpensive in the USA, UK and Canada, but maybe not in other countries. For example, PVC pipe is expensive in New Zealand. I produce videos because they are the best way to teach building flight simulator cockpit.
5. What software is the best for simulators?
The flight simulator community (including third party developers) is unique because it mainly built up around Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX) for over a decade. Dovetail Games gave FSX new life by developing a version for Steam, however it’s still old software. As a result, we have wondered for years what will replace FSX, and today we have some newer options. Prepar3D Lockheed Martin’s Prepar3D (P3D) was developed by fixing and modernizing the old FSX code. P3D is an excellent flight sim platform, but some activities are prohibited because of Lockheed’s odd licensing agreement with Microsoft. X-Plane Laminar Research’s X-Plane 10 is also a solid flight sim platform with all the options of FSX, but with a smaller user base and somewhat fewer options from third party developers. X-Plane 11 was just released this month so it will be interesting to see how it performs in the market. Will X-Plane 11 be the ultimate replacement for FSX? We shall see.
6. Since now the best option was multiple monitors setting. Is this better now to use VR headset?
That is an excellent question, and the answer really depends on what type of flying you want to do. If you want to fly combat missions or spaceships, VR is a great option if you can afford it and if you don’t wear glasses. For example, Elite Dangerous and War Thunder are awesome in VR. The depth of field and the immersion are astonishing. Keep in mind, when you wear a VR headset, you can no longer see your actual controls, or a keyboard, or mouse. So your best option is HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) flying. Basically, if you can do everything you need to do in the sim without removing your hands from the joystick and throttle, and if you can memorize all the button assignments, then that sim could be a good option for VR.
If you fly airliners, civil training airplanes, or helicopters you will be performing a lot of tasks where you need to reach out with your hand and touch the control panel. You will tune radios, adjust the GPS, set the navigation headings, set the autopilot, and more. As of right now, it’s really difficult to do these tasks in VR so traditional flight simulators are best for this type of flying. In traditional flight simulators we use actual retail switch panels, modified keyboards, a touch screen, a real checklist, a real aviation map, or all of these things. I think it will stay that way for a long time and more people will be building flight simulator cockpit.
7. How looks your simulator, can you share some pictures with us?
Sure, here are pictures from four very different DIY flight simulators (see the slideshow gallery on this page).
Is a Virtual Reality headset worth the money if you are a flight simulator enthusiast? It depends on the type of simulating you do. In this article I’ll tell you about my first month with the Oculus Rift headset and Virtual Reality for Flight Simulators. I’ll discuss the four different flight sim platforms I tried with VR and also the physical and financial impacts of these experiments.
The first thing you should know is this: Virtual Reality is a game changer. Accent on the word “game.” I’ll go into more detail in a moment.
The second thing you should know: Virtual Reality costs real money, plenty of it.
Upgrade the Gear
I started my maiden voyage into the world of Virtual Reality for flight simulators a few months ago when I ordered an Oculus Rift. They were on backorder at the time, but even so, I received mine a full month before I expected to. VR headsets need substantial processing power to work effectively, so I bought a new computer at Best Buy and the specs are at the end of this article. I also bought a Leap Motion sensor while it was on sale so I could experiment with FlyInside FSX. If none of that means anything to you, don’t worry, I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Upgrade the Controls
I also upgraded an F311 Side-joystick HOTASby making the control platforms wider to better align the controls with the armrests of my chair. Furthermore, I added a trackball mouse and a drink holder (don’t fly thirsty). I also raised the reinforcement bar so I could use my favorite rudder pedals and attached all fittings with self drilling screws. I used this F311 frame with great success, I can’t VR without it.
For these experiments, I said goodbye to my trusty Saitek switch panels and keyboard mods… you can’t see them while wearing a VR headset. Now, come with me as we explore Virtual Reality for flight simulators…
My first flight in VR was in space and it was breathtaking but just a bit disappointing. Everything worked correctly, but I found that my graphics card could not power the Oculus Rift at 1080p, so I’m temporarily stuck at 768 until I can afford a more powerful graphics card. Even so… I said the experience is breathtaking and it is. You have stereoscopic vision in VR, just like you have in real life. Your left eye and your right eye see slightly offset views of each object, so this is what makes close objects look close and far objects look far away. In Elite Dangerous, this means I could for the first time, sense the size of the spaceship’s flight deck. I could look down at my arms in the game and see how close they are and then look outside and comprehend the enormity of the space station.
The game isn’t on a screen any more, it’s all around you. You’re inside the game. This is most obvious in combat because you can look up and back and over your shoulder at your enemy. You also should be fully HOTAS so all aircraft functions are assigned to the buttons on your joystick and throttle because it’s too inconvenient to use the keyboard. That means you also have to memorize all your button assignments. One of the great limitations of VR is that you can no longer see real-world buttons and switches. However, you can use Voice Attack to simply speak commands to your spaceship. For example, you can verbally tell it to extend landing gear, and that is perfectly plausible in this futuristic environment.
Conclusion: from now on, I will only play Elite Dangerous in Virtual Reality. That’s how good it is.
I couldn’t wait to try DCS World with the Oculus Rift, but unfortunately it didn’t go as smoothly as Elite Dangerous. First of all, the DCS menus were very difficult to use and in some cases, they just didn’t work at all. It was a time-consuming chore just to set up my Saitek X-52 HOTAS controls and rudder pedals. I flew several tutorial missions, but many of the lesson tasks required the use of keyboard commands, so I had to put my keyboard on my lap. I could kind of see the keyboard in the gap between the bottom of the Rift headset and my cheek, but this is not a reasonable option. Perhaps I could have assigned specific functions to HOTAS buttons, but there are so many of them and, again, navigating the DCS controls menu in VR is a crapshoot at best.
Disclaimer: it’s really difficult to take screen shots in Virtual Reality for flight simulators, so for this article I borrowed representative pics from other sources. This has no impact on the validity of my findings.
I appreciate the realism of DCS World, but lifting the Rift headset repeatedly to look at a paper checklist or the keyboard is a no-go. I applaud the young man in this video for diligently looking at his checklist, but every time he lifts the headset with one hand, the Rift lenses come in contact with his forehead. Be very cautious with the Rift lenses, they are delicate! Repeated exposure to sweat or hair or grease can damage the Oculus Rift lenses.
DCS World looks astonishingly great, even if it’s not fully usable. One of the aircraft I selected was the TF-51 Mustang and I really felt how cramped the cockpit is. I also tried a few landings and found them to be a more realistic experience in VR than my previous experience. Instrumentation was a little hard to read because of the lower resolution required of my graphics card. I would love to try all of this again at 1080p.
Conclusion: I won’t play DCS World again in VR until there is some work around or fix for the menus.
It’s easy to mount the Oculus Rift sensor on a tripod.
The Oculus Rift sensor is designed to sit on a desk or table, but sometimes it is much more convenient to mount the sensor on a tripod. For example, my flight simulator does not have a table sitting in front of but this tripod works nicely. It’s easy to mount the sensor on a tripod, I’ll show you how.
This is an old, spare tripod that I wasn’t using any more. You can see where I repaired the crank many years ago. I’ll use this tripod for my Oculus Rift now.
Quick note: You’ll notice I covered the Rift sensor. I did that because the sensor is quite sensitive to bright light and I’m using some pretty bright lights to film this video. You probably won’t need to worry about covering the sensor like I did.
If you currently use the Oculus Rift with the sensor sitting on a desk, take a moment to measure the distance from the floor to the sensor. Unclip the wire and let’s take a look at the base of the stand. The base will not unscrew here… look farther up toward the sensor. This is where it unscrews. That’s actually a lot better for us than unscrewing the base. Remove the quick release plate from the tripod. Screw the sensor onto the plate. The threads should match perfectly. Both the sensor and the plate have standard quarter-twenty threads. Return the quick release plate to the tripod. Adjust the height so the sensor is the same distance from the floor as it was before. If you need to re-calibrate the location of the sensor, you can do that in the Oculus Rift software. I recommend using some small strips of Velcro to attach the wire to the tripod.
Simply position the sensor so it points at your headset and take off ! ! !
My joystick, throttle and rudder pedals are secured in place with a framework of PVC pipes and lumber. It is item F311, the Side Joystick Frame and I can help you build one for yourself.
I unexpectedly adopted a cat when my mom moved to a new apartment and discovered she couldn’t have pets. Then I realized something amazing: I’ve been making YouTube videos for 10 years and I’ve never uploaded a video with a cat. I can now do cat videos! I had dreams of my cat earning enough money in ad revenue to pay for her own food, litter, and vet bills. Look at this video, she even hops onto the back of my chair and flies through space with me…. how cute is that?
I guess it’s not that interesting to people. Literally zero people care.