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).
This is the big one! FlyInside FSX is an ambitious project to make Microsoft Flight Simulator X compatible with VR. Leap Motion is an infrared sensor that can detect the location and position of your hands, so you can see your hands in Virtual Reality. Put FlyInside and Leap Motion together and you can activate airplane switches with your hands in the FSX virtual cockpit! If that is difficult to imagine, here is a video that demonstrates it.
Disclaimer: I discovered it’s really difficult to take good screen shots in Virtual Reality for flight simulator, so for this article I borrowed representative pics from other sources. This has no impact on the validity of my findings.
FlyInside FSX is a rather new project and even though it didn’t work for me, I still think it’s important to support the developer. The first flight I tried was the simple default flight around Friday Harbor in a Piper Cub. It was pretty cool to look around in VR, as long as I didn’t move my head too fast. Virtual Reality works best when the images are rendered at 90 frames per second or more. The stock FSX can’t consistently provide fps nearly that fast, but FlyInside has a trick to get around that. Unfortunately, it didn’t work well enough. When I moved my head, the images lagged. Lagging equals motion sickness, remember that. When the images you see with your eyes do not match your head movement, you can get motion sickness very quickly. I’m not prone to motion sickness, so I was able to do a few takeoffs and landings without barfing, but the experience is not nearly as good as VR in other flight sim software. On the other hand, I found that it’s easier, and it feels more realistic to land an airplane in VR.
I tried to trim the airplane during flight, and that’s when it all went sour. Recall that I also used Leap Motion, so I could literally see my hands while flying in the virtual Piper Cub. This is supposed to give me the ability to manipulate controls and switches in the cockpit, much like it’s possible now with the mouse. I reached out to adjust the elevator trim and…. FSX crashed. I re-booted and tried the same thing again… another crash. And that’s it. After two crashes, I’m done.
Conclusion: support this project. I did, but I won’t use it again until it’s more reliable.
Combat in Elite Dangerous made me miss my old online squadron. I had never played War Thunder before, but it’s free to sign up so I enlisted and went back to World War 2 for the first time in several years. This game was much more menu-friendly to VR than DCS world was. I wasn’t familiar with War Thunder, so it took a while to get my controls and buttons assigned. Apparently, the game isn’t expecting many users to have rudder pedals, so that really throws it for a loop.
Once I had my controls set up, I launched into battle with my pathetic P-26 Peashooter (that’s how you start out). Even with my crappy plane, I had blast in War Thunder. I had a level of spatial orientation that I’ve never had before in a flight simulator. VR is a game changer for air combat because of the way I could look above, below, behind, and around the cockpit frame. Even though I was a rookie, most of the guys in the Arcade level don’t know anything about energy fighting so I was able to use that to my advantage and I leveled-up rather quickly, or at least I think I did. The flurry of levels and tokens and things are still a mystery to me.
War Thunder also has a Realistic mode that I tried, but I didn’t get my controls completely set up. A Saitek X-52 looks nothing like the controls you would have in a WW2 airplane, so this means I need to assign mixture, prop and some other functions to the knobs on the throttle, which I wasn’t all that excited about. I’m sure I’ll revisit that at some point.
I experienced my first strong physical reactions in Virtual Reality while playing War Thunder. My heart was pounding and I was sweating profusely during combat. I had to take breaks between sorties for my heart rate to come down and I pointed a fan at myself to cool off. This is serious fun!
Conclusion: I will only play War Thunder in VR. That’s how good it is.
Edit: the recent update of War Thunder failed because the sound no longer works. As a result, I won’t be playing this again until they fix it.
Matrix: Virtual Reality for Flight Simulator
Here is a summary of my findings with the flight sim software. Read on for financial and physical implications.
Virtual Reality: Financial Issues
The FlyInside developer recommends FSX Steam because it works better with FlyInside for some reason. I would like to try it, but I’m simply out of money. Virtual Reality costs real money. It is expensive. The Oculus Rift headset was over $600 with shipping, but I also needed a new computer to run it. I shopped smart but still spent over $1160 on a new gaming computer (specs below) and that still wasn’t enough. I’ll need to spend another $600 on a new graphics card before I can run the Rift at high definition 1080p. I bought Leap Motion on sale, but I can’t use it because of the problem with FlyInside FSX. I couldn’t afford to even try Aerofly FS2.
Notice that Virtual Reality did best with games, not simulators. Flight Simulator X was not usable and X-plane doesn’t support VR at all. Think long and hard about spending your money. VR is for gaming, not for simulating.
Virtual Reality: Physical Issues
You can’t wear glasses with the Oculus Rift. Well, technically you can, there is an awkward way to do it, but the headset will push the glasses against your face, which is very uncomfortable. Realistically, it’s contact lenses or nothing and that’s just the way it is right now. Maybe there will be helpful remedies in the future.
Motion sickness is a risk if you’re prone to motion sickness in general. If you typically feel nauseous in a plane or boat or car, you may feel the same in VR. Furthermore, if your computer can’t render VR in 60 frames per second (at least), you may feel nauseous in Virtual Reality for flight simulator. Luckily, motion sickness if easily remedied because you can just take a break and remove the headset for a while.
Pounding heart, sweaty armpits, residual headset heat, dry eyes. Clinical flight simulator research shows that pilots start to have involuntary physical responses to professional flight simulators when the images are rendered higher than 60 fps. In other words, their palms sweat. In my experience, my heart was pounding, I was breathing heavy, and my whole body sweat during combat in War Thunder. I took breaks between sorties to calm down, it was that intense. Sometimes my eyes would get dry in VR because I probably don’t blink as much as I should. Lastly, the Oculus Rift headset gets warm during use, so I needed a fan blowing on me to help me stay comfortable. That’s unusual for me, I typically have a lower than average body temperature.
Virtual Reality: Emotional Responses
I didn’t expect to have any emotional reactions to VR but I did. Virtual Reality for flight simulator wasn’t the only thing I tried, I also looked at some 360 degree videos. When you view these videos, it’s like you are inside the video and you can turn any direction to see what’s happening around you. Several little clips are included in the Oculus library.
One clip showed a young couple on a gondola ride in Venice. The camera was in the boat with them so it seemed like I was riding along with them too. It was a vacation I can’t afford in a city I’ll probably never visit and yet, I was there… virtually.
Another 360 video clip showed a family in Asia somewhere and their house was basically a little shack on stilts in the water and again, I was there… virtually. I was reminded of how lucky I am to even experience VR because my computer and VR headset probably cost more than their annual income.