I have almost found the Holy Grail of simulation. That's a pretty bold opening statement, and it certainly may have given you cause to wonder just what that Holy Grail might be. Well, we'll get to that. For a full appreciation of the current state of the art, it is instructive to first spend some time looking at the history of simulation, or at least as much of that history as fits into my personal memory or acquired knowledge. Having grown up with a passion for aviation during the decades when electronics grew from research projects and science fiction devices to ubiquitous and indispensable artifacts of our daily lives, it should come as no surprise that I have had a particular interest in flight simulators for as long as I can remember.
Flight simulators in some form or another have existed for pretty much as long as man has had the ability to fly. From the Link simulators of the 1930's to the massive procedural simulators used by NASA during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo years, various combinations of motion platforms, visual cues, sounds, and graphics have been used to provide as realistic as possible training environments as stand-ins for more expensive and/or dangerous real world situations.
It wasn't until relatively recently, though, that flight simulators with high enough realism and fidelity to the actual flying of the airplane reached the level required to actually replace actual experience in the airplane rather than just supplement it. These days, multi-million dollar simulators with full motion platforms and high resolution graphics are used to provide nearly 100% of the training required to receive a type rating in jets as large as Boeing 747s.
In parallel with the maturation of the electronics-based simulations available to those entities with a whole lot of money and vital training needs to fill, there has been significant growth in the realm of simulations used for personal education and entertainment. As personal computers have grown exponentially in capability while simultaneously becoming ever more affordable, the sophistication of consumer-grade simulations has followed. My first flight simulator was SubLogic's FS1 for the TRS-80. It was unbelievably crude by today's standards, but at the time a first person view of a 3D world and a small group of flight instruments available on a home computer was science fiction made real. As we all know, those humble beginnings ultimately spawned enormously popular and readily available applications such as Microsoft Flight Simulator.
At its pinnacle of development, Microsoft was able to offer a completely navigatable world complete with every airport and navigation aid on the planet. Dozens of airplanes were included in the basic package and hundreds more are available for the cost of a download. The combination of the very high resolution graphics and the high fidelity sounds was accurate enough to give the virtual pilot the cues needed to get a very good sense of flight. All of this was available off the shelf for less than $60. But with all that, there was still something missing. There was one vital element that the million dollar simulators had but the home user did not. What was missing was the Holy Grail of simulation: motion.
If the fine folks at SimCraft have their way, motion-based simulation for the home user will eventually be a reality. I have seen it, I have experienced it, and I am here to tell you that it works. And, if I may be so bold, that you want it!
This is, unfortunately, where I have to explain why I started out by saying "almost." It's kind of like a 5 carat diamond: even at a 50% off sale, I can't afford one. SimCraft has made amazing strides in developing a three degree-of-freedom (3dof) motion simulator platform at a fraction of the price of "professional" systems, but it is still just a bit outside the reach of the hobbyist. Before you get discouraged, though, let me explain.
First of all, I need to mention that flight simulators were by no means the only applications being developed for the high performance graphics/physics engines we were putting under our desks. First person shooters, sports simulations, and near and dear to my heart, auto racing simulations were also becoming ever more sophisticated and capable.
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