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.
Racing simulators also went through a series of technological plateaus, each taking the virtual driver ever closer to an amazingly realistic experience. Improvements in computer performance allowed for more accurate graphics and physics modeling, even going so far as to provide race track models laser measured down to the smallest bank, bump, dip, and curb. The most recent development to bring the racer closer to the real feel of the intricately modeled vehicles and tracks was the force feedback steering wheel. At that point, racing simulators too were up against the capability wall that had stalled progress in the flight simulator world: motion.
Motion is important in both flying and racing simulators to help make up for the lack of visual cues and to accurately mimic forces that are critical for both the correct control of the vehicle and to aid in the suspension of disbelief required to get the "player" more fully immersed in the experience. In racing, for example, it is one thing to know that there is a bump at the apex of a turn that will kick your rear tires loose or that the car will get light at the crest of a hill, but it is something completely different to feel it.
Some of this feeling is transferred to the driver via the force feedback steering, but no amount of feedback from the wheel can provide the feelings of acceleration or deceleration, nor can the driver be made to physically sense the yaw arising from the rear tires breaking loose at the start of a skid. Less critical for control yet vitally critical to a realistic driving experience, the constant jarring a driver receives from the bumps in the track is also is a big part of racing. I remember quite clearly from back in my kart racing days having been passed or having made passes when I or the driver in front of me simply got worn out from the brutal beating being delivered by the rough track surface. If I didn't go home from the track with an eight inch bruise running up my spine, I knew I hadn't been racing hard enough.
In flying, there is a big difference between consulting the graphical representation of a skid indicator to ensure that the pilot is making a coordinated turn and being able to feel the incorrect or insufficient use of the rudder in the seat of his pants. This is one of the most difficult lessons to learn during pilot training because it is a very subtle sensation, but it can be a life threatening thing to ignore. Stalling an airplane with uncoordinated rudder and aileron controls is nearly always an invitation for the airplane to enter a spin. Certainly it is true that a flight simulator without a motion base is a valuable learning tool, but the addition of sensory input provides the last portion of realism required to make the training complete. Being able to feel the pre-stall buffet in the wing while sitting safely on the ground, for example, can prepare a student before experiencing what can be a frightening event when encountered for the first time in the air.
So, if we can all agree that adding a motion base to both flying and racing simulators is highly desirable and useful, we can begin to explore where SimCraft Motion Technology comes into the picture. At the time of this writing, SimCraft's premier product is the Apex Racing Simulator. The Apex is targeted at professional and high-end amateur racers that are looking for a simulator system that is accurate enough to allow them to get meaningful practice time on road or oval courses. In-car practice is very expensive, requiring not only fuel and transportation costs but also the costs associated with buying track time, if it is even available. With the Apex system, race teams can practice whenever they want at a fraction of the cost. Combined with sophisticated software such as iRacing, which uses laser grading to map every bump or dip in a track's surface down to millimeters of accuracy, the Apex can provide a highly precise and realistic simulation of dozens of tracks.
I recently had the opportunity to “drive” the Apex for a cumulative forty-five minutes across two sessions. It felt like much less time than that; it was so much fun that I had to discipline myself to not be greedy while others were waiting for a turn behind the wheel. Sean MacDonald, SimCraft's Co-Founder set me up in a Dallara IndyCar sitting in the pits at Lime Rock Park speedway in Lakeville, CT. This was a good choice of track for me since Lime Rock is a track that I have quite a few laps on in simulators like rFactor and GTR Evolution. Knowing the track fairly well would allow me to get up to speed a little quicker so I could examine the capabilities of the Apex without having to simultaneously learn a new track.
While the Apex will work with just about any off-the-shelf software, Sean had selected iRacing for me to use so I could get the most accurate representation of the track available. Had I been offered a choice, I might have considered a less powerful car than the Dallara for my first few laps, but I figured I could just loaf around a couple of laps to get a feel for it. Climbing into the rig, my first impression was how comfortable the Recaro Pole Position racing seat was, once I was able to fold my aging body into it. Without even starting the car, I was already sold.
The proper support and seating position provided by the seat and the placement of the wheel and pedals was so superior to my normal set-up at home that I knew I was going to drive better than I ever had at home. The wheel felt comfortable and familiar in my hands since it was the same Logitech G25 that I race with already. While the G25 pedals are very good for the price, the CST (Cannon Simulation Technologies) racing pedals mounted to the Apex were, in a word, amazing. Sean walked me through a quick calibration of the controls and explained some of the customization available with the Apex technology.
With 3dof, various forces can be modeled. Both physical orientation and G forces are modeled by moving the chassis in, well, three degrees of freedom. As an example, consider what you would feel if you were driving a car up a hill. This would be simulated in the Apex by rocking the chassis to the rear. Now think about the pressure you would feel on your back under strong acceleration – it would be the same as if you were sitting on a hill, facing upward. Both forces feel the same on your back, but you can tell them apart. You know which is which because of visual cues. If you were in a dark room with no visual cues to help your inner ears and brain sense what was happening to you, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between climbing a hill and undergoing forward acceleration.
The Apex uses its three degrees of freedom (pitch, yaw, and roll) to apply pressures in those axes to model physical orientation and G forces. It does this with three very strong and very fast electric actuators that pitch, roll, and yaw the chassis in response to physics calculations performed in the simulator software. The actuators respond quickly enough to offer latency delays measured in microseconds. That means that when you hit a bump in the simulator, you feel it immediately, or at least quickly enough for your body to measure it as immediately. The Apex configuration settings allow the user to not only adjust for gain and amplitude in each axis, but also to set ratios to determine the mix between physical orientation forces and G forces. So, for example, you could set it to respond more prominently to acceleration G forces than hill climbing physical orientation forces. This level of configuration allows the technology to be purposed for all kinds of different environments.
All of this became apparent as soon as I accelerated the Dallara out of the pits. My first sensation was that I was rocking back in the chassis. The Apex had sensed that I was accelerating the car and had rocked the Apex chassis back in an attempt to fool my inner ear into thinking my body was experiencing forward acceleration. It only partially worked. The problem with the demo setup was that my peripheral vision was still weighing in with the additional information my brain needed in order to process what was really happening. I believe that if the system had been enclosed in a way that would deprive my brain of the visual cues that it was receiving, the sensation would have felt more appropriate. I didn't have much time to think about it, though, because I was already accelerating through first gear and had shifted into second. The responding kick that I felt through the Apex as I shifted gears was so amazingly cool that I burst out laughing and quickly forgot all about everything but driving the car. And oh, what a ride it was!! Within just a few turns I was so immersed in what was going on that the motion of the Apex in response to my driving quickly felt completely natural. It wasn't until my first time through turn one when I got way too deep into the corner before braking and shot off of the track into the gravel (and felt every bump of it) that I returned to my surroundings.
Over the next few sessions, I drove a Nascar stock car around Daytona (which, if the feelings of the track transmitted to me by the Apex are to be believed, is sadly in need of smoothing and re-paving), a Radical sport racer around Laguna Seca, and some kind of front wheel drive daily driver around a rally cross track in Live for Speed. As I mentioned before, it took every iota of self-discipline to get out of the Apex before wearing out my welcome. I want one!
And there's the rub. The Apex comes in at a cool $22,997 for a turn-key system. To a professional race team, that's peanuts compared to the real-world costs of going to practice session at the track. Mind you, the Apex does not replace the need for on-track testing. What it does is make the limited time available to test more efficient. Before ever seeing the track, the driver is prepared and ready to get up to speed quickly. With the Apex and iRacing combination, he will already know what I learned in the Dallara at Lime Rock: you had better feather the throttle just a touch and have the steering centered at the top of the hill after The Uphill turn. I learned that at the cost of some minor embarrassment; in a real car that lesson could have cost thousands of dollars in lost time and broken equipment.
Professional race teams are only the first target market for SimCraft, though. Sometime in 2010 they will partner with Precision Flight Controls to create a full 3dof motion flight simulator. This will open a much larger market. With airplane rental costs being over $100 an hour and the instructor getting an additional $30 to $50 an hour, flight instruction has become very expensive. While only 2.5 hours of simulated training can be used in the pursuit of a Private Pilot's license, up to 20 hours can be earned towards an instrument rating. As with the race track testing example, nothing can completely replace actual flying for a full training regimen. A SimCraft motion platform combined with the aircraft controls and simulation software from Precision Flight Controls would make the more expensive flying time much more efficient.
Compare the learning environments of actual flying and simulated flying: trying to learn the complex detailed procedures of instrument flight in an actual airplane is horribly difficult. First, and most obviously, the student is distracted by having to fly the airplane. It is noisy, it is cramped, and it takes a lot of expensive flight time to get the airplane positioned for an approach. Contrast this with a simulator: it is quiet, the “airplane” can be positioned anywhere instantly, and the flight can be paused at any moment to allow for clarification and explanation by the instructor. Flights can be replayed for review. Weather conditions far too hazardous to actually fly in with a student can be created on the fly, so to speak. It would be no exaggeration to say that a student could easily get ten times the instructional value from each training hour.
How much would that hour cost compared to the $150 per hour of airplane and instructor time? It's hard to say, but let's assume for the sake of argument that a flight simulator using SimCraft and Precision Flight Controls components and software runs a cool $50,000. At $50 hour for the sim and $30 for the instructor, the student is getting a better learning experience for around half the cost. The flight school will break even on the cost of the simulator in 1000 training hours, which would require 50 students doing their full 20 hours in the sim. After that, the simulator is almost pure profit. The student wins with superior training at a substantially lower cost, the student and instructor both win because the scheduling can be tighter without the inevitable weather cancellations and shorter days of winter, and the flight school gains with reduced wear and tear on their fleet of airplanes.
“That's all well and good,” you say, “but how does that help me get one of these awesome devices? I still can't afford that 5 carat diamond.”
Well, maybe you can. SimCraft has an opportunity available for you today with their STAR system. STAR is an acronym for Some Time and Assembly
Required. Basically, SimCraft will sell you the components to build you own 2dof (you can get the yaw axis for a full 3dof, but it nearly doubles the price) system starting at just shy of $3,000. That will buy you the bearings, actuators, and control system to build your own chassis. The most economical way to build it is with dimensional lumber available off the shelf at your local Lowe's or Home Depot, but SimCraft also has plans for building a chassis with tubular aluminum for those that are comfortable with tube bending and welding. Plans for both are available as free downloads on SimCraft's web site
SimCraft knows that not everyone has the skills or desire to build their own. Current plans are tentative, but they hope to come to market with a consumer grade model that meets a $2,000 to $3,000 price point and is more real estate friendly than the large chassis used by the Apex. They have designs ready to manufacture this chassis so that it will fold up for storage. That's still a price point that is only going to be attractive to the hard core simulation enthusiast, but that's okay. The type of simulation that will benefit from this type of equipment typically has a steep learning curve and it takes a hard core level of discipline to master it anyway.
SimCraft also recognizes that the market for console-based racing sims is orders of magnitude larger than it is for PC-based programs so they are also planning to build versions that will work with the leading consoles. The sticking point with the consoles is the dearth of good force feedback controllers, but that should improve with time. Logitech has already made great gains with their Driving Force GT for the Playstation3.
If and when SimCraft's plans come to fruition, the capabilities of home based simulations are going to rival those available to professionals and corporations. In the mid-tier, aviation students are going to benefit from a superior learning environment that will allow them to get a fuller understanding of complex procedures in a safe, realistic simulation. In my opinion, SimCraft is exceptionally well positioned to bring the Holy Grail of simulation into our homes and schools. I can hardly wait!
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.