When I reflect back to my first flight simulator (SubLogic Flight Simulator for the TRS-80 Model I) and consider how minimal it was by today's standards, I feel a tad guilty about the minor complaints I have regarding some aspects of the human-computer interface in today's modern sims. Compare: on the TRS-80 I controlled (barely!) a highly pixelated wireframe airplane in a 25 square mile granite-flat world using only the keyboard for control inputs, while in FSX I control a nearly photo-realistic airplane in a virtual world encompassing every continent on the planet, using a yoke or joystick and rudder pedals. But...
I still have to use the keyboard and mouse on occasion. Don't get me wrong: the complexity and realism of the communication, navigation, and ATC systems in modern flights sims like Microsoft's FSX is very desirable, and the requirement to interact with them via mouse clicks and keyboard strokes is a trivial price to pay. That doesn't change the fact that there is a cost associated with using those input devices, though. That cost is comprised of diverse elements such as loss of the suspension of disbelief that is so essential to truly enjoying a flight sim and in the distraction of having to look away from the screen to find the correct keys to press. When using the TrackIR system in the 3D virtual cockpit, there is an additional hassle in that it is difficult to locate the cursor properly over a button/knob without having it "drift" away from unwanted head movement. It's possible to freeze the current TrackIR position by pressing the F9 key, but that requires a visit with the keyboard and I've already established that trips to the keyboard are cumbersome at best. What we really need in order to keep our attention focused on the virtual world is a tangible control panel, just as we have with our yokes and rudder pedals.
These kinds of devices already exist, mind you, but at a fairly substantial price. For example, an avionics stack from SimKits goes for 2,795 Euros. If you have the budget for it, you can buy a full Cessna 172 control panel starting at 10,000 Euros. That's not particularly feasible price point for most of us, and has the significant downside of being able to simulate only one of the hundreds of planes available for FSX. What's lacking is a solution that is both affordable and flexible enough to be usable across multiple aircraft types.
Enter the CH Products Multifunction Panel (MFP). The MFP is essentially a keyboard tablet that can be configured to just about any use in the flight sims that can be controlled by the keyboard. The package includes 25 sticky-back keys that can be positioned anywhere on the face of the 6" x 9" tablet. While the sticky backing holds them well in place, it is also easy to remove and relocated them if needed. Each key can be assigned any key value (or combination of keys by using a simple scripting language) needed. For example, a key could be programmed to send the lower-case 'g,' which by default would cause the landing gear on an FSX airplane to retract or extend. The keys are similar in size to the keys on a normal keyboard.
The transparent plastic tablet face is removeable to allow for the insertion of a printed image which can then be used as a template for the key locations. CH has created a few sample templates and has them freely available on their web site. The tablet is light; I'd guess it to be no more than a pound or two. It has a single USB cord and requires no external power cords or batteries. Installation was a simple matter of installing the CH Control Manager software and the device drivers prior to plugging in the tablet. Within minutes I had found the test screen in the CH Control Manager and verified that the tablet was properly connected and sending keystrokes. Time to give it a whirl in FSX, thought I.
Well, not so fast. As far as FSX was concerned, the MFP was nothing more than an inconsequential rumor. Nothing it said was worth listening to, apparently. Well, 'tis a complex device, so there must be more to the install and configuration than just plugging it in and mumbling a prayer to the gods of gaming hardware complexity, I slowly realized. Off to the help file, then! Now, in retrospect I can't honestly say that the help file didn't contain the data that I needed, but it wasn't as simple as "do this to that before doing the other, and Bob's your uncle" to get it all working. Using the example of the lower-case 'g', here are the steps I eventually figured out:
-- Open the CH Control Manager software.
-- Click on the Map Wizard button. Select 'Multi Function Panel' in the list and press the Okay button.
-- Answer No to the next two pages, then hit FInish on the last page.
-- Press one of the MFP keys
-- Uncheck the DX Mode checkbox
-- Click in the Normal Action | Press edit box. Press the lower-case 'g' on the keyboard
-- continue to map other keys as desired
-- Press the Save button in the Control Manager, save the .map file.
-- Press the Download button in the Control Manager. When the download is completed, you can run FSX and it will recognize the MFP. Note that you will have to open the .map file and press the Download button every time you reboot the PC for it to work with FSX.
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