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.
Again, there may be an easier or more correct way of configuring the tablet (I, for one, welcome our new Google overlords, but in this case I decided to blaze my own trail), but this is the way that worked for me. After a few hours of mapping keys and printing a screenshot of the FSX G1000 panel, I had a configuration that let me set comm and nav radio frequencies, set the CRS and HDG bugs on the PFD, choose appropriate responses from the ATC menu (digits 1 - 4), and use the Direct and Menu buttons on the GPS. I then made a series of IFR flights in the Garmin G1000-equipped Cessna 172, Mooney Bravo, and Beechcraft Baron. The difference was astonishing! I could make the entire flight from engine start to landing without having to touch the keyboard once. I was able to manage all of the frequency changes manually much easier than I could have by using the mouse or keyboard, and it felt far more realistic. I soon regretted not having printed the autopilot panel and mapping keys to its functions too, though.
In order to test the ability to quickly reconfigure the panel, I printed a template with the Canadair Regional Jet's comm, nav, and autopilot functions. Before removing the keys and template for the G1000, I made sure to draw a map of the key mappings and locations so I'd be able to re-assemble it later without undue burden and confusion. Mapping the jet was much easier than my previous effort since many of the keys were already mapped and simply had to be moved to a different location on the tablet. I had to map the additional buttons required for the autopilot, however, and since this required changes to the map I had created for the G1000 I had to save a new map. I just have to remember to actvate the CRJ map when switching the control layouts to change planes, and that's not a big deal at all. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that complete maps will be avalible for download at various sim-support forums around the web eventually, if not already.
I can see an opportunity for CH here, though. It seems that there are likely to be people that would like to keep a set of different templates handy for quickly changing from one configuration to another. CH could sell the transparent cover separately from the unit, and would likely garner additional sales of extra keys as well. The keys run about $3 each in sets of 25, so it wouldn't be super expensive to have two or three sets on hand and ready to go at a moments notice. [Update: I later visited the CH site and noticed that they now offer the clear tray cover for separate purchase. As much as I'd like to say they got the idea from me.... they didn't.]
I also couldn't help thinking about how nice it would be to have more complex keys. The push buttons are fantastic, but it would be ever-so-slightly MORE fantastic to have rotating knobs that send a series of identical key values to better simulate tuning knobs and the like, if I could be so bold. Flip switches would be pretty cool too as long as I'm wish-listing. As I mentally run through a typical flight in my real-world plane, it seems to me that button pushing is not nearly as common as knob twisting and switch flipping. The buttons are an admirable substitute for the keyboard and quite usable, but hey, these things can always be improved!
With a street price of nearly $200, the CH MFP clearly isn't for everyone. This is pretty hard-core gaming equipment and won't be of any particular use for just puttering aimlessly around the sky. Conversely, if you're into instrument flight or enjoy flying the heavy airline metal, the MFP is a great way to further blur the line between real-world controls and their electronic, virtual counterparts in the sim aircraft without breaking the piggy bank. The MFP was the final piece I needed to solve the full-immersion puzzle and now resides alongside the TrackIR system on my "must-have" list for flight sims. My only real complaint with it is now that I have tried one, I want three more!