posted 4/25/2005 by Dave Gamble
other articles by Dave Gamble
One Page Platforms: PC
I have been 'flying' home computer based flight simulators since the very first version became available in 1979. Back then I had a TRS-80 Model 1 with 16k RAM. The flight sim was the subLOGIC FS1 flight simulator. It was black & white, had a world of a whopping 36 square miles, and a framerate of 3 - 4 frames per second. Sound came from placing a transistor radio near the computer and picking up the interference from it. At the time it was quite sophisticated.

That program is the direct ancestor of today's Microsoft Century of Flight 2004. I've had every version between FS1 and FS2004. Each version has improved on graphics, framerate, sound, and realism. The later versions even went as far as providing true 3D cockpit environments (virtual cockpits) rather that 2D instrument panels placed in front of the 3D world. With the 2004 version. Microsoft has taken the PC-based flight sim just about as far as it can go. It downloads real-world weather from wherever you are flying to provide a realistic environment. It has interactive air traffic control. Every land mass and airport in the entire world are modeled. Frankly, it has too many amazing features to even hope to list here. But. There has always been this one, nagging 'but':

But no matter how complex these simulators become, they all have the same Achille's heel: tunnel vision. Peripheral vision is incredibly important in flying, as is the ability to look off to the sides of the plane, or to look down at the instrument panel. Because of the limiting scope of the computer monitor, visibility has always been lacking in PC-based flight sims. Recent versions would allow you to pan around and look up, down, left, right or wherever, but this required moving a switch on your control stick or yoke. In my case, the pan was too slow. Many times I just wanted to take a quick glance one way, then quickly return to looking somewhere else. The panning action was too slow to allow this, but if the panning speed was increased it became too twitchy and difficult to control. I was convinced that the PC was never going to be able to provide a realistic enough visual environment to be truly useful.

I was wrong.

I recently experienced PC-based flight simulation using the Natural Point's TrackIR 3 Pro device with the new Vector Expansion upgrade. This incredible gadget translates my real-world head motion into a full six degrees of freedom in the virtual PC cockpit. I simply could not believe the difference this made in the utility of the flight sim. With this device I can now do things such as glance to the side to get a look at the runway while on base leg to landing, circle around a landmark and take a good look at it, glance down to check airspeed while on approach to landing, all while maintaining full control of the plane. With six degrees of freedom available, I found that I could even 'lean' around an obstruction such as the control yoke to see the instrument behind it. If the instrument was too far away to see clearly, I could 'lean' forward for a closer look. All of this movement comes to you naturally at some point (NaturalPoint - get it?) in your learning curve, and you just forget you're even wearing the thing. It's amazing! It's difficult to describe this, so I suggest visiting and taking a look at some of the demo movies they have available. That said, it is incumbent on me as the reviewer to do the best I can to describe this experience, so here goes.
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