Stephen

Laminar Research : FlightSimCon 2017 Details

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Laminar Research : FlightSimCon 2017 Details

 

It was at the FlightSimCon 2016 that we got our first glimpses of X-Plane11 and the future of our simulator in it's bold new fashion. And so here we are a full twelve months on and all those new features and systems are all now part of our flying universe and in general use.

 

So how do you follow a big event like that. In reality you can't but the X-Plane11 rollout still does continue, and to a point Laminar Research is not letting it's foot off the accelerator pedal either as we will see in a minute. Laminar Research to a point could have just come to FlightSimCon 2017 with the current up to date 11.02 (or even the 11.05 next version) and bathed in the limelight of a job well done but the general feeling was overall "Still a lot more than where that came from".

Certainly if you follow X-Plane's developers blog a lot of the forward development is already noted there, but to note openly the ongoing forward features that are actually active and not just "In development" is still going to make the crowd go "wow". And so it was.

 

After the first announcements of new product developers then Laminar Research (LR) held the first of the big seminar blocks as well between 10.30 to 11.30 on the Friday morning. The more upmarket venue of the Sheraton Hotel also shows that Flight Simulation is still a long way from losing its appeal and is still far from a failing subcategory of the general games business as some people constantly whine about, it was also a nice step up from the usual crowded old small conference rooms of the past.

 

But down to business...

 

The seminar started with a review of their default aircraft was in reality a bit of a backward step. We all know that the current crop of default aircraft are below par, a few in the C172 and B738 are not too bad, but most feel like test beds for LR in testing out new ideas than quality flying aircraft, I still don't know if the default B744 can even still fly in a straight line? Most and even low level payware aircraft are currently better.

 

A small promo on X-Planes new X-Plane11 interface followed. To a point LR deserve a lot of credit here as the new interface is simply brilliant, fast and very intuitive, go back to X-Plane10's interface and you will certainly notice the difference, it is slow and simply awful, I am a big fan of the new changes. Another promo then covered the Global Airport feature, which again has grown from a few to over 4300 airports is now covering a lot of X-Plane's empty airport deficit, but it is still a long way off Flight Simulators count, but with now officially 4300+ lego (global) airports it is starting to have an impact on all that X-Plane empty space you always had.

 

Physics and Systems

If you thought that Austin Meyer was finished adding in new physics, systems and changing the values of X-Plane's core foundations you are wrong to the groans of developers that have just sorted out his last set of changes with the introduction of X-Plane11, no folks Mr Meyer is on a charge now and a lot more is still coming. I will admit though after years of stagnation then Austin's new rules of flight do have an impact, aircraft do feel more realistic and systems are far more deeper in X-Plane11 than before, certainly in the throttle feel and ground dynamics (although I still hate that grab the aircraft to landing feel you get only when feet above the runway).

 

Austin is using accumulated aircraft data and even using his own Cirrus SR22 as a testing rig to create even more realistic physics and engine parameters to get more closer to the real feedback that you are looking for in simulation. Here at SimCon 2017 the focus was on supersonic flight and how that the physics change from engine power and output to more of controlling the airflow to the engines to go faster. Helicopter blade physics was also covered also. Vector based dynamics was another area covered that included tailwind and aerobatic aircraft (tail first) fall that still created backward airflow over the the aerodynamic surfaces even when trying to hover still in a helicopter. Lastly was better electrical systems in fluctuations and power provided by the engine outputs or ground supply.

 

Scenery and Autogen

Next subject covered airports or new scenery items for scenery developers. Laminar Research are creating still a lot of new scenery items to place in sceneries, before it was the larger items, but now it is all the smaller fill items that are all the rage. Caravans, forklift trucks, glider trailers, grain silos, new hangars and a lot of signage in parking, road and barriers.

I was very impressed with the European style autogen in X-Plane11, and to a point it is far better than the older American style work. More is to be added in new mid-sized towers and apartments, factories, houses with even more detailing. The absent of churches is still a head scratching moment as churches dominate European and to a point American scenery. But overall I would rather have more regional detailing at this point as X-Plane is still either very US or European centric. English, Middle eastern and Asian housing no matter how basic would open up the world a lot more so to speak.

 

A new set of autogen coming though from LR is "Landmarks". These are iconic objects that turn flat cities into what we know as London, Paris, New York, Las Vegas, Sydney and so on, but although this would be a big step forward for X-Plane in creating a more real autogen realism feel. I personally felt that this territory should have been left to 3rd party developers to add in these specalised packages to this area? Just a small amount of icons can not easily cover the wide selection you require to create the correct scenario and I think that Laminar Research would be best putting their limited resources into more diverse things in autogen to fill it out like the recently mentioned regional autogen. But we shall see.

 

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality (VR) has been promised for years for X-Plane, and finally it is coming. You can't lay the delay on to LR because really VR like Artificial Intelligence is a futuristic idea that was promoted as a developed perception than actual reality. The hard part was interacting with the virtual environment besides of just being inside that virtual bubble and its six degrees of freedom or dimensions, and it is far harder to do than just pressing on a key on your hard element built keyboard. But lately new style VR interaction tools (Spatial 3D Interaction) have finally changed the game (so to speak).

 

In reality you would now only need a chair, some rudder pedals and VR headset and manipulation handsets to fly, oh and a computer worthy of running a small city to run it all in the 3d environment. But most realistically you can now finally interact within the X-Plane world in walking around the aircraft and inspecting it and actually now sitting in the cockpit (on a chair) and can actually fly it in the virtual world. Does it all work?

 

In the demo it was very impressive (video below), in walking around the aircraft and then flying it. But VR is an inside thing to evaluate. I have tried the headset and it was an amazing experience in a visual sense, but the missing hard surfaces tended to make you feel as you were falling through time and space. Still with the new developments you are holding controllers and not interacting in a hard sense but in then how does VR tend to add in real yokes and throttle systems to give you at least a more physical touch on the important items will yet to be seen. My personal feel is that could you also do this immersion for hours at a time like you do in front of multiple screen monitors and of that I am not sure of, but VR does have its great advantages as well as its deficiencies. At this point VR is still in development at Laminar Research and a release is noted as in the fall (October) so a more better evaluation will be better then, but the demo at SimCon 2017 was impressive and shows that progress is finally being made.

 

VR features noted are : Easy setup (one Click), 180/360 degree of movement, Teleport (with hotspots), Full 3d cockpit manipulation with haptic feedback and iPad companion for shortcuts, planning and logbooks.

 

Avionics

Philipp Münzel has totally revolutionised default X-Plane avionics. The talented German has over the last few years buried the old clunky line by line FMS and GNS GPS units with first his masterpiece the GNS 430/530 units for GA's and then with a better new FMS (Flight Management System) for the larger aircraft, although I will note the FMS is quite basic in operation but does have the far better underlying navigation data to work with. That underlying new navigation data base developed by Philipp is the most important element here in bringing X-Plane up to date in better navigation data, but more so in that it can be updated with Navigraph and Aerosoft Nav DataPro data which keeps all navigation data across the board current and up to date.

 

It was no secret his next project was a Garmin G1000 two screen display GPS system, and here we got our first full view of the new avionic system. As a rule G1000 displays have been notorious in X-Plane because of simply the display size. A few developers have got it to work, but overall the issues with large scale maps within the navigation screen have been very clunky and with poor graphics, and mostly in the rendering of the turning maps. Awkward flight planning is another hurdle to overcome.

This new unit is based on an actual G1000 system in a Cessna 400 and is customisable in Planemaker for different aircraft types. It can have standalone windows (all panels like all default GNS/FMS systems pop-out and can be resized) for home cockpit builders.

The important point here is that it uses vector graphics to overcome the old slow drawing map display, and that means no more dragging or slow revolving screen movements. It looks as solid as the GNS 430/530 units and that means an elegance in operation.

 

Features include built in are multiple failures in AHRS, fluxgate, air data computer, GIA, transponder and more. Options include WAAS and non-WAAS ( or Wide Area Augmentation System that uses GNSS augmentation for accuracy, reliability, and availability while flying). GFC Autopilot intergration (nice),  KN63 DME and KR87 ADF radio integration and GDL-69 "NEXTRAD" and wind weather displays. 

SID/STAR/IAP, SBAS approaches and LNAV and RNP-AR are also built in and available.

 

Another nice G1000 feature are chevrons to indicate an out of bounds too high or low a pitch to show you how to respond to the wrong angle of attack to the aircraft. And the new system can also be customized and configured to different aircraft in performance and specifications.

 

Performance

If you have used the X-Plane Simulator over the years then you will know that efficiency and performance is everything, and mostly that is limited to framerate. Get below that 18fr line and the stutters really mess up the total enjoyment of just trying to fly and makes your time seriously frustrating and makes even the most simple actions just maddening. I lived with a slow computer for years, so I have experienced the low framerate pain to the letter. A very powerful custom built computer certainly fixes most of the problems, but you are still watching the numbers when you are piling in all the effects and features you would like. The biggest worry is that even with a powerful machine is then how long will that framerate buffer keep me up in the usable zone and not put me back down again in the restricted painful zones of limited framerate to fly on with all the extra forward developments and the sheer processing power required to cover all that autogen, plugins, textures and complex scenery and aircraft as the constant demand never ends.

 

Ben Supnic at the SimCon 2017 has noted future performance goals in trying to keep at least the tide at bay. New coding tools also do now help in the cause. For everything the X-Plane simulator is still quite inefficient although the move to 64bit by LR four years ago was a very good decision. But overall the central processing power is still limited because only a few and and not all the cores are working to their maximum efficiency and mostly because we are still having to use old OpenGL code for graphic processing. So the trick is to open the gates and use two new API's (Application Programming Interface) that are sets of subroutine definitions, protocols, and tools for building application software as it is now more available.

 

These are Vulcan for Windows/Android and Metal for Macs/IOS and Linux. If you watched the Apple Developers conference stream last week in the way that Apple showed off the capabilities of its Metal tool, then you will know how impressive and efficient the API really is. That same capability will soon be coming to X-Plane as well which includes low CPU use, Multi-core friendly and no stutters within the driver.

 

There is some good and bad news in here and the full changes will take about a year or so to crossover to the new API drivers. First all current OpenGL drivers have to be rewritten, and that means like with the change to 64bit your aircraft and plugins are going to have to be translated to the new Vulcan and Metal API form. The good news is that LR are going to still run the old OpenGL drivers for at least the run of X-Plane11 and so unlike the messy 64bit changeover your aircraft and plugin has still a bit of time to get converted. But I do think that most developers won't wait around long to get the performance boost with the new format for that long.

 

So what works and what doesn't. Mostly a lot of scenery, models and aircraft will work fine with the new API's and a great many addons, plugins and panels already work with Vulcan/Metal. However addons that draw in 3d will need modification for use with the newer APIs and new technology will help developers with the transfer to the newer drivers.

 

New X-Plane related tools are already flowing out from Laminar Research which include the newly released WED 1.6 which includes a more finalised ground traffic operations flow. FMOD sound is now also available as are the manuals. Blender 3.4 and exporter are also in the final stages of testing and should be available soon. A brand new Plugin API has also been developed in a revised form to cover X-Plane11 features, Pop-Out windows, Custom Maps, 3d drawing for Vulcan/Metal and that API is coming about mid-summer.

 

Laminar Research's goal with all this change is however very ambitious. They want a 60fr goal for desktops, a 45fr goal for VR and believe it or not no stutters either! That is one very high set line, and personally I don't think that is totally possible (a sort of in my dreams) but I never ever discount Ben Supnic either in his abilities and it also doesn't mean that you can still hang on to that 10 year computer and upgrade straight from X-Plane9 to X-Plane11 either as you will still need as many cores and the power as much as you ever did in the past.

 

A sum up of delivery of features was listed as:

 

  • X-Plane11.02 (current)
  • X-Plane 11.05 is coming really soon - Airports (Global Airports)
  • X-Plane11.10 - New lego bricks and Landmarks, G1000 system, New Systems and physics and more speed.
  •  VR in The fall (October)
  • And Vulcan/Metal changes in the future

 

Summary

You have to impressed overall at the amount of features and future predictions coming out of FlightSimCon 2017 by Laminar Research. They could have used the rest of the year in just tiding up the X-Plane11 release and had a few holidays and sat by the hotel pool. But the above announcements showed that there are a lot of nice new and exciting additions still to come and many soon.

 

Laminar Research has been very active at SimCon's over the last few years. This major American SimCon is always an interesting one as it is at the start of the American summer period. And the full larger room shows that many users are interested in the future of X-Plane development as in the past X-Plane was always pushed into small timeslots or even smaller rooms.

 

The changes within Laminar Research also reflect this more professional approach to the simulation industry as well. Gone are the days of a few talented individuals to keep the simulator alive. Today Laminar Research has different full time areas developing ideas and delivering on time goals. It is still a small team compared to say Aerosoft, but there is a distinctively new and more professional feel about X-Plane11 and the way Laminar Research is going about its approach these days, for most of you that is you will say "about time", but the proof is all there on your screens.

 

There was no announcements of the new particle system at FlightSimCon 2017 that has already been announced. But Laminar Research have noted it is still coming and are currently working on it and maybe will be still released this Northern Summer, as surmised the feature was left out of the SimCon because of time constraints and not development.

 

But for long term X-Plane users there was a lot to savour here and more importantly is that the development of Vulcan/Metal APIs will bring even better performance than we actually expected. In the short term the release of X-Plane11.10 mid-summer is now even more eagerly awaited with a lot of great new features and that excellent G1000 system which also looks far better than anticipated.

 

So who says it is a boring time to be in X-Plane as 2017 has already been a banner year, and it looks like the ride is not over yet, you are even beginning to wish that Laminar Research would go on a holiday and just give everyone else a chance to catch up.

 

There are two videos now posted with one for the actual full seminar and another a VR demo...

 

 

 

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Conference overview by Stephen Dutton
13th June 2017
Copyright©2017: X-PlaneReviews
 
(Disclaimer. All images and text in this review are the work and property of X-PlaneReviews, no sharing or copy of the content is allowed without consent from the author as per copyright conditions)

 

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I have greatly enjoyed and found your in-depth reviews to be very useful...they have helped unburden me of much filthy lucre over the past year ;) 

 

Thank you for this report...glad to see that LR is not resting on their laurels. Kind of hard to really evaluate their push for 60fps as it is meaningless without knowing at what settings this will be achieved. I mean, I can easily achieve 60fps right now on my 2013 MBP if I disable enough eye candy. Having said that, the v11 has been a significant improvement in performance for me, if not in actual framerate, at least in how much more realistic the environment looks at the same given framerates as compared to v10. If v11 is any indication, I'm sure they won't disappoint with what's coming next!

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Being a novice at XP having only started my adventure in the latter part of last year, but built upon a strong MSFS foundation dating back to the early 1980s, I'd like to make some comments regarding the above. These are just my observations and opinions based on my thoughts and experience.

 

First, and this is first because the single most important aspect of simming is FPS. It always has been the capital three letters regardless of platform and hopefully one day it will be a faded tech memory. Laminar wants 60fps on desktops? I want 60fps on my desktop. I would be happy with 40fps. However at some points, I settle for 20fps and get crushed occasionally at less than 10. As Mr. jsperl succinctly points out, you can get to 60fps right now by shutting off everything. That's a Microsoft solution. I'm not complaining, but merely stating there is a lot of work ahead to get there and Laminar cannot expect everyone to swap out for new hardware after every update.

 

Second, after over 30 years of desktop flying, I have concluded that the focus of a flight simulator program should not be on how many trees dot the landscape, not the number of buildings in a city, not the aeronautical perfection of built-in flight models, nor even whether it's deer or elk scampering across the runway. The focus should be on the flight experience which directly ties into the first item. Don't waste limited resources on developing things like autogen, AI, airports, etc., that others have done once, twice, or three times over. Leave the gravy to the outside developers and encourage them to understand XP is the future and MSFS is dead.

 

Finally, Flight simmers are a dedicated, specialized and limited band of diverse individuals with as many priorities. Laminar has to provide them with a platform right now that will handle the candy crush. XP11 is a jump forward, but many facets still leave much to be desired. Whatever can be done to achieve an acceptable balance between FPS and realism on a desktop should be a priority. As for things like VR, well, let's put it this way: Imagine you are piloting a real time flight in your big Boeing from Paris to Moscow. Are you really going to wear that headset the entire time? I don't even like to wear an audio headset for very long. Again, don't waste resources on tiny niches.

 

Just my two cents. Your mileage may vary.

 

Lynx

XP10.51/XP11/xEnviro
i7-6700K @ 4.50GHz/32GB/GTX970/TM Warthog+CH Pedals+Saitek Multi&Wheel/Windows 10/AOPA-WAHS-Aviation Fanatic & Flight Sim Aficionado

 

 

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