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Laminar Research : FlightSimExpo 2018 X-Plane Roadmap

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Laminar Research : FlightSimExpo 2018  X-Plane Roadmap

 

The FlightSimExpo 2018 in Las Vegas was mostly as I predicted in my "May - Behind The Screen" edition. In that Laminar Research focused down more on fewer items than the huge agenda of the earlier announcements with the release of X-Plane11, fewer yes but more deeper and actually more significant to your everyday simulation flying.

 

Basically the event came down to five items...  More Autogen, Newer better Physics, Oxygen/Ice Systems/Autopilot for PlaneMaker, New Particle Systems and Vulkan... and with the biggest missing item on the agenda that was the ATC.

 

None of the announcements came as a real surprise, except for the new Autopilot systems from Phillipp Ringler.

 

Global Airports and Autogen

Laminar Research always spruik highly their "Global Airport" count at any event and with X-Plane v11.25 they hit the 7310 3D number marker, with another 645 new airports coming in the next update (v11.25 - Now Available for download), it certainly makes X-Plane a far more viable world in which to fly. But laminar are not stopping there, with the consistent flow of the large amount of tools and clutter (objects in scenery) still rolling off the presses. Earlier in the year (XP v11.10) the new terminal tools to create and design better terminals and airbridges was also a great new realistic addition to the tool makers library and they should now start appearing in X-Plane scenery.

 

Coming in v11.30 is more autogen covering US industrial urban areas, like factories, warehouses, service stations and just general industrial clutter, and with the new fencing and gates are certainly welcome to the library for better ground visual realism, and if you blinked and then you would have missed it, as there is also new and different types of taxiway linage, shapes, colours and textures that has already been released in the v11.25b1 update.

 

Last year also Laminar Research also introduced "Landmarks" or city icons like the Eye, the Gherkin, Tower Bridge, and Westminster Palace in London, and the Opera House and Harbour bridge in Sydney. More items are going to be added to Las Vegas, Chicago (v11.25), and New York and Washington DC (v11.30).

 

Personally this is all very nice, but the addition of the European autogen last year, was one of the most significant visual changes to the simulator, so again regions have been seen to have been put on the backburner, and sadly no payware developer has taken up the offer of making regional autogen either, which feels like a very missed opportunity for making great addons, the point is that distinctive regional autogen like Middle-Eastern, Asian or Oceania or even UK or Italian or Greek visual vistas are still not coming to your simulator in the near future again either?

 

Physics

Austin Meyer is not only the founder of X-Plane, but he is also responsible for the aircraft physics and flight dynamics. The aim of course is to reproduce as closely as possible the aerodynamics of not only the aerodynamic surfaces, but real engine performance as well. X-Plane of course was created with the effects of laminar flow on the aircraft, or the way aircraft actually fly and then accurately reproduce those physical dynamics in the simulator.

 

Currently in X-Plane the aircraft fly very well dynamically in the air, and engine performance was highly revised early in X-Plane11, but when the same dynamics are brought close to the ground, it really doesn't work as well, hence a lot of hand-wringing and wailing about the flare and takeoff/rollout phases of the simulator.

 

In a way Meyer's has gone back to basics to get a better Reynolds number (fluid flow past a body in this case an aircraft) and in finding the correct or a more accurate friction drag of the airframe, and this calculation will be now be available for developers in the coming PlaneMaker v11.30, and with also better prop wash and air flow properties to make your aircraft more realistic.

This is a refinement of the basic X-Plane dynamics, but it's main purpose and focus is in the ground-effect dynamics, or the way an aircraft reacts close to the ground, then add in the side-force dynamics with angles of attack (the pitch of the aircraft to the moving airstream). This is a new set of forces on the aircraft (notably on the fuselage) that move 25% to 50% along the body of the aircraft, as these areas of forces will be adaptable again in PlaneMaker v11.30 and you can if you want to in opt in or out if you want the new physics (fuselage calculations) details on your project (if you don't want use the new physics you then don't have to). These new physics are also included in X-plane's Airfoil maker in that it will then calculate the best coefficient of drag for you, and of course the already noted new prop wash model and the new downwash effects.... and hopefully this will lead to a better aerodynamic model, not only in he air, but to also create a better and far more realistic simulation closer or when moving fast along on the ground (hint - for taildraggers as well)

 

Systems and Avionics

Since Phillipp Ringler joined Laminar Reseach his main focus has been on updating X-Plane's navigation avionics and most notably the GNS 430/530 pair, G1000 and the native X-Plane FMS. Certainly Phillipp's unique talent has certainly enhanced the the basic avionics of the simulator. With most of the navigation areas now completed his attention has moved on to other avionics, but now also for aircraft systems (mostly this was in the past Austin Meyer's area of expertise).

 

Coming soon are more realistic oxygen systems, and anti-ice and de-ice systems with four different propeller failure modes of fine pitch, anti-feathering springs and full feather position as not all aircraft when the engine fails does the propeller go straight to full feather mode and auto-feather. Better systems to replicate the unfeathering of the propeller realistically with pumps and negative torque sensing, and also fuel-topping and overspeed governors also being available.

 

Surprisingly enough, autopilots in X-Plane have been quite basic and mostly built into the airliner, for general Aviation aircraft it was an even more basically crude generic system, so if you wanted a brand autopilot, you had to usually purchase a payware aircraft like Carenado to get one.

But from v11.30 X-Plane will now provide (via PlaneMaker) brand autopilots to install in your GA aircraft. These include the position based units GFC-700, KFC-250/Century and rate-based S-Tec 55, KAP-140 and the Piper Autocontrol. The autopilots come as single or dual axis and with or without altitude select and also with or without electric trim functions.

 

Airliner autopilot systems also have had attention to make them far more realistic and these systems will mostly be replicated on the X-Plane native Boeing 737-800/747-400 aircraft. Auto-throttle can now use both N1/EPR modes, Control Wheel Steering (CWS) (yoke movements to adjust pitch, mostly on older aircraft), Master FD (Flight Director) or source selection, duel AND triple channel preconditions and checks (computers compare two or three channels of data and select the best option), flare and roll out guidance and a three axis DAS/Data Acquisition Systems.

 

Vulkan and Metal

The biggest cries out on the forums are usually "where is Vulcan" or "I want Vulcan in X-Plane" and out of the pram goes the rattle.....  "aaaaarrre, waaaah!" and on it goes. If you have been in X-Plane for a few years or more, then you would know that is not the way of Ben Supnic. Were as most developers would find the easiest if quick route, then Ben usually does the opposite, but for a reason. The differences are that Supnic looks at the really big picture and not for a quick short time fix, notable was his call to go over to 64bit from 32bit a few years ago, which was really the nuclear option of coding. But the benefits of that decision has been that X-Plane was suddenly a leader and is still far ahead than any other simulator in speed and processing power...  and so it seems to be the same with Vulkan and Metal which are new API's (Application programming interface) in replacing the older ancient OpenGL API. Vulkan is mostly related to Windows and Metal is to Apple. A note is that 32bit will still run in X-Plane11, but will be discontinued for X-Plane12.

 

Vulkan (and Metal) are far more modern efficient ways to interface with modern computer processors and control processor functions, and specifically the areas of intense 3D graphic and multi-threadding processing... so Vulkan is ideal for X-Plane, Video games and simulators. Like most video games, X-Plane would benefit from multi-threadding, but in reality it is still a single thread process. 

 

Laminar decided on ten points to completely rebuild the X-Plane rendering engine from the ground up with Vulkan to get the very best efficiency and speed out of the API, and at this point they are about half the way through the list, so Vulkan is not coming anytime soon and then maybe as a beta before the end of the year. To prove Vulkan works and delivers the team have already converted X-Plane's Airfoil maker to run in Vulkan... and in the old OpenGL API then Airfoil Maker used over 18,000 driver calls, but the change to Vulkan then the API uses just 5,700 or 70% less calls to do the same processing, that is a significant difference in speed and processing power.

 

But there is also a required reality check in using Vulkan, in what the API can deliver and what it can't deliver for your X-Plane experience. Basically Vulkan will only do the same rendering as you do now but simply faster and with more efficiency (hopefully smoother), but only again on a modern machine, if your computer's old it will still be old with Vulkan running, as it is still not yet multi-core either, but it can be in the future and that adds into the point that Vulkan will be a modern refinement to X-Plane and so there is a lot of room to expand and grow with the API.

 

OpenGL will still work with 2D/2D Panels, and will still be available for the rest of the life of X-Plane11, but X-Plane12 will not have OpenGL, so you will need to update to the newer API if you want to continue past X-Plane11, however why wouldn't you want to use it anyway?  Any addons that are currently written in OpenGL, would need to be rewitten in Vulkan as you can only use either one API in Vulcan or the other API in OpenGL and not together.

 

Particle Effects

This feature has been in development at Laminar for a loooong time, years in fact...  "Particle Effects" for X-Plane was always noted as "Coming Soon", but never arrived. But now it is nearly there or here and to be included in v11.30. As with anything developed by Laminar the wait is usually worth it, and the new particle effect generator is certainly been well worth the long wait, as it is excellent.

 

Particle effects do things like spray water under the wheels, condensation, wing tip vortices, fire, smoke and heat haze, but in the demonstrations shown here the effects go far further than that, for one there is more than one effect going on at the same time, in this case a fire, but also included is the heat haze from the fire! This is very well done and the effect of the different adjustable heat hazes from the aircraft engines is extremely realistic, gone finally are the bad engine effects we have had to put up with for years with the thick black trailing smoke flailing behind your aircraft.

 

More clever is that adjustments to the effects can be made on the fly, or as the simulation is in motion, as the new particle editor setup is with key frames that can be adjusted and the layout panel is very similar to the current system used by the FMOD sound system.

The effects are also extremely flexible in editing when you use these key-frame tables, and data-refs can be input into those tables, and you can use as many data-refs as you want to, which means that plugins can directly control those particle effects via scripting of the particle system. So in other words the particle effect engine is highly dynamic, highly flexible and and you can have as many effects as you want.

 

Particle emitters can also be attached to objects, and that is demonstrated in the fire video as not only is the wing engulfed in flames, but the ground catches fire as well and the light of the fire is also reflected on the ground!...  no doubt that developers are going to have a field day with this one, there are going to be certain a lot of really excellent particle features that will simply blow your mind, or your aircraft up.

 

Summary

I noted in the early part of the year that of what I wanted in X-Plane for the future, and it wasn't more fancy features, and it certainly wasn't more long slog betas with complex ideas being bugged out...  personally I wanted the basics upgraded or fixed, the ones sitting over there in that "too hard" basket that are just too easy to ignore for all the fun stuff. To a point I got my wish here from Laminar Research, as the points addressed here in this roadmap were not in that huge "wow" factor of cheering from the masses. But they do cover some of our really important aspects of what makes X-Plane a great simulator, I personally think the huge changes that migrated through X-Plane10 and X-Plane11 are now really over, but the aspects to focus on now are just as important and now even more so.... I think you could call it the maturing of the simulator.

 

With VR (Virtual Reality) now not taking up the main resources at Laminar Research then Vulkan/Metal and the promise of a much more stable, more modern and far faster simulator has now replaced VR development in that context, Laminar note a beta by the end of the year, but they are not promising really anything in case they hit major problematic backstepping issues, personally I think they are more further ahead than that and already done most if not all of the main heavy lifting already with Vulkan, but the problem with these things as it is not in the actual building, but it is in the refining and testing stages that brings out the issues and then the time-frame then quickly goes out of the window, so if no really nasty issue(s) comes up then I would certainly expect Vulkan/Metal in beta before the end of the year.

 

With other aspects of systems in X-Plane now moved over to Phillipp Ringler, now Austin Meyer's can concentrate on his main forte, in aircraft dynamics. This aspect showed well at the Expo with Phillipp already delivering oxygen, ice-anti-ice enhanced systems and propeller governor changes and in far faster period than Austin would do over several years. It also allows Austin to focus on fixing the dreaded ground effects, but his work and changes will certainly deliver far more than that in the overall flying realism and build or now even expand on his founding simulation aerodynamic models, we won't know until we use them, but it will certainly make for some interesting flying.

 

Phillipp Ringler's older portfolio of Avionics is still also very active as well with the release here of branded (GA) autopilots now added to PlaneMaker, this now puts authentic autopilot systems being available to everyone and not just the payware developers, although they are also the biggest beneficiaries of the new avionics features, and heavy autopilot systems also got a lot more clever functionality.

 

The "wow" factor was still present at the Expo with Laminar with there long promised Particle Effects engine, certainly it was well worth the wait, as it is extensive, flexible, dynamic and will make a seriously big impact visually on X-Plane, the only worry is in for some developers not to overuse the effects, in most cases simple clever effects are far better than "way too much", but I think it will be the latter that will be more evident than the initial.

 

So overall it was a very good six month roadmap for X-Plane, missing is of course was any notes on the ATC, of which Laminar developer Tyler Young was not at the Expo (at some "stupid" wedding in Jamaica), if that made any difference we will never know, but I am sure that Ben Supnic would have listed anything if it was actually on the table.

 

Next stop for Laminar is beta 11.30 late US Summer, and it should be a beauty, because almost all the core items and features announced at the Expo will be released in that version.

 

A full video of the presentation is available below... but not the Q&A.

 

________________________________________

 

Analysis by Stephen Dutton

12th June 2018

Copyright©2018: X-Plane Reviews

 

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