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Laminar Research : Q & A and X-Plane's current development

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Laminar Research : Q & A and X-Plane's current development

 

There are not a lot of business that allows a huge amount of interaction between their product and the people that buy's the product. Most companies want their so called feedback, but in most cases this is to be used for advertising purposes, or just to make the CEO's paypackets go even larger and that makes them look like they are actually doing more work, when doing even less for more... in other words it is all about branding and ego.

 

But although X-Plane is not in the brand league of say Apple, or Nike, and you know the main actors very well in both companies, you won't get today any real interaction with them in the way you did in the Steve Job's or Bill Gate's era. But Laminar Research is different.

 

You can interact with them, tell them what you do like and what you don't like about their product. More so is that a few times every year they do Q & A's at Expo's or Events or just a face to face chit-chat via YouTube. And their latest Q & A chit-chat was yesterday and now available on YouTube here. X-Plane LIVE (European Edition) and note it is in two parts because of a technical issue.

 

Overall it is a brave concept to be fully open with your customers, and many times it has put a few eggs on their faces, but the overwhelming outcome of this interaction is that, you can have a say in what you like or not like with the simulator, and in this day and age of firestorm social media that can attract the wrong form of publicity, but this openness also form a unique bond of not only with the product, but in that you actually care in the way it is created and perceived and even down to a personal level, again like in the early days of Apple fandom.

 

The Flight Simulation Expo in Vegas back in early June gave us a big roadmap going forward, so most of this Q & A was a follow up to that agenda, but it also showed clearer the layout of where the future X-Plane development timeline is going. Sadly we never got good coverage of the Q & A at Vegas, it was missing on the main video, and the only version was pathetic from the rear of the room (inaudible) and over talked.

 

X-Plane11.30

But here is what the current releases coming to X-Plane11 is start to gel into. Number one on the scale is that the coming v10.30 release (beta) is already gobsmackingly huge, even to the point you could call it X-Plane11 2.0.

 

Enjoy it while you can, because it will be the biggest release until X-Plane12. Overall it will be a huge and long beta, but I will say in the last few years the betas have very tight and solid even from day one, and the X-Plane11.30 Alpha is already done and ready for testing internally inside of Laminar Research. That point means it will be coming soon, or close to the end of August or the early weeks of September (fingers crossed).

 

v11.30's main announced features include particle effects, better ground effects, physics for better aerodynamics (for runway control and taildraggers), authentic brand autopilot systems for both GA and more AP functionality for heavy aircraft, oxygen, ice-anti-ice enhanced systems and propeller governor changes, but that is only scratching the surface of v11.30.

 

Over the last few months a lot of rumours have appeared that the current (but very old) shader system is being overhauled in v10.30, and officially in the Q & A they announced that it was in fact being (or has been) totally redone. The official line from Laminar is that it needed to be changed to work with the new coming API's of Vulkan and Metal as the current shaders won't work with the .glsl format, which is a fair comment, but underlying that fact is that the shader system has been also very outdated for years and has created a lot of comments in it's poor performance, and the noticeable visual fact that dawn or dusk is more of a slow slide sideshow than a nice calming change into either light or darkness, so in effect both the two areas have been fixed at the same time.

Laminar Research also noted that they were not too keen on third parties messing around with the default shaders...  as there has been created a full side industry in shader changer plugins and tools. Personally I don't like them either and that is why so few are reviewed on this site, overall they are messy and confusing but some are also very clever like the recently released xVision that was created as a payware package until vetoed by Laminar's Vulkan shader change and now is available as a freeware (for now) experience until v11.30. These packs are for the twiddlers only, but I am now very excited to see what Laminar will do with the new shader system, obviously it will be far better. Two other items for v11.30 is that the cloud transparency bug has been fixed (looking down through cloud) and jet engine wind milling is coming, if only for the native Boeing 737-800, but I don't think it will take long for that to be a full feature on all jet aircraft.

 

Hands poised over keys to report an annoyance (bug report) and the Q & A also notes that the Brown tiles bug (A bit like the old XPLM bug) that pops up under certain circumstances is also being looked at, but the one that I was going to report was the missing water tiles that are not rendering correctly, as were once there was only the odd one, now they are simply too numerous to count and are very ugly, the issue is having attention and hopefully there will come a fix in v11.30. As for the water system itself it is still being noted as a "Work in Progress", but I would not be surprised if it didn't have a few changes in v11.30 just to make it look at least more somewhat realistic.

Austin Meyer noted he was going for his seaplane rating for getting better data on in the way aircraft relate and interacts with water, so there is the point that both areas in friction and the new water system could be developed in tandem, so for a complete water system overhaul my guess is you will be waiting for X-Plane12 or very late X-Plane11.

 

The coming particle system is mostly focused on external areas like contrails, Ice, smoke, fire, mist and not so much on windshield effects, this was noted in the Q & A as more an area for third parties to exploit and is unlikely to be modeled in v11.30. In reality this will create more confusion than a fix as a lot of developer versions of rain effects are mostly currently not working or simply a working hack. My personal take is that I think that Laminar will go halfway there to make rain effects work or at least create a baseline that developers can work to, more difficult in this area is for the environmental engine developers like xEnviro and the coming Active Sky weather engine from HiFi, but the developers of xEnviro have noted that some information (finally) has been produced by Laminar on how to move forward in this area (It will mean in rewriting a lot of code).

 

Vulkan/Metal

Over the years I have become more interested in the smaller intimate details than the bigger splashy features of the X-Plane simulator, and don't get me wrong I am wanting and waiting for the new particle effect feature in v11.30 as much as anyone. But it is in the smaller and more efficient aspects of the running of the simulator that are becoming more and more important to me, hence that annoying water rendering bug, and landing ground effects, and getting these items crossed off the bug list have become far more higher in my satisfaction rating than all the wonderful highlights that are coming in the new version.

 

Laminar Research is also working hard in this area as well, but wholesale major system changes are on going as well. The last major change was when X-Plane moved over from 32bit to 64bit, but from this point in time looking back then that evolution in the simulator was certainly a milestone in why X-Plane is one of the very best simulators on the market today. Part of the problem as Austin Meyer noted in he Q & A is that X-Plane now has to be developed inside out, and as it is far to big and too complex to redevelop entirely or in sections. To a point is the coming change of replacing the older API of OpenGL with newer more efficient and more modern API's of Vulkan (Windows/Linux) and Metal (Apple) - (API - Application Programming Interface)

 

This is effectively pulling out the four cylinder engine and shoehorning in a V8 to get the absolute maximum performance from your computer, and this will not come before time as we shall see below bottom. Nothing really was added in the Q & A that wasn't featured at the Expo performance. Yes it is still coming at the end of the year in beta form, yes it will still be totally brilliant, addons that draw in 3D (not objects) will need to be adjusted for Vulkan, and this is not for major items like with aircraft, scenery and 2D addons and even then the required change to the older 3D addons will still actually work as OpenGL as the format is still installed and will be operating until the end of the X-Plane11 run. SLI/Crossfire is unlikely to ever be supported, in the fact that X-Plane processing is better done with one processor running efficiently and that fact is highlighted by the Laminar team than it is far better than two processors doing the same actions.

 

The Vulkan/Metal change goes to the heart of X-Plane itself, and promises a major change in the way the simulator is processed, in speed and efficiency and hopefully eliminating all those nasty stutters and give you a far better GPU performance. Overall there didn't seem any worries on or reactions in Q & A that noted any issues or anything that would hold up the current future timeline.

 

ATC

We noted in the Expo review that the ATC (Air Traffic Control) had not been mentioned, in fact the groans could be heard even over here in Australia, and that this one area was still in development hell. Chris Serio is in charge of the development of the ATC at Laminar, and he in the Q & A outlined the current point of development.

 

Overall the development is going well and it is all very interesting to boot for that. The focus currently is on the speech aspect and the way the ATC system builds up commands and sentences. In the older current version the ATC was built up around .wav files to say something, but the problem with this system it is inflexible and limited in speech capacity. So the new way is to use a text to speech (TTS) engine that is used in Amazon Alexia and Google Voice and are both a development of the Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software.

 

TTS can learn and be adjusted on the fly and you will be even able to contribute to the engine. So instead of the older communications of just the repetitive "X-Ray, Beta two five..  Runway five left" you can or will have "Speedbird 231, taxi cleared to runway five left"...   The ATC system will learn and grow and get better as does all current TTS software working now. The system will be also able to work with a multitude of different voices and not just the current male and female choice or no choice at all. Accents in regional or national voices will be available as well, and anyone who loves that aspect in BetterPushBack as my favorite is the Spaniard that notes for me to have a "Happie Day!" can see the immense possibilities of the idea and the naturalness of the speech and all for absolute realism.

 

Serio noted that the instructions on flying into mountainous areas will be addressed and all instructions will work with SID and STAR RNAV charts. In reality the third party contributions to online flying has changed a lot since X-Plane's original ATC was conceived, the data is there now that simply wasn't before, and Laminar will take advantage of that factor, but there is still a long way to go for the ATC to be introduced into X-Plane but at least we now know of the sort of shape and what for it will take, but it does already feel quite realistic, overall it will be worth the very long wait.

 

Mobile and Desktop

A lot of discussion was around the mobile app of X-Plane and desktop versions. One aspect that was killed off was the possibility of a console version (X-Box, Nintendo and Playstation) of X-Plane. Mostly for licencing reasons than the pure technological point of view, which would have been interesting and another income source for Laminar.

 

Mobile is to become just X-Plane X mobile and no version attached in say "Mobile X-Plane11" as it is recognised internally as a continuous development and not a version/upgrade release as is the desktop version of X-Plane. Still they will both flip-flop in features, in that what is on the desktop will appear in the mobile and vice-versa, and currently aircraft will be improved are to be updated next this (North American) autumn and future development is for to the global scenery use compared to the current set regional boundaries.

 

Nightlighting and Scenery

Laminar introduced a sort of fix for the limited distance lighting v11.20, that sorta added in texture lighting to the mesh... the conversation throughout the Q & A noted the developmental issues surrounding these areas and was mostly around performance, the general consensus is that it is in the hard to fix basket, but I remember that the older v9 night lit orbital textures, that were not perfect but were still quite realistic. Between the lines of the conversation is that it looks like Laminar are going to completely redo the whole system, again, so for X-Plane12?

 

Scenery is to have FMOD and the use of the particle system eventually and to be compatible with things such as IVAP. Both these items were noted in Vegas so expect them in a version update next year. That means global environmental sounds around you at an airport and realistic fire on the ground.

 

Laminar noted that landmark scenery will not be put out for users to create their own landmarks like airports can be in Gateway. The point is that the gateway is made up of refined objects (lego) that fit together, but landmarks are single (usually) large objects that are far more complex for detail. So to keep that efficiency and performance consistency they will be only made in house to their strict art director guidelines, I heard that more artists have been taken on board to speed up that process

 

A new World Editor (WED) version is coming that is to include OpenStreetMap and other visual data to help in laying out scenery more effectively, and expect that around the v11.30 release or as late as October as per usual in the Laminar release programs.

 

Seasonal textures (i.e. winter, spring, autumn & summer) is dead as a project inside Laminar. Obviously that is a big disappointment. Laminar is expecting third parties like "TerraMaxx" to cover that angle of the simulator. But that may be related to the same issue as the mesh night lighting. I still use the JSGME - Generic Mod Enabler (with wine for Macs) for my winter switching which works very well. Notably the issue of the missing custom scenery mesh zones that I convert via photoshop is messy and time consuming, but overall it works.

 

The Citation X aircraft that was promised as part of the X-Plane11 default aircraft package. But it is noted here in the Q & A as not making the cut in quality and detail (have they looked at the B748 lately?) so it has been quietly dropped or is it being totally redone?

 

...   Moving forwards

When you put back to back the Vegas comments and this Q & A you are seeing a bit of where in the future X-Plane is going. One thing that is foremost to remember is that after the completion of the v11.30 update by the end of this year, then X-Plane11 will be half way through it's version run (yes two years already). So from early next year Laminar will be starting to be looking forward and setting the agenda down for X-Plane12, and that is getting harder than it looks...  remember Laminar need some banner features to sell X-Plane12 to you, and strangely enough that box of features required is starting to get empty as X-Plane11 is getting to be all round lately a very polished product. Next time around there are no PBR effects, no VR,  no new sound engine, no new weather engine, better mesh, no new lighting effects and final part of X-Plane11's run will provide the updated ATC, Better performance with Vulkan/Metal, better shaders and a new particle system...  add all. So what rabbits do Laminar have to find and pull out of a hat to make you want to switch from X-Plane11 to X-Plane12 in two years time?

 

If you follow the latest comments then looking ahead then it does look like a complete overhaul for the current tile/mesh system. That will in one sweep of the hand fix a lot of current issues including efficiency, full range night lighting, better high and orbit views, those damn water/sea issues and even seasons, yes seasons as it can be built in from the ground up and and not be the framerate killer addon that it would be right now.

 

Austin Meyer made the point clear that it is simply to big a job to rebuild X-Plane from scratch, but the whiff of X-Plane12 is maybe not the visual features that will stand out this time but the internal structures that finally clears away the older code for the more modern code to revolutionise X-Plane from within.

 

Before all that though, we have v11.30 coming very soon.

 

______________________________________

 

11.25 autogen

I was going to do a completely different review to cover the released new autogen that came at the Vegas Expo in the X-Plane11.25 release. But in reality the new autogen is quite significant and also very highly related to the above commentary, so it is worth putting the two items together.

 

Released in the v11.25 update was new art assets that were divided into two areas. First was the new Landmark assets for Las Vegas and Chicago.

 

Las Vegas: The desert city of Las Vegas is quite average in the day, almost bland. But a lot of new casinos and Vegas detailing (mostly to tie in with the 2018 Expo) are present. The Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower always stands out as does the garish Circus, Circus. The Mandalay Bay and the Wynn are both striking in gold...

 

11.25 Autogen_Vegas 1.jpg11.25 Autogen_Vegas 2.jpg11.25 Autogen_Vegas 3.jpg11.25 Autogen_Vegas 4.jpg

 

...  as expected Vegas is far better at night. Detailing is very good and even better than the few payware versions. Vegas has never looked right in X-Plane, mainly because the autogen doesn't work well in the inner Vegas spaces leaving open blank areas and the coming FlyTampa Vegas will of course be very interesting in that aspect.

 

11.25 Autogen_Vegas N 1.jpg11.25 Autogen_Vegas N 2.jpg11.25 Autogen_Vegas N 3.jpg11.25 Autogen_Vegas N 4.jpg

 

There is even animated signage and all promoting "Laminar Research" or "X-Plane". The “High Roller” Ferris wheel was an last minute addition as it was close to the Flamingo Casino were the Expo was held.

 

11.25 Autogen_Vegas N 6.jpg11.25 Autogen_Vegas N 7.jpg

 

The high detail is astounding, as the artist that Laminar uses is very good and I haven't seen night window textures any better anywhere else.

 

11.25 Autogen_Vegas N 5 LG.jpg

 

Chicago: The second city covered with the new autogen was Chicago.

 

11.25 Autogen_Chicago 1 LG.jpg

 

Chicago tends to work a little better than Vegas because the autogen is more available in the inner city here, in fact the city's high-rise buildings are quite well represented and unusually there is also a lot of them... obviously the main landmark buildings stand out. The Wills/Sears Tower and the 360 Chicago stands out as does the excellent Chase building, but the imposing new Trump International and famous Wrigley Building are both missing...

 

11.25 Autogen_Chicago 2.jpg11.25 Autogen_Chicago 3.jpg11.25 Autogen_Chicago 4.jpg11.25 Autogen_Chicago 5.jpg

 

...  highlight of course is the beautifully (and highly reflective) "Cloud Gate" sculpture but it does feel a bit isolated (try moving the time and watching the light changes on the sculpture, clever). Again detailing is really, really good with a lot of sky helipads and check out the high quality roof detail.

 

The Chase building and it's Chase Plaza is again the highlight at night, but overall again the night texture lighting is some of the very best. 

 

11.25 Autogen_Chicago N 2.jpg11.25 Autogen_Chicago N 3.jpg11.25 Autogen_Chicago N 4.jpg11.25 Autogen_Chicago N 5.jpg

 

11.25 Autogen_Chicago N 1 LG.jpg

 

So overall the new landmark objects are excellent, if not nearly enough...  you just want more, but this a good start in what X-Plane is now providing in quality scenery as part of the simulator. Sydney and London Landmarks was part of the v11.10 release.

 

Urban Industrial Autogen

A lot of new autogen has been covered over the years going out from the early SoCal houses, to units, shops, taller buildings and large factories and the later Germanic housing (European). But all over the areas as you flew VFR was still a lot of grey blank areas. There was always that incomplete look...  and you felt you were missing something?

 

Well there was and now that hole has been filled in. What was missing was the smaller industrial element, like small factories, holding yards and general commercial buildings. In the v11.25 Laminar released a set of art assets to cover these missing areas. You can notice them by their tongue-in-cheek names like "Luminai Res" or "Meyerkopf" and even "SerioUS VR", but brilliant scenery they are. And they are well detailed with trucks, palleted freight and even rubbish bins and also general yard miscellaneous clutter.

 

11.25 Autogen_Urban 1.jpg11.25 Autogen_Urban 2.jpg11.25 Autogen_Urban 9.jpg11.25 Autogen_Urban 3.jpg

 

Yard clutter is phenomenal, you have to pinch yourself this is autogen and not payware scenery. Note all the same clutter items are also available for use in the global library. More items include larger and medium size office buildings and a new petrol station, but still no churches?

 

11.25 Autogen_Urban 5.jpg11.25 Autogen_Urban 10.jpg

11.25 Autogen_Urban 7.jpg11.25 Autogen_Urban 8.jpg11.25 Autogen_Urban 6.jpg11.25 Autogen_Urban 4.jpg

 

Night lighting of the autogen is also as excellent as the above Landmark art. Window textures and downlighting is totally realistic and high quality work.

 

11.25 Autogen_Urban N 1.jpg11.25 Autogen_Urban N 2.jpg11.25 Autogen_Urban N 3.jpg11.25 Autogen_Urban N 4.jpg

 

All in all this gives you the quality assets that you always dreamed of, and all are now part of the current X-Plane11 simulator.

 

....  But

You may be thinking, then what has these new art assets got to do with the Q & A? There is no doubt these new assets are above and beyond in filling out and creating a VFR landscape that fills out your visual references, but they still come with a cost... framerate.

 

You need the autogen count to be high, or your "World Objects" settings to be set at "Maximum" to get the full maximum benefit of these autogen objects, and quality wise the texture quality also needs to be set in the "Maximum" setting as well...  then throw in a quality airport and a big payware aircraft file and your framerate numbers are starting to feel the workload.

 

I really felt the framerate loss...  going from a safe 26fr-32fr with the above settings (but the texture quality set to "high") I was after v11.25 looking at 26fr - 22fr for the same, and so in many conditions even going down into the dreaded 20fr -18fr range. I have no total doubt that the autogen here in X-Plane is presented in about the very best in the balance between quality textures and efficiency, nothing out there is simply as well created (and crafted) as these assets. 

 

Austin Meyer notes in the Q & A that for a long time it has been the Graphic cards that have been doing all the heavy lifting in X-Plane, I run a 8gb Graphic card and now I am starting to now really feel the pressure, the point is getting a better and even bigger graphic card is really not the answer as well this time, you really need a new approach.

 

So the introduction of Vulkan/Metal really can't come soon enough, anything to give me more numbers to fly with is certainly going to be a bonus, and especially here in the area of autogen creation is in that I really need the help...  but until then I will just simply have to bear it out until the newer API can work it's magic...  in other words "I hope I can have my cake and eat it as well"...  I hope.

 

________________________________________

 

Analysis by Stephen Dutton

16th August 2018

Copyright©2018: X-Plane Reviews

 

(Disclaimer. All images and text in this preview 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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