Immersive, exhilarating, educational and even emotional – virtual reality is the Holy Grail of PC flight sims – giving the sense of flight like never before. TIM ROBINSON reports from the cutting edge of consumer flight simulation.

I’m twisting in my seat, sweating hard, craning my neck high as the desert looms above me – lost him!!! I twist around the other side, scanning my instruments quickly – still no joy. I grip the seat to peer further around behind my aircraft. I pull harder and see the vapour coming off the wingtips and the wings flex, then I spot movement – a speck heading back my way. I quickly roll to put my nose on his flightpath – and squeeze the trigger. The F-14 Tomcat bursts into flames and see two parachutes blossom far before. I roll level, sigh with relief and take off my Oculus Rift headset. I’m sat in a chair, safe at home and have just beaten the hardest AI in DCS World in a 'MiG-28' (F-5E) in a 1 vs 1 dogfight. I’m still wired, triumphant and grinning like a maniac from ear-to-ear. "Jesters dead!” Add ‘G’ and the smell of Jet A1 and my senses would almost be unable to distinguish this Top Gun fantasy from real flight. This is virtual reality (VR) and flight simulation today.

But it is extremely difficult to explain the feeling you get when sat in a PC flight simulation cockpit or flightdeck in VR – and 2D screenshots and video really do not do the experience justice. Suddenly you are aware how tight and cramped some cockpits are. Little details stand out, like scratches or wear and tear. Rivets pop out. Looking around you can see behind the ejection seats or into the cabin. All these fool the brain to think you are actually there and it is all you can do to not reach out and touch the instruments and controls in front of you. Looking down you get an almost perfect sense of how high you are above the Earth and you become mesmerised by the same thoughts as when you idly look out of airliner windows. “I wonder who lives down there?” “Where does that river go?” and “wow what an amazing sunset up here all alone above the clouds.”

There are other benefits. Landings become easier thanks to the ability to judge height, and keeping the runway in sight in a circuit is doddle. Weather, which for 2D simmers is a factor but never feels intimidating, suddenly becomes much more threatening. Fly into fog or thunderstorms which envelop you all around and you begin to experience a sense of dread. How did we get here?


2016: the year of VR

Downside number 1. Looking like a dork.

It was in the 2000s that PC flight sims started incorporating ‘virtual cockpits’ allowing users to pan around with keys or a joystick hat switch making it possible for virtual pilots to see all around the inside of the cockpit or flightdeck. TrackIR – a head-tracking update based on IR sensors then arrived and was adopted by flight simmers to allow them to use their head to control the camera view in the ‘virtual cockpit’.

So it is no wonder that there was much anticipation in the flight sim community with the development of consumer VR. While VR had been promised before, it was limited to professional, highly expensive headsets for military users. However, the introduction of cheap, high-resolution smartphone displays and sensors, as well as more powerful PCs and graphics cards, now means that consumer VR is practical.

For those keeping an eye on tech news, it will not have escaped your notice that this year has seen consumer VR go mainstream with new headsets such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and now the Playstation VR. The two main headsets, the Rift and Vive, both work in the same way. They render two slightly different images of the scene for each eye and trick your brain that you are seeing not a 2D screen but 3D reality. Headtracking sensors then pick up the headset in ‘virtual space’ – giving 1: 1 tracking.


Downsides

LeapMotion allows tracked hand movements to be brought into the virtual cockpit. (FlyInside)

There are drawbacks. Firstly, it is not cheap – the Oculus is £595 while the Vive retails at £759. Unlike the Smartphone headsets to view VR videos on YouTube, both the Rift and Vive also need a powerful gaming PC with a decent graphics card (Nvidia GTX970 equivalent or better) to power VR in each eye. Secondly, the field of view (110deg) is not as wide as a human eye – at the moment it is akin to flying an aircraft using scuba goggles – (although oddly enough might be very realistic for WW1 flying goggles).

Another challenge is that of motion sickness or nausea – which can effect some users. This can be down to high latency (one reason why a powerful graphics card is needed) – but it also may be just bad luck. If you get airsick, carsick or motion sickness easily, you may want to experiment with VR carefully first.

For those flying combat flight sims against other humans online – there is also the problem of spotting small contacts – essential if one is flying with labels. With 4K 2D displays now available, there is therefore a choice to be made – do you fly with more detailed graphics in 2D, or more immersion in VR (which could potentially put you at a disadvantage in online battles).

Finally, there is the challenge of interaction. With no outside view, a HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) and rudder pedals is essential for the more realistic sims to map as many buttons and controls as possible – (although it is possible to see the keyboard through a tiny gap under your nose). However, some sims, such as DCS and FSX, allow ‘virtual kneeboards’ to be called up to read maps, charts or checklists. Meanwhile, FlyInside – a third party progamme has taken this one step further by integrating LeapMotion – a £50 sensor that tracks your hands in virtual space. There is no ‘tactile’ feedback of course, but as the accuracy increases expect others to bring out other ways of interacting with cockpit systems. 

Immerse you, sir

These, though, are tiny niggles compared to the overall experience. So if you’re a gamer, flight simmer, aviation enthusiast, or professional pilot, what are the most jaw-dropping experiences to be had in VR flight simulation? Let’s take a look (all tested using the Oculus Rift):

1) Hovering made easy in DCS

VR allows even ham-fisted chopper pilots to do stuff like this…

Eagle Dynamics ultra-detailed DCS World has become an instant hit in VR with even non-simmers wowing at being able to sit inside and fly the A-10C, F-15C or MiG-21bis among the growing stable of heavy metal rides. But the place where the Rift shines is in helicopter flight – transforming clumsy chopper aviators into steely Stringfellow Hawkes. The ability to judge height and motion of the helicopter perfectly in VR means hover taxiing, pedal turns and landing in confined spaces, becomes a breeze. Low-level nap of the earth flight through cities, under bridges and powerlines takes your breath away – and that’s even before anyone is shooting back at you…


2) Dodging flak and fighters in War Thunder

Intense cockpit action. (War Thunder)

A game that provided an early taste of VR flight sims was War Thunder – a free-to-play multiplayer title with over 80 WW2 and early jet aircraft to fly. While many stick with arcade difficulty and external view, on the simulator level you are placed in a virtual cockpit and most flying aids are removed. Though the maps are small compared to IL-2 1946, the action is never far away. Flying through dense flak and tracer, watching contrails above and bracing in terror as your aircraft dives to the ground with its controls shredded provides heart-pounding intense excitement. While it can be a ‘grind’ earning the virtual currency to fly the aircraft you are interested in, you can take aircraft for test flights in single-player. 

3) Sunset landings in FSX

Keeping airports in sight and lining up is far easier in VR (Majestic)

For a more serene VR flight sim experience – how about a sunset landing in FSX? The cockpit dark, as you look around the flightdeck, begin the descent and see welcoming approach lights. FSX, FSX SE and P3D all support VR through a paid-for third party programme called FlyInside (which now works in X-Plane too). While virtual cockpits will differ in quality, the ability to experience and fly literally thousands of aircraft now available, (both paid and free), anywhere in the world, in VR gives FSX (a sim that was released a decade ago) a whole new lease of life.

4) VTOL landing on carrier in CAP2

Landing a Harrier – still a handful in VR but a superb test of virtual flying skills.

A new title in early access development, Combat Air Patrol 2 has also adopted VR into its release – giving the players the opportunity to fly the iconic AV-8B Harrier. Like choppers in DCS, landing the Harrier in VR suddenly becomes, if not exactly easy, then a whole lot more controllable and natural. Coming to a hover beside a US assault carrier, then transitioning sideways to plonk it on the deck is amazing. A recent update has also added air-to-air refuelling too – again another demanding scenario that becomes a whole lot easier in VR.

5) Air racing in Red Bull

Stunning looking graphics in Red Bull Air Race. (Red Bull Air Race the Game)

If you thought Red Bull Air Racing was exciting on TV – then flying the courses in VR takes the adrenaline rush to a whole new level. Officially licensed by Red Bull, the flight modelling leaves something to be desired for purists – but who cares when you are flying knife-edge around gates only feet from the ground in this gorgeous-looking free game.


6) Splatter yourself over the Sea of Tranquility in Lunar Flight

“In space – no-one can hear you scream”

For those virtual pilots who find flying upside down under bridges in FSX or DCS just too easy, Lunar Flight ups the challenge of VR flight - on the Moon. The sim puts you in the cramped, claustrophobic cockpit of a near-future, but Apollo LEM-inspired lander, and with a number of missions to deliver cargo and collect data in a plausible physics-based space sim. Expect to spend a lot of the time recoiling in horror as craters and boulders loom closer and you die on the airless lunar surface having misjudged your landing velocity (again.)

7) Pitts Special aerobatics over the Grand Canyon in AeroFly2

Jaw-dropping immersion in AeroFly FS 2

Another new title adopting VR is AeroFly FS 2. The original AeroFly FS2 was stunning enough with photoscenery of Switzerland – but Aerofly2 takes this to the next level and is super smooth in VR. Crisp detailed cockpits, wonderful aerobatics physics and the whole of the South Western USA laid out as your aerial playground to explore and fool around in. The ultimate sim to just enjoy the pure joy of flight.

8) Break your neck in Volo Airsport

I’ve changed my mind, can I have my aeroplane back, please? (Volo Airsport)

If you are intrigued by the idea of wingsuit flying, but are put off the thought of fractured bones, Volo Airsport allows you to ditch an aircraft completely and frighten yourself hurtling down a mountainside at extreme speeds with a wingsuit. Played from the external or first person view, the developer has yet to add parachutes to the flight model – meaning flights end rather abruptly and will make you wince. Extreme aerial sports without the stays in hospital.

9) Moved to tears in Apollo 11 VR

Immersive education and a moving experience. (Apollo 11 VR)

Amazingly - VR can also make you cry. Apollo 11 VR is an experience which is billed as an interactive 1hour 45 mins documentary. Starting quite slowly with Kennedy's famous Moon speech, you are then whisked to the launch pad in 1969 with Neil and Buzz looking up at the Saturn V. You then are put in the cockpit and experience the launch, complete with authentic radio recordings. A fan of films Apollo 13 and Last Man on the Moon, your reviewer ended up blubbing at this point through sheer joy and wonder at being able to experience what it was like at that historic point for humanity. I thought virtual reality tech would be neat, but I didn't expect to be moved emotionally by it. (Reading Steam reviews other users also report similar effects).

10) Explore the Galaxy in Elite Dangerous

“I have seen things, you people would not believe – attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.”

Finally, if the Moon is not enough – VR can also take you further in the final frontier via Elite Dangerous – the rebooted version of trading/dogfighting/bounty hunting space sim Elite from the 1980s. While it might be argued that this is technically science fiction, not flight, it does have 3D virtual cockpits, navigation and systems to manage, landing and docking and white-knuckle dogfights. And because of developer maths whizz David Braben’s commitment to plausible science – the 400 billion star system galaxy is modelled after our own. In fact, a NASA scientist working on the Cassini mission was moved to write this on Reddit:

“After over 10 years of working with NASA's Cassini spacecraft mission at Saturn and wondering what it would be like to be there, I can't express how rewarding and mind-blowing it was to actually get to fly above the rings of a Saturn-like planet in my own Virtual Reality spacecraft! I've worked closely with the images from the Cassini mission and I can tell you Elite did such a wonderful job capturing the scale, shadows, beautiful colours and intricate patterns of a ringed planet. Skimming over the ring plane, diving through the ring gaps, marvelling at the massive amount of simulated ring particles while the enormous planet body engulfs my field of view; I can't get enough of it! Not only that, but it looks like a lot of the icy moons in Elite are modelled after the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. The approach and takeoff vistas from moons leave me grinning every time, too.”

Future flight sims with VR

WW1 air combat should shine in VR. (Wings Over Flanders Fields)

As well as these flight sims already supporting VR headsets – others are on the way. The next expansion for WW2 sim Il-2 Sturmovik Battle of Stalingrad, Battle of Kuban will upgrade the graphics engine to support VR headsets – putting gamers in intense battles on the Eastern Front. Meanwhile, the next free Team Fusion 5.0 mod for Battle of Britain sim Il-2 Cliffs of Dover also promises VR, along with a new Tobruk theatre and new flyables like the Beaufighter, Wellington and Martlet.

Strangely – the only era of flight not yet represented with PC VR support is WW1 – which should be a perfect fit given the period cockpits, and up-close dogfighting and combat. Neither Rise of Flight nor Wings Over Flanders Fields at the time of writing yet support VR – an opportunity for a third party developer to step in?

Another landmark older sim not (yet) to support VR is of course Falcon 4 BMS which has been progressively upgraded with new graphics and features by free mods. Combining the immersion of VR with Falcon BMS's sublime dynamic campaign could make for the ultimate fighter pilot flightsim experience.  

Professional aviation and VR

Boeing Defense was showing off this VR training solution at I/ITEC (Boeing Defense)

But the Oculus, Vive and other VR headsets are not just for armchair Richtofens or frustrated Biggles. Go to any major aviation or aerospace trade show these days and VR headseats are becoming THE way to market products, show off new airline interiors, visit proposed factories and the like. There is also serious interest now for professional training. Last week, for example saw the big training and simulation I/ITSEC exhibition in Orlando, and it is notable how many VR headsets were in evidence. VR for the military training is not new, but the low cost and hardware requirements now open up massive possibilities in training soldiers, sailors or pilots in flying and fighting aircraft or vehicles. The affordability and small footprint of VR training systems based on consumer VR devices also means they can be deployed in the field or on-board ship – allowing mission rehearsal and keeping skills sharp. If you can simulate it, you can put it in VR.

It is also easy to see how consumer VR might also benefit civil flight training. As noted above, two popular consumer flight sims FSX and X-Plane now support VR (as well as the professional Lockheed Martin-licensed FSX spin-off – P3D). Affordable, immersive VR could be a revolution in training for the GA sector – where previously high-end simulators were just too costly for non-airline pilots to train in.

Indeed VR (coupled with a high-fidelity flight model) could be a huge boon for private helicopter pilots –allowing students to practise autorotation landings, landing in confined spaces and much more – with risking themselves or the helicopter.

What do real pilots think?

Full size sims have motion and tactile switches and controls - but does VR capture the experience of flight better? (L3)

While it is not surprising that many armchair virtual aviators have been blown away by VR, professional pilots, familiar with high-end training devices are equally impressed:
Comments here from a flight simmer and helicopter pilot on Reddit are instructive:

“Only 2 sims have made me, a combat vet, legitimately giddy with excitement: the multi-million dollar Army sim and my new VR HMD.
In some ways the VR was surprisingly more immersive than the Blackhawk sim (but only when you have a detailed cockpit). In VR, you are simply there. VR is the only sim that actually caused me to take a deep breath before I start rolling (something I've only done in RL up until now). VR is the only sim that had me scanning the horizon and the dials regularly and instinctively. VR is the only sim that had my mind racing and clear at the same time, solely focused on what I was doing.
The Blackhawk sim still has advantages. One was the stress of the dials and switches. VR simply doesn't replicate that because you can't do it instinctively. I tried LeapMotion. Even with perfect tracking, you're looking away from the horizon to see what you're doing. You're adding more frustration than stress.
The other advantage to the Blackhawk sim is the sense of responsibility. You have actual people sitting next to you and behind you in the sim. Like real flying, you are looking around knowing that you are responsible for all of this. Granted in a sim, nothing is going to cause harm, but it still invokes those emotions.
The shocker was that the lack of motion in VR wasn't missed. Many would argue that it gives immersion, but to me it didn't invoke any additional emotion of the experience. VR triggered the emotions that I expected to be associated with motion.
Overall, if I had to pick one that causes the most emotions similar to actually flying: it is VR.”

Meanwhile, professional pilot and flightsim reviewer Chris ‘BeachAv8R’ Frismuth had this to say over at Mudspike.com

“I had a real WTF moment this afternoon that just shows you how incredible VR really is. I was flying the Razbam Metro III1 and was under the Rift "hood" so to speak, just shooting a visual approach into Asheville. Well, my phone alarm starting going off on my desk in front of me..and obviously I couldn't see it but I knew where it was. So I put my hand forward, picked up the phone, swiped to silence the alarm, and then (I swear)..I actually tried to place it UP and on top of the glareshield of the Metro III. LOL.  That was how completely the connection of my brain, eyes, and hand were being fooled by the "virtual" reality. I mean, I realized instantly what I had done. and felt a giddy kind of stupid, but it was so funny because that would be the kind of thing you'd do if presented with a surface right in front of you in real life. It was another VR cool moment...'

Quoted over at Rock Paper Shotgun: Frismuth explained:

“In my professional career, I’ve spent hundreds of hours now in professional Level C and Level D flight simulators at various training facilities across the United States. With pricetags in the millions of dollars, and training contracts coming in at over $10,000 annually, “real” simulation is a very pricey, but beneficial exercise. So I am always in a constant state of amazement at the fidelity and realism that is obtainable on our desktop PC simulations at just the smallest fraction of the cost of the real thing. Recently I finally bit the bullet and took delivery of an Oculus Rift and my jaw hit the top of my desk when presented with VR cockpits in DCS World and FlyInside’s Prepar3D presentation. How far we’ve come in the last three decades is impressive.”

Conclusion

VR has the potential to generate excitement about real aviation and aerospace (Red Bull Air Race)

In summary, the introduction of consumer VR headsets is the biggest advance in home flight simulation since the invention of 3D graphics. Furthermore, while many of the initial VR games have struggled to fully exploit the technology beyond shallow gameplay demos, for cockpit-based simulations (aircraft, cars, mechs and spacecraft) it is a match made in heaven – and is something that many simmers could have only dreamed of even a decade ago. Mastering a single high-fidelity aircraft in DCS, flying your favourite airliner in FSX or exploring the galaxy in Elite Dangerous in VR is something that provides a deep, long-term challenge despite the initial high costs.

It also will have implications for affordable professional training – potentially opening the door to a revolution in flight safety for GA and helicopter pilots as well as saving military budgets. It is also not just for flight training. VR can also be used to train mechanics, allow engineers to collaborate on design, optimise production facilities and market aircraft, services or products to customers. The possibilities are endless.

VR headsets could also make a huge contribution to inspiring interest in STEM subjects in young people. While it is no substitute for a real flight or a glider solo, being able to ‘fly’ a Eurofighter Typhoon around the Mach Loop, land an airliner at Heathrow or dock with the ISS in VR - all either expensive and/or impossible to allow a young person to do in real life – potentially may be a way of lighting that spark of imagination that leads to an aerospace career.

It is, however, important to remember that this is still the first generation of VR headsets. The resolution and field of view can only get better from now on. If you have ever wondered ‘what’s it really like to fly a Spitfire’ and don’t have £3m in spare change to buy the real thing – VR is the answer. If you enjoy flying, VR will make you grin with joy, flinch in terror and it can even make you cry with wonder. Go experience it!

Coming to VR in DCS this December…. (Eagle Dynamics)

Tim Robinson
9 December 2016

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