Along with precise details pulled from Bing Maps, the new Flight Simulator folds in data and technical guidance from aircraft and avionics manufacturers for a realistic flying experience.COURTESY OF MICROSOFT
The 3D mapping, along with data and technical guidance from avionics manufacturers, make Microsoft’s long-loved flying program more than just a game.
“HEY, I CAN see my house from up here!”
It’s a joke so tired you’ll hear it from someone jumping on a trampoline, but that’s what came into my head as I banked a small turboprop airplane above my neighborhood in the new version of a revived classic, Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Because there it was indeed: my house. And my neighbors’ houses, along with the shopping plaza down the road, the hospital complex, the farmland in the distance. All of it eerily accurate, thanks to the new program’s use of Microsoft’s voluminous mapping data. Even the trees, fences, and other features I know from my terrestrial explorations were present and accounted for—in full 3D.
Microsoft’s Flight Simulator is its longest-running software product, with the first iteration dating back to the 8-bit days of 1982. At the time, it offered little more than a green expanse of ground and a blue expanse of sky, with a gray strip representing your runway and some black and white blocks for buildings. Microsoft abandoned the franchise in 2012, the general consensus being that it was too niche of a product for the global giant to keep going. It sold the rights to the core sim technology to Lockheed Martin, which uses it for academic and training environments.
Its revival this past June was a surprise to both the software and aviation industry, given that the company hadn’t uttered a peep about the effort. The new game will likely arrive sometime next year, and is now in alpha testing. But even the early preview I got to play with made clear that Flight Simulator could be more than just a game. It could be a valuable learning tool for aspiring pilots.
That’s because of those details on the ground. Digital sightseeing is fun, but it also allows real-deal pilots to practice navigating using the landmarks they look for while airborne. Such flying is called VFR, for “visual flight rules”—meaning that instead of relying on instruments alone, you find your way by tracking certain buildings, roads, towers, mountains, rivers, and so on.
Though it can’t be used as a formal training tool, accurate, simulated VFR flight allows pilots to rehearse their flights beforehand, making the actual flights later more familiar. With most flight simulators, real-world terrain modeling creates a heavy workload for the computer, and doesn’t keep up with a changing world. Back in the original days of Flight Simulator, every byte of graphics data had to be stored locally, whether downloaded or accessed on DVD, CD, or, yes, floppy disk. “This sim steps out of that model massively,” says Pete Wright, a pilot whose YouTube channel, Frooglesim, specializes in reviewing such software. “It’s stunning. It’s unbelievable.”
What changed for the new generation of Flight Simulator is Microsoft’s development of its Google Maps competitor. The game gets its 3D data from Bing Maps, pulling precise details for anywhere in the world from the cloud and rendering the graphics locally. The end result is a virtual world that’s as accurate as the most recent Bing data.
In fact, the Bing connection was the impetus for the whole effort. Jorg Neumann, head of Flight Simulator, says the revival began with an app he was developing for Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality goggles. “We wanted people to be able to use the goggles to go anywhere in the world for a tour,” Neumann said. “It used data from Bing, so the rendering capability was ready five years ago. Two years after that, we started in earnest transferring that idea to a new flight sim.”
Microsoft partnered with French videogame developer Asobo Studio to produce the simulator, with consultation from pilots and the community of flight-sim users and developers who still use the original software. It folded in data and technical guidance from aircraft and avionics manufacturers to ensure that the flying experience is as accurate as the graphics. It incorporated 40,000 airports around the world, with detailed structures, runways, and taxiways, complete with directional markings.
Coupled with realistic weather scenarios rendered from the real-time data, the buildings up close appear photo-realistic, even in dense cities. I took a spin through New York City, expecting the kind of smudgy 3D rendering you’d find while homing in on a target in Google Maps. But it’s all finely drawn, with building details extending all the way down to street level. The simulator will still automatically adapt to available internet bandwidth, and it supports offline gameplay with severely reduced graphics. Users can also download specific small regions for the full experience even without connectivity.
It helps that I have a competent gaming PC and a widescreen monitor, but Asobo CEO Sebastian Wloch says the gameplay will be just as good on less capable rigs. That’s thanks to what he calls deferred rendering. “Twenty years ago, you would render one little piece of an airplane and do all the shadows and lighting on it at the same time,” Wloch says. “Now we’re able to give each element a memory of what it looks like and defer all the lighting and reflections to the end of the rendering process. Because the world is very consistent visually, this helps speed it up a lot.” In short, the graphics rendering process no longer requires total reconstruction of every element every millisecond.
Today, desktop flight simulators actually can have a significant role in flight training, as evidenced by Microsoft’s chief competition, Laminar Research’s X-Plane. The program is certified by the FAA for use in some kinds of classroom training, given the quality of its aircraft and flight modeling. But instead of the graphics capability Microsoft is rolling out, X-Plane uses auto-generated scenery—essentially random buildings and trees—that generally match urban, suburban, and rural environments. (Third-party developers provide more accurate digital models separately for download.) One other advantage X-Plane can tout is its integration of virtual-reality operation through goggles, a natural fit for flight simulation. Microsoft won’t offer that at launch, though Neumann says it’s in the cards for later.
Looking further into the future, both Neumann and X-Plane developer Austin Meyer say they’re poised to respond to the coming age of electrified vertical-lift aircraft, complete with complex multirotor powertrains and computer-assisted flight capability. As those electric aircraft proliferate over the coming decades, aviation enthusiasts will be able to test-fly an air taxi at home before getting on board, and see their houses from up there, too.