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Archive for the ‘MS Flight Sim’ Category

Full disclosure: I work for Microsoft, but not in the Flight team or Entertainment & Devices division.

They picked a good day – February 29th. These days, a new Microsoft flight game release is as rare as a leap year. The Flight team today launched the first product after the meltdown of the old team. Any day you ship a product is a good day, but for these guys, who three years ago thought they would never get to give the public another release, it must have been a great day.

At the Microsoft Commons, the team set up a couple of machines and let people fly for a while. Here is a shot of some real Microsofties trying the game:

They also had a big tray of Flight cookies to commemorate the moment. Even though it was before lunch, and I have a strict no-dessert-until-you-eat-your-veggies rule, I had one anyway. Here is Amy modelling one of the cookies:

I have not yet downloaded the RTM, but I was on the beta, so I thought it was time to post my opinions (a review may or may not come later). There has been a lot of concern that by dropping the word ‘simulator’ from the title, Flight would become some kind of nerfed Xbox game (like the abominable Hawx series). The bottom line is, this is not true at all. The flight model is pretty much what you have in FSX, with additional helpers (similar to FSX’s auto-mixture and auto-rudder coordination helpers). If you turn those off, you are pretty much flying FSX.

On to the good – the performance is simply great. On my machine, it runs 50% to 100% faster than my FSX setup. The team promised improved speed, and they delivered in spades. On top of that, the visuals are greatly improved. The terrain rendering is more detailed, with more autogen packed into the same space, and a completely new lighting and shadow model – everything casts a shadow on everything in a soft, convincing way. The colours are more realistic, and the models are very well done, with details in the VCs even better than FSX. the new Stearman is a pleasure to fly.

People have complained that Flight is not a worthy replacement for FSX. But it is clear from using it for just an hour that this is not meant to be a replacement. Essentailly, the Flight team has followed the game model of racing simulators like Forza. You have one defined region to fly (Hawaii to begin), and various challenges/missions which allow you to unlock more content. This is completely different from the model of FSX or even X-Plane, which give you a completely open world, with all content available from the start. You can love it or hate it, but it was an intentional choice to move with this new model by the team. It’s an intriguing idea. I found myself staying on the sim a little longer just to find the next aerocache or unlock the next piece during the Beta, so I think it has good potential.

Also in place is a content store for DLC (the app store model is now on Windows 8, and you can expect to see it all over new Microsoft products). They already have a couple of good pieces of DLC there. The Vans R-7 aircraft retails for about $15, which seems a good price for DLC, if you consider the price of comparable third-party aircraft for FSX. We will have to see how it pans out. I am rooting for them to do well.

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Flightsimbooks.com hosts scans of a bunch of great classic flightsim books from the 80’s and 90’s.

From learning avionics, to weather, to air combat maneuvering, Microprose sim hint books, it’s all there.

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It’s been a while since any FSDSxTweak traffic – mostly because it is stable and we have pushed things about as far as we can. But here is a helpful hint.

Some users have reported that compiling small models under FSDSxTweak v2.81 can lead to very large MDL files. For example – compile a model with FSDS only and you have a 150kb MDL file; tweak and compile with FSDSxTweak, and you end up with a 3MB file. After much digging into this problem (which only occurs for some users, making it even harder to narrow down), Free Flight Design Forum user Hunter10 narrowed down the problem to old temp files left behind in the FSDS folder by older compiles (read the thread of how he came to this conclusion).

The obvious solution is to have FSDSxTweak clean up all temp files after it compiles and tweaks a model. Luckily, on a cloudy day in 2008, I added a feature into FSDSxTweak_plugin that easily allows you to do this. You may have noticed (probably not), that FSDSxTweak_plugin allows you to inject DOS batch files into the compilation pipeline for exotic tasks. You can inject at three stages:

  1. Pre-build: Before any tweaking or compilation happens
  2. Mid-build: After tweaking, but before compilation with xtomdl
  3. Post build: After tweaking and compilation.

Obviously the post-build step is where we want to do this clean up task. You inject into the exterior and interior model pipelines separately, so if you are building a model with VC, you will need to set up the following for both of these.

Step 1: Create a batch file to clean up the temp files

This is a simple DOS batch file. The only thing to notice is that the batch file will be run from from the [your fsds location]\plugins folder, and all the temp files live in [your fsds location] folder. Other than that, nothing special. Here is one that will work for exterior models (you can cut and paste this into a cleat text file, name it exterior_cleanup.bat, and save it to your FSDS folder:

del ..\_temp.x
del ..\_temp.xml
del ..\_temp.mdl
del ..\_temp.xanim
del ..\_matTemp.txt
del ..\_nrmTemp.txt
del ..\_exterior.x
del ..\_exterior.xml
del ..\_exterior.mdl
del ..\_exterior.xanim

Here is the equivalent file for interior models (VCs). Name it interior_cleanup.bat, and save it to your FSDS folder:

del ..\_temp_interior.x
del ..\_temp_interior.xml
del ..\_temp_interior.mdl
del ..\_temp_interior.xanim
del ..\_matTemp_interior.txt
del ..\_nrmTemp_interior.txt
del ..\_interior.x
del ..\_interior.xml
del ..\_interior.mdl
del ..\_interior.xanim

Step 2: Get FSDSxTweak_plugin to run your batch file after tweak and compile

Now we are ready to tell FSDSxTweak_plugin to use these batch files. Start up FSDSxTweak_plugin, and hit the Advanced button in the exterior model group of controls:

Now in the pop-up window, enter the full path to your cleanup batch file in the post build batch file text box (or browse to it using the Browse button):

Now close the pop-up window. Repeat this step with the interior model if necessary. From now on, whenever you build the model, the temp files will be deleted after tweaking and compilation.

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April was a dry spell in new screenshots, but May brings a little bit of new info.

First off, a new aircraft – I may be wrong, but it’s a Van’s Aircraft RV-6A. I think this is the first kit plane represented in the history of Flight Simulator. Very nice!


This shot also shows the water – it is about the same as FSX water, but seems to have more texture. The earlier previews have shown the improvements in lighting, and this shot shows this off nicely:

The terrain shadowing itself is quite obvious, as well as the subtlety of colour in the clouds and horizon. The colours are less bright, and more realistic. Some people have compared it to the effects given by REX under FSX, which may be a good comparison. I’m looking forward to seeing Table Mountain casting its shadow over the city bowl.

The biggest improvements are obvious in the terrain rendering. The algorithm for texturing the terrain finally takes slope correctly into account, so that cliffs faces and other close to vertical areas are textures separately, making the terrain more geologically plausible:

Finally, the details: The resolution of the textures is much higher, the colours more subtle, and the vegetation casts a little shadow under itself onto the terrain. The surf also is much higher resolution, extending further into the water texture, giving a great effect:

Looking good! Can’t wait to see all these goodies animated together.

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The CH products throttle quadrant is a great input device. One of the best features is the swappable lever tops which let you configure as a quad, twin piston, and anywhere in between. Unfortunately, there is no good way to configure for a twin jet; the black lever tops are too thin. What you need is a lever top which spans two levers, so that you get a nice handful when you move both throttles together. Time for a mod. Below are two versions I tried.

Version 1: Sculpey tops

Sculpey tops in action (click for more sizes)

This is the easy form of the mod. It is made of Sculpey, a polymer clay which is non-toxic and can be shaped like plasticine when raw. When baked in a normal oven, becomes hard like porcelain. The finished product is not too brittle, can be carved/sanded as well as painted, and it shrinks only a little while baked. It’s a popular material among scale model builders for forming custom parts.

First, create a cylinder of Sculpey the diameter and twice the length of the desired tops. Cut the cylinder in half shape the ends to be completely flat. Now gently press each cylinder into the throttle levers. This creates the sockets which attach the top to the levers. Bake the Sculpey according to the instructions. Due to the slight shrinking of the Sculpey during baking, the fit on the levers should be quite snug. You can use a file or hobby knife to trim the sockets if the fit is too tight. Once you have completed these adjustments, you can paint or otherwise cover the tops (I used black electrical tape).

Completed Sculpey tops

The result is a little crude, but durable and works quite well. Like the CH products tops, you can easily swap them out as needed.

Version 2: PVC tops with TO/GA or A/T disengage button

PVC tops in action (click for more sizes)

This next version gives a much better, more professional  effect, and optionally you can add a thumb operated button for auto-throttle disengage or TO/GA. The effect is a little like the DC-8 throttle levers:

Real DC-8 throttle tops

The basic materials here are PVC pipe and Meccano beams (in the USA they are called Erector, which is just a terrible, terrible name for a toy). PVC pipe is soft enough to be cut using woodworking tools, it can be sanded, can be glued with regular hot glue, and painted using regular spray paint. Meccano is pre-drilled and bendable, which allows you to bolt it into place, and is affordable. Meccano has changed since the 80s when I last played with it – these day the metal is thinner (which is good, as it makes it easier to bend), but also more brittle, which means when you bend it, it can fail and break (this happened to me twice in this project).

Bend them too aggressively, and they fail

The biggest improvement is in the nuts they provide – in the old days they were simple machine screws with hex nuts, but now they give you nyloc nuts, which resist loosening from vibration etc.

I knew this was going to be a mechanically complex mod, so first thing is to do some sketching of how it should all fit together. Sketching is a good way of thrashing out ideas, no matter how nutty, before you commit to buying materials. Here is a page showing a near-final design:

Preliminary sketches (Click for more sizes)

Finally, I settled on the basic design. Each top would consist of a straight PVC pipe joint, bolted to a 9-hole Meccano beam bent into a 90 degree U shape. The ends would be PVC pipe caps. One of the tops would have a push button for the TO/GA function. The final sketch is below. In the end, the final product differed only in the lack of glue between the Meccano bracket and the PVC joint (the bolt was enough), and the lack of cable ties holding the cable to the bracket.

The near final design

Here are some plans if you want to try this mod yourself:

Full plan of a top (click for more sizes)

Building the lever tops

Begin by making the brackets. Start with a nine-hole Meccano beam. Measure the dimensions as indicated in the plan (43mm – 32mm – 43mm), and carefully bend it into a 90 degree U-shape (I used my vise as a makeshift bending break). Bend gently, or the metal may fail. When you are done, check for cracks at the bends – if they have appeared, the part is on the verge of failing, so you should discard it and bend another.

Making the brackets

The next step is to cut the PVC parts to size. Using a tenon saw and a mitre box gives a good result – remember to sand the ends to even them out (sand them by laying the sandpaper flat on your workbench, then swirl the part on the paper). When cutting the junction, note that there is an thicker ring in inside center of the joint. You want to preserve this in the center of the piece, so make two cuts, one on either side.

Cut PVC with woodworking tools (watch out not to breathe in PVC dust)

At this point, you can drill a hole for the bolt that will hold the bracket to the joint (at the very center of the junction – it should go through the thicker inner ring). Bolt the bracket. You can now test fit this part to the throttle – the lever tops should rest on the PVC joint, and the bracket should fit snugly on the outside of each lever.

Now to cut the caps. You will notice that you need to cut a notch to allow them to slot into the junction due to the space taken up by the bracket. Measure and mark the area to cut (see the plan above, it is 15mm x 14mm). This cut can be done with a coping saw, but really it is easiest using a Dremel or similar rotary tool. The trick here is to ‘nibble’ away the plastic rather than trying one large cut (the friction of the spinning bit will cause the PVC to melt, so adjust your speed and stop as necessary). I cut a number of lines straight into the cap, and then ‘ate’ sideways to detach them from the cap:

To prevent PVC from melting while cutting, "nibble" away the unwanted material

Once the cuts are done and neat, you will have the three parts you will need for a top. The caps should fit very snugly into the joint (you won’t even need to glue the caps in).

The parts for one lever top

Fit the parts together and do a test fitting. Ensure that cracks have not appeared at the bend of the brackets.

test fitting the lever top

Check also that the caps fit deep enough into the joint that the two lever tops will not collide as you move them independently. Do this by placing both tops side by side.

Testing the width of the tops to ensure they do not collide

Also think about how you will drive the bolts thought the brackets and levers to attach the tops. Notice in the photos above that there are three holes available on the sides of the brackets. I drilled through the top and bottom holes on each lever so that a bolt can go straight through both levers and the top bracket holes, and the same on the bottom bracket holes (more on this below).

Adding a thumb button

At this point you have the option of adding a thumb operated button. Airliners typically have a TO/GA or autothrottle disarm button on the stick tops, so it’s a nice addition. To do this, you will be working on one of the endcaps (choose the cap based on where the thumb you want to operate the button with rests).

The button you should use is a SPST button (single pole/single throw). You can find suitable buttons at Jameco or Fry’s. These are buttons that close the circuit when pressed, and open the circuit while released. There are many choices of button – your primary concern in choosing is the dimensions. The diameter should be small enough to fit in the endcap, and the length short enough to fit inside the entire top. The button I used is the Valuepro R13-511A-05-BR.

Once you have your button, drill in the face of the endcap to screw the button in, and also make the notch you cut in the cap to accommodate the bracket a little deeper (the button cable will exit the lever top through this space – 1mm or 2mm should be enough). Solder a cable to the button, test the connections, and reassemble your lever top.

Tops reassembled with button installed (click for more sizes)

The challenge now is how to have your new button talk to Flight Sim. I decided to make use of one the throttle quadrant’s six switches (they are actually 12 switches – one for up, and one for down on each of the six grey switches). The idea is to attach the new button to one of these existing switches so that pressing it will be the same as pressing the original switch. However, we want to be able to easily remove these lever tops, so the whole thing has to be detachable.

To solve this problem, I used a simple power plug and socket (like those used to give power from a wall power supply into a small appliance) – these are also found at Jameco or Fry’s, and have two connections (which is what you need for a switch). The male will be soldered to the cable connected to your new button, and the female will be connected to the appropriate switch inside the throttle quadrant. I used this male and female.

When you open the quadrant, you will see the pc board with the six switches attached. Above each switch you will see two soldered connections – use a multimeter to verify that these two close when you press the switch, and open when you let go. I used the top connection on the very left, which translated to pressing the left switch upwards.

Soldering the new connection to a switch

Now drill a hole for the female connector  at the front of the quadrant, and solder a cable between the two. You will notice that the quadrant case now refuses to close – there is a vertical wall inside the top of the case which presses down on the switches, and your new connection is bumping against it. Use your Dremel to grind away about 7mm depth (0.3″) in the wall in line with the left most hole in the case.

Making space for the new connection

With the case closed and the lever with the top held in place, measure out the length of cable you need – pull the levers all the way to the back to get the right length. Add 2.5cm (1″) extra cable, and solder on the male plug to the cable. Now you can plug your button to the throttle’s switch.

Testing the plug (click for more sizes)

To test your connection, plug the quadrant into your PC, bring up the windows game controllers dialog from the control panel, select the quadrant, and hit Properties. You should see all buttons off, and when you press your new button, button 1 will light up in the window

Testing the new button

If the button 1 light is always on, then your button is shorted – check all your connections to ensure they are not touching.

Painting and attaching the tops to the levers

Painting PVC is quite simple – use normal spray paint, and apply it in a few thin coats, allowing each coat to dry before you apply the next (applying too much paint at a time will lead to the tops being sticky to the touch). Be sure to mask out the button and cables before you spray, as the paint may clog the button’s mechanism.

Masked, and ready to spray

Once the parts are nicely dry, you can get ready to attach them for the first time. Place one of the tops on the lever, and with a 5/32″ drill bit, drill through the top and bottom holes (do this for both levers). Now repeat the process for the other stick top.

Drilling the levers

Now you can attach the top using a 1.5″ long #6 machine bolt with a corresponding butterfly nut. You will need two (one for top hole, one for bottom) per lever top. Notice that the butterfly nuts and button plug make it easy to remove the tops if we decide to go to a four engine configuration.

Here is the finished product. If you fly three-hole machines (like Thomas’ Ruth freeware 727), you can always build another lever top.

The finished tops (click for more sizes)

If you already own all the required tools, the total cost for this mod should be around $15, plus the cost of the Meccano beams (I got a middle sized set for $25, that has left me with lots of nice parts for future projects).

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New round of screen shots have been released on the Flight website – it is definitely a monthly trend now – I think its a great way to reconnect with all the fans they may have lost along the way. Shows they are serious about taking back a big share of the flight sim market again. As with the other previews, some interesting hints in these new shots.

1. The new shadow model will affect the scenery – Notice how the valley in the top right of this frame is darker, and how the slight ridges are also darkened by shadow (also, the Stearman 75 has now featured in a number of these previews, so safe to say it will feature in the release):

2. Airports using photo scenery – this is new. I suspect they are tapping into the Bing Maps photo database for this stuff (not in real time though, they would want to colour match the photos etc. before using them). It looks like we can expect much higher resolution textures for scenery also from this shot:

3. This shot shows two impressive things: (1) The cloud polygons, when interacting with the land polygons, don’t seem to do a hard intersection – notice ho hard lines where the clouds meet the mountain, and (2) the texturing of the land has been massively improved – notice how the sides of the cliffs now are correctly textured with a cliff texture, adding a lot of realism (getting away from the ‘tablecloth draped over a wire mesh’ look of past versions):

4. And a nice shot of the Stearman over the ocean. Can’t tell very much about the water from a still, but it’s a nice picture nonetheless 🙂

The emphasis of the Stearman suggests that Boeing will once again be a partner in the release. Is it too much to hope that the 787 be one of the aircraft in this release?

And now for some interesting wild speculation…

This leaked video from Live talks about the long term plans for the new Windows Game eXperience strategy. There may be some hints of what is in the future for Flight in each of the four verticals mentioned in the video:

  • Social – they have already announced that there will be more of a multiplayer element to Flight
  • Identity – this one could easily be added into any game; could we see the Xbox Live avatars in the menus etc for matchmaking in the server browsers?
  • Search – this one does not seem to fit into Flight, but one could imagine a good way to search for other players who want similar experiences, a global search for addons…
  • Transaction – I would be very, very surprised if we do not see a marketplace around Flight. My prediction is there will be one version of this game (no deluxe), with the extra stuff for sale one by one. I would also not be surprised if the major publishers (Just Flight etc) are not brought on board into the marketplace.

 

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I’ve had my CH Products Flight Yoke for about 6 years, and it is a great affordable controller. Given the warranty has long since expired, this weekend I decided to try one of the mods for it I saw on YouTube, and went ahead and did a couple more things. Here are the four three mods I did:

1. Clipboard Mod

Click for more sizes

This one is trivial, and requires no dismantling or risk to the device. I used dense 3mm cardboard, cut to the right size, and stuck it to the center of the handle using double sided tape. Add a butterfly clip and you’re done. Important here is to find cardboard which does not bend or dent if you write onto it. Also, test your double-sided tape, as the smooth plastic surface does resist a lot of tapes.

2. Resistance reduction mod

This mod (which I randomly found on YouTube) is intended to remove the yoke’s one weakness – the stiff resistance springs which make it hard to make small control inputs. My experience in doing this mod was fairly good – it went about as well as in the video – taking it apart is fairly easy, and the design of the yoke is actually quite impressive, and looks like it will last a good long while. Be careful though not to overly stress any of the parts connecting the yoke rod with the potentiometers – if these break or get warped, you will be in trouble.

Click for more sizes

Removing the springs is easy (there is not too much tension), and after drilling a hole in the left side of the control horns (again, easy as the plastic is soft), I found the first caveat: Even if you add the same number of rubber bands on each side, you might get more pull on one side than the other, leading to a yoke which turns to one side without any input. This is obviously because stationery rubber bands are not precision instruments :-), but fortunately there is a simple workaround. I used two doubled-over rubber bands for each side, but the right side was pulling more than the left. So I simply unhitched one of the four loops and that evened it out quite nicely:

Click for more sizes

Now, the video claims that the mod is completely reversible (which is true). However, if you lose the springs, it suddenly becomes non-reversible. So to prevent that happening I decided to store the springs inside the yoke itself. In order to prevent the springs from moving inside the case and jamming the mechanism, I added a blob of blue tack (that sticky putty used to stick posters up) in the front corners of the case:

Click for more sizes

Also note I used a little bit of blue tack to hold the table screw nut to its post – this is to prevent the nut falling out while turning the yoke around when putting the case back together again. This is not essential, but it does make your life a little easier as you hold everything in place.

3. USB Cable Protection Mod

One last mod I did was to protect the USB cable – I found that while screwing the yoke onto the table, sometimes I would pinch the cable between the yoke and the table, which was slowly stripping that part of the insulator. That worried me because you cannot easily solder these types of cables. Also, I found that the cable would often get in the way of the yoke rod. I keep my computer on the left side of my table, and on the yoke, the cable exits the yoke to the right of the yoke rod. So when the cable loops round, it would get in the way of the mechanism. So this mod is intended to solve these two problems. I simply drilled two holes through the top half of the case, and looped the cable through a cable tie:

 

Click for more sizes

This is how it looks with the case closed. As you can see, the cable is now nicely out of the way of the mechanism:

Click for more sizes

 

(The tape you see on the cable at the tie is not necessary – it is there to cover up where the yoke had previously pinched off the insulation). When doing this mod, beware not to tighten the cable tie too much – you must allow the cable enough freedom to move through the cable tie a bit, otherwise opening the case again after the mod will be difficult.

4. Switching the POV hat onto the left horn of the yoke

I wanted to switch the POV hat to the left horn of the yoke because I like having my throttle quadrant on the right side. As the yoke is now, this is awkward because your right hand is needed for working the throttles and moving the point of view. So if we could move the POV switch to the left horn… I started by opening the handle, and it was easy enough to remove the switch modules, but alas, the two modules are not symmetrical, so it was not possible to swap them around. Mod fail.

Test flight

I loaded up the default Cessna Caravan and flew Victoria to Renton as a test. At first I found that the plane would kick downwards every now and then, which confused me. I fiddled with control sensitivity, held the yoke rod firmly in place, cleared the weather (in case it was turbulence), but I would still get a kick down every few seconds – a little too periodic in fact. Then I realized that my Combat Stick was also plugged in, and FSX will try to take all controller inputs and apply them, even if they conflict (i.e. if the stick and yoke are both mapped to the elevators, both will interfere with each other). So after removing the Combat Stick, everything worked great. These mods cost me $0, and took about two hours to do, so well worth it.

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