Sunday, April 29, 2007

Virtual Earth

I've discovered an amazing new virtual representation of the world, Virtual Earth, a plugin for Microsoft's I've been using and enjoying for a while, but last week when I visited the site it offered to install this plug in . There's a full description on Wikipedia here. All I can say is wow.

They've added detailed buildings to many major cities, and if you are lucky enough to know any of these cities well, you will be amazed at the number of buildings that are modeled. My city is Boston. I spent years there as a student and working, and I was suprised to see it's not just the landmark buildings that are in 3D, but virtually every multi-story building in a very large radius. All of these building models have photographic texture from the actual building (low res, to be sure, but still...). I can't imagine the man-hours necessary for this, or else a program that could automatically create 3D from 2D images.

The images from top to bottom:

  1. A chunk of Boston. No particular landmark buildings, just an example of "regular" buildings accurately captured.
  2. A chunk of BU. I got my Master's degree in the large modern brick building off center, above the green pointer. The stepped building in the background is the Hyatt Regency, accross the river.
  3. St. Paul's Catholic Church, outside of Harvard Square. This is maybe 3 or 4 miles outside of Boston, yet look at the detail in how the building is defined. By the way, the is the church I was married in!
  4. Where I worked for 5 years, in Cambridge. Some 5 or 6 miles from Boston, but nevertheless accurately rendered.
  5. Some non-descript commercial buildings in Cambridge. The one in the foreground is where I bought the computer I am working on now.
  6. and 7. Some of Seattle, just to give you a taste of a different city. Note one of the occasional goofs in picture 7. On the building in the lower right corner, you can see some of the roof texture painted on the side of the building. Since the roof is covered with parked cars, this looks really weird.

Will we ever see the likes of this in Flight Simulator? It seems unlikely they could ever manage this much detail in FS, but who knows? Fifteen years ago, who would have been bold enough to hope for what is in today's FS?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Fighting scenery tweak-itis

I've been messing around with scenery design a lot in the last few days. I'm still using the Object Placement Tool included in the SDK. It works ok, tho it has its quirks. For example, I have trouble moving an object when I re-open a scenery file. Another quirk is that if you re-scale an object after you re-open it, it apparently keeps it's original crash zone size. I found this out the hard way by crashing into a tree, even though it didn't look like I was anywhere near it.

The images in this post show my progress in making my home town, Marlboro, MA, more like the real thing. The photos are from Microsoft's You can see nothing is precisely placed, but I'm starting to get closer. My challenge now is to resist the urge to keep going back again and again to tweak. It starts to become obsessive after a while, and the worst thing is that it cuts into my all-to-rare flying time.

A couple of comments on my work. I like the airport now, I only wish I could have the road abut the end of the runway as it does in real life. Adding roads to the scenery is magic beyond my ken, and I don't want to invest the time in figuring it out. I did add a fence at the end of the runway. In reality there is a chain link fence with a stop sign on it (hah hah!). Landing a little long can get really expensive. I also added the house beyond the runway as an additional hazard. The static planes and cars really bring the place to life. The airport buildings are only approximate in type and position, as you can see. I also added some nearby landmarks, such as the greenhouses and the enclosed tennis courts. I only wish I could suppress that horrible big autogen building above the Cub's left wing.

The second series of pictures shows Marlboro's historic Main Street. Unfortunately autogen houses and trees clutter it up a bit. Still, it has enough of a semblance of the real place that it makes it a lot fun to fly around the place. I notice now I scaled up the size of the building in the lower left corner a little too much. I think I go and resize it a little. Last tweak, honest!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Because it's cool, that's why!

An amazing new discovery! FSX SDK (available in the Deluxe version) includes a scenery object placer tool. This fact was brought to my attention in a comment on one of the forums. The comment also pointed out a very helpful guide, available at Avsim (search for Essentially this is an interactive, WYSIWYG tool that lets you place any existing scenery object wherever you want. If you have FSX deluxe, and you install the SDK, then you have all you need.

You place objects by selecting an object from a list and clicking the Add button. The object will be placed wherever the view crosshairs are at the moment. You can then manipulate the object further: rotate, translate, scale etc. In addition you can assign other properties, for example at which level of scenery complexity is necessary before your object will appear. This last feature is handy because the default autogen airport buildings do not show up unless the complexity setting is set to dense. Finally, you can save and compile the scenery. Full details are in the guide I have mentioned.

What does this mean to me? I can finally indulge in scenery design, something I've long wanted to try, without any addons and without a lot of tricky hand coding. Now I can try to make my local airport look something like its real-world counter part. I'm not going to be a stickler for absolute accuracy; I'll be happy with getting it pretty close. Mainly what I'm looking for is some static aircraft parked in the right place, and some old-looking hangars. Some cars in the parking lot would be neat. Maybe some trees placed too close to the runway, as they are in real life.

The first image shows a quick proof of concept. Nothing is really in the right place, but it gets the idea across. Yes, I know its a lousy screenshot, but that is because I had the scenery sliders set very low to help performance while I used the scenery tool. The second shot shows a test of whether the added objects are crashable (they are!)

But what does this really mean? Why do I want to start down this path when I don't even have enough time to fly? Will this really enhances the experience of "flying" that provide so much relaxation to me? I must be very careful not to let this side project become a time drain. I've done some reading on scenery design, and I know there is so much more to it than this kind of thing (afcads, excludes, flattens, etc. etc.)

This gets back to the dichotomy between "tools" and "toys" that I've discussed here from time to time. Scenery can easily become a toy, that is, just fun stuff to look at. And scenery design could become a sort of puzzle, where the satisfaction comes in getting things to arrange exactly as you wish. But scenery could also become a tool. If I get those trees placed right, then I will be making this small airport more like the real thing, and I may have to sharpen my pilot skills some in order to keep on making decent landings. A few static airplanes will force me to taxi around in a more orthodox way.

However, I think the scenery design I am likely to do tends to be more in the toy category. I really should not spend too much of my very limited spare time on this, when I could be "flying" more. But in spite of this I can't resist giving it a try. When I search my soul about this, the answer comes down to, "Because its cool!"

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Visibility tip

Here's a quick tip to add some realistic atmosphere to your flights, and probably increase simulator performance. This may be ancient headgear to many of my readers (if I have many readers, that is), but for those who have not spent much time creating weather, then try this out.

It's really very simple: just decrease the visibility in the custom weather setup to 30 miles or less. In the screenshot here, I have it down to 20 miles. This will create a hazy atmosphere in the distance, which I find much more realistic. This shot looks like a humid summer day in New England. Whenever I set up custom weather I always reduce the visibility distance.

This will most likely increase your performance too. I know this to be the case in FS2004, and it probably true in FSX, but since I have not tested it systematically I will stop short of stating it as a fact. The reason it should help performance is simply that the sim doesn't have to worry about rendering objects beyond the visibility limit.

So go ahead and play with this slider-- you may be delighted with what you see.