Flight simulators have been teaching people to safely operate aircraft since the earliest days of aviation. Starting out as rudimentary cockpit fabrications with basic controls, today’s sophisticated machines are essential components in preparing modern pilots for a variety of scenarios. Their technology has also been adapted to other vehicle simulators, as well as the theme park industry, making this an exciting field for programmers and engineers.
A number of staff from the recently-launched Simulation and Visualization program have backgrounds in commercial simulation. This includes one-time Game Development classmates Brandon Patterson and Lari Norri who both worked in the field before coming back to teach at Full Sail. Brandon contributed to military flight sims as a software engineer at Indra Systems, and explained that it was the combination of video game, motion control, and engineering concepts made flight tech so attractive to him post-graduation.
“I always loved games, but there were lots of cool things about simulation that I wanted to be a part of,” says Brandon, Course Director for Engine Development I. “It’s for anyone who enjoys programming as problem solving because there are a unique set of challenges to figure out when interacting with the hardware. I wouldn’t use the word ‘toys,’ but it was really fun because it was like having an expensive interactive machine that I got to come in and spend time with and manipulate.”
Flight mechanics are also commonly adapted to aquatic vehicle simulation, which recreates the same basic navigation through water. Lari (course director for Graphics I) spent over half a decade working in that world at VMAX Technologies, where he created control schemes and graphics engines for underwater rovers.
“We built pilot training simulators for remote operated vehicles,” he says. “The engineers would construct new machines, and rather than taking them out in the middle of the ocean to test their functionality, we’d build a simulation for them to use in the lab. It’s much cheaper and easier than getting a full crew to go out on a boat, and then maybe have it not work properly. The engineering aspects were what made it so exciting to me because these simulators are just banks of computers with a crazy amount of processing and networking going on. It’s definitely fun and quite a bigger challenge than making other software.”
A major hurdle that Brandon and Lari shared in their simulation work was the notion of accuracy. In gaming your interactions don’t necessarily need to be accurate as long as they’re fun, but a sense of precision is critical for a sim. Users will be preparing for potentially risky situations, and the experience needs to be as close to real life as the developers can make the hardware and software feel.
“Making sure it worked just like an actual plane was certainly one of our big obstacles,” Brandon says. “We’d spend a lot of time on military bases to check out the cockpits we were simulating, then also do a lot of work with pilots to get their feedback on things like how the buttons would behave or how stiff or loose the control stick should feel at different points.”
“It’s all about precision, and so you also have to take real life elements like physics or weather into account,” adds Lari. “That brings a whole other layer to your job as a programmer. Think of something like a military sim where you would want to go out and measure how bullets fall in real life and then use ballistics tables to help calculate trajectories in different conditions. You need that level of detail.”
That continuing quest for realism is where Rob Catto sees the next evolution in flight technology coming from, and something which may happen sooner than later thanks to emerging virtual reality gear like the Oculus Rift. Rob is the Program Director for Game Studies, which covers the Simulation and Visualization degree, and has been involved with the industry since the mid-1990s. This extends into his own work outside of Full Sail on the Virtual Foot Flyer, an independent project that has adapted both virtual reality and traditional simulation to create a unique flight experience.
“User immersion is the number one thing that solidifies a simulation and that’s only going to improve with the visuals,” Rob says. “The next leap for flight is going to be about incorporating the latest virtual reality systems that are coming. Pilots are going to be able to put on their helmet like they normally would, but inside will be a pair of VR goggles, and their head will be tracked. It’s also going to have a system for one-to-one mapping between your fingers and your virtual world, so when you physically reach out to push a button you’ll see your fingers in the simulation actually interacting with the virtual cockpit. These experiences are going to be incredible, and really are the future of aviation.”