The Laymens Guide To
Virtual Reality Motion Flight
Copyright 1997 - 2006 Ken Hill


If you're a pilot, you may have used an instrument simulator during flight training. If you're a computer owner, you may have a few flight games or simulators for it. If you watch TV you may have seen the full blown mega dollar NASA or Airline simulators that move with the yoke (or stick) input from the pilot and fully immerse one into the sense of flight or have seen or experienced rides at theme parks that move you along with the film you're watching.

Other simulators that let you experience the motion of flight include some arcade games and the new generation of location based flight simulators that allow you to dogfight against other players in a very realistic environment. These are rather expensive to enjoy even if you live near one as they charge by the minute.

Flight motion simulations are either active or passive. The active type needs servo drive motors and/or hydraulics or pneumatics to supply the motion to the "platform", (read cockpit). The passive type moves directly in response to stick motions through mechanical leverage and needs no external power. We'll deal with the passive type here as it's the least technical and least expensive to build.

To truly experience the motions and sensations of flight here's what you'll need for home use.

VISUAL - The more you see the better, so use the biggest monitor possible with the highest resolution or better still get a virtual reality head mounted display with head tracking.

AUDIO - Surround sound 3D sources and possibly transducers in the seat so you feel the thunder as you explode from that heat seeking missile.

MOTION - A platform you get in and ride that interacts to the stick or yoke inputs that you use to fly an aircraft.

An aircraft controls operate in 3 dimensions (six degrees of freedom) so the ultimate simulator would allow;

1) Pitch (tilt forward/backward)
2) Roll (tilt left/right)
3) Yaw (rotate left/right)

Others motions acting on an aircraft include;

4) Move vertically up/down
5) Move horizontally left/right
6) Move longitudinally forward/backward

In general, an airplane pilot doesn't directly control these last motions, but reacts to them with the first three based on throttle setting, lift, sink and turbulence. (However, new thrust vectoring jets and 'copters do allow control of these.)

If you want all 6 motions, see NASA. For a much more cost effective motion platform that you can build yourself that will allow you to fly anything from Cessnas to F-18s, we'll limit ourselves to 2 axis; Pitch and Roll. These are the most sensory convincing motions of flight and your mind will add the others based on visual cues.

COMPUTER SIMS - If you're already an avid computer flight sim pilot and just want to add motion to your set-up, you can skip ahead. But if you've always wanted to fly, but for whatever reason can't or if you are a pilot and want more air time and other aircraft to fly, then stay tuned.

BACKGROUND - The first computer flying programs were little more than a moving horizon line with a crosshair to fire your gun at the enemy. On a monochrome display it was choppy and hardly a "simulator" by any stretch of the imagination. They did give the computer 'pilot' a taste of the power of PC's for flight simulations to come. It's been said that flight simulations are the one good reason to own a personal computer.

SOFTWARE - Todays sim programs rival state of the art military programs of only a few years ago. Now for about $50 a pop you can fly into combat in the worlds newest and fastest fighters, buzz Manhattan in a Lear jet, battle it out over Europe in a Spitfire, or even refine your aerobatics in a Pitt Special. Best of all, all this can be obtained in most cases with near photo realistic graphics, physics modeled flight envelopes, CD quality 3D sound and with realistic aircraft controls.

COMPUTER - With leading edge software pushing the envelope of hardware demands, get the most powerful computer you can afford. For the current crop of hot sims, get at least a 133 Pentium with multi-speed CD ROM and 16 bit sound card. For your monitor, there is currently some good deals on 17 inchers. Some video cards allow output to your TV but resolution is limited. If you don't mind the blockyness of the picture you can sit in front of a big screen or projector TV and really immerse yourself.

INPUT DEVICES - Controls on the market today include everything from force feedback, realistic jet joysticks with programmable throttle/controls, rudder pedals with toe brakes, to flight yokes for you Cessna drivers. Prices range from $10 for a cheap 2 button joystick to hundreds for the top-of-the-line controllers. You may not need the best, but don't scrimp on your controls. They are you only 'physical' link with your sims and there's alot of cheap junk out there. When shopping for one, look for good feel, comfort, heft and durability. When you've got a missile aimed at your behind, you WILL abuse the controller in an attempt to avoid destruction.

ALL TOGETHER NOW - Don't just think you can run right out, buy the hottest computer, a truck load of sim programs, the trickest controllers, plug it all in and take off. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way. True, the Windows 95 OS makes hardware configurations easier, and programs designed to run on this system for the most part do set up properly. However, there are many older DOS sims that are not only very good programs, but can be found for next to nothing. These can be a real bear to get operating properly, but with patience and maybe some tech support, you'll be able to enjoy many hours of flying variety.

Another problem is simulator control consistency. For example, one manufacturer will assign the 'G' key to 'GEAR' while another may make it 'GUN'. The programmable throttles and joysticks help here as you can assign each programs functions to the same control buttons. Since most modern simulators have a steep learning curve for all the high-tech systems on board, the last thing you want to do is memorize a different set of controls for each program.

OK, you've paid your pilots dues, gone through the hoops and are ready to add the magic missing sense; MOTION.

NEXT - Chapter 2 - The Motion Platform