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I had the opportunity to see Bill Lewis' flight simulator out at the Troutdale Airport today. If you want to talk about amazing technology, then you want to see this thing.
The simulator itself runs off a simple Windows box, but it feeds data to three huge machines which process the graphics as you "fly" the plane. There are three projectors overhead the cockpit, with some very clever placement of shades to keep the images from overlapping.
Those projectors are aimed at a big, wrap around screen, which completely immerses the cockpit in the virtual reality. Bill's system uses a generic airport and surrounding area, but apparently you can get a Google Maps plug-in (for about $50K more) which would let you see the actual surrounding area.
The cockpit itself is a faithful reproduction of the kind of Cessna Bill teaches people to fly with; there were three parked outside the building, but we kept the demonstration in the simulator rather than actually risking life and limb in the air. The dash can be swapped out for different models, although he pointed out the basic features of the "six pack" dials with altimeter, speed, a couple different compass settings, that thing that tells you if you're level... Let's just say you should look for a real pilot if you're in trouble in the air...
All those controls and indicators act like they would in a real plane. Heck, even the physical compass and GPS system show your bearing and map as if you were over Troutdale, or where ever you set your coordinates (or fly, for that matter).
Taking off was surprisingly simple. Get it up to about 60 knots, pull back on the stick, and you're in the air. There was that little issue about steering with the foot pedals when you're on the ground, and the plane did seem to lean a little to the left, but, hey, I didn't run into anything as we took off.
The controls actually behave as they would if there was wind pushing over the plane; I had to constantly adjust the trim and keep an eye on my bearing. It's amazingly easy to start drifting around. I found myself focused on the instruments rather than looking out the window, which is the whole point of the wrap around screen.
Other than the intentional nosedive, or running it into a building for kicks (and finding out that the trees weren't "real" and I could fly right through them), I actually managed to land the thing. Sure, it stalled just as I touched down, but Bill said some folks consider that a perfect landing.
Bill played with the weather, the time of day, and even changed my altitude with a push of a button. The "freeze" button was very reminiscent of "Computer, pause programme" from Star Trek, and overall it was a disturbingly realistic sensation, which made the sudden virtual changes even more surreal.
The motion sickness wasn't as bad as I expected, either. I get sick playing DOOM, which I always blamed on bad rendering -- apparently the same happens to some folks on this thing, but I think that the full wrap around screen and the tactile sensation of actually turning the wheel and pulling on the stick made it more comfortable than a mouse and a 17" monitor.
I didn't get the flying bug from the experience, but I would like to get out sometime in one of the Cessnas and see the area from the air -- low air, that is, rather than out the window of a 737. We have Mt St. Helens, the Gorge, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood all right out our back door. Bill said it's about $300 for him to take you through the paces and get you in the air, so maybe... well, I suppose paying some bills first, but it's a idea nevertheless.
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