I have seen the future of flight simming.
...And in one word (well, two) it is: virtual reality.
I got my Oculus Rift Development Kit in the mail two days ago. What is it? Well, no more than a couple of smartphone screens in a box, a pair of thick lenses creating a wrap-around field of view, foam padding and a big old strap to hold the contraption on the head, plus some wiring and fancy software. The skimpy download that went with it basically just consists of a set-up proggie and a demo: a Villa in Tuscany you can walk around in.
As the interior of the villa appears on-screen the magic begins. And it is that most believable of magic: the understated art of just rendering what your brain expects, what you would see if you actually stood in the villa. Look up, ceiling beams, look down, terracotta tiles, look left, a fireplace, look right, a painting on the wall. The viewpoint follows your head movements exactly, with no delay. You're THERE. It may be a bit of a blurry world, because the resolution is quite limited, but the feeling is that of being transported to another place, and it is real. Obviously it doesn't look like a real villa, it is after all just a rather low-poly model with so-so textures. But the feeling of moving in a three-dimensional space is absolutely real: true-to-life visual stimuli that convincingly overpower your body's remaining sensory apparatus.
On to flying! Best bet seems to be War Thunder, an online arcade flying game which implemented Oculus Rift support a few months ago. A game I normally wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole, but well, beggars can't be choosers, it supposedly has gorgeous graphics and is one of the few programs that support OR. At least it is free-to-play at the level where I want to use it, namely just flying around. A 5gig download and some jumping through hoops later, and I am ready for take-off, in a P-36 Peashooter parked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Let's get the downside out of the way first. Looking at the landscape, especially far-off bits, reminds you of one of those days where you leave your house and realise you forgot to put in your contact lenses. It is a somewhat blurry world, rather low-res, and no matter how much you squint you won't ever get details crisp and sharp. You're back in low-res, 1990s, European Air War territory, where objects first appear as indistinguishable blobs that later turn into pixelated shapes and only up close acquire recognisable features. Sounds rather underwhelming, doesn't it?
Well, it ISN'T! Because the illusion of being inside this make-believe world is totally real. The light and colours and depth are real, the heft and physicality of your cockpit, wing struts, fuselage and wings is absolutely real. As you roll along the runway on Hickam Field and slowly climb into the air, the sense of speed is visceral and very much felt in the seat of your pants. Shadows play in the cockpit and over the wings as you bank and turn inland towards the mountains. Approaching them, there is an almost dreadful sense of mass and humonguousness to them, with their high summits and deep valleys, covered in dense vegetation. You can't actually see the details of trees and shrubbery, but here you brain fills in the blanks, because the sense of being there is so real that the blurriness takes second place to the many other sensory inputs that quickly overload your system.
You see, it isn't just an emotionally detached, academic, non-corporeal flying experience. No, no it isn't. It is a strong, physical, pervasive, overwhelming and somewhat scary experience of hanging in a flimsy craft, suspended over a massive, foreboding rock-solid landscape. Gone is the TrackIR ease of swiftly turning to check six with just a flick of your head. Here you have to twist your whole body and fight your reclining chair as you struggle to get your rudder into view. And you better do it while flying straight and level, because if you do it in a steep bank it is highly disorienting and nausea-inducing. This is not just an intellectual exercise, this is stomach-churning reality, reminding me of when I've gone up in a real-world glider and chased thermals in gut-wrenching spirals.
The Hawaiian landscape is supremely impressive and gradually I overcome the bodily discomfort that first kept me looking straight forward, not taking in the view at all, but just trying to keep control of my bowels. I manage to look around and take in the vertical cliff-faces, clouds clinging to mountain ridges, sunlit uplands and dark canyons. It is a fabulous playground to explore in three dimensions and I gradually engage in evermore daring maneuvers. The feeling of flight remains as visceral and physical as before but now I can begin to enjoy it. Climbing over a ridge, half-rolling and zooming downwards, inverted, in a vertiginous screaming dive is almost too much, but only almost. Popping over the edge, flipping on your back and seeing the deep chasm falling away below is terrifying, but the rush of following the mountain wall down and pulling out just above the palm fronds in the valley below is something I've never experienced in flight simming before.
How can it be so intensely physical, yet based on a mere visual input? I just sit in my office chair and yet I am getting clammy hands, cold sweat on my forehead and tension that tires my back and shoulder muscles? I think it must be because the illusion of being in a real space is totally convincing. All the little neurons, embedded in our brains since a distant caveman past, are firing like crazy and telling us that "HEY, you are in a highly dangerous situation here!" Booming and zooming around a jagged mountainscape is NOT a normal thing to do! Get down! So, based on pure visual stimuli, the body thinks it is falling, gyrating, accelerating, in a most unnatural manner. Flying, in short. And let me tell you: it is a level of excitement not seen in flight simming until now. The excitement, almost too much, almost unbearable, of actually, really hurtling through space. Welcome to the future of flight simming. It is stunningly intense and it will only get better.