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Reality of Flight Simulators Takes Off

December 02, 1993|RICHARD O'REILLY | RICHARD O'REILLY is director of computer analysis for The Times

Virtual reality, an emerging technology in which participants interact with artificial environments, comes in many forms, some of which could be sampled by aspiring entrepreneurs at the recent Comdex computer exposition in Las Vegas.

Purists would probably argue that simulation games, like Microsoft's $65 Flight Simulator 5.0, are not virtual reality, despite the much-improved scenery and aircraft depictions in the new version.

But what if you added real motion? That's what Applied Emerging Technologies International of Irvine ((800) 365-9497 or (714) 551-0372) is offering with Fly-It, a personal motion simulator.

At $1,999, the mechanical cockpit, with 13 degrees of up-and-down pitch and side-to-side roll, isn't cheap. But just paying to insure and tie down a real Cessna or Piper at an urban airport for a year can cost that much or more. Flying it costs even more--lots more.

The simulator is controlled with a stick and comes complete with a throttle and a seat belt to keep you secured. You have to supply your own monitor and keyboard for the tray at the front of the device. A cable connects the simulator to your computer.

Maybe you'd like to start your own arcade business with a network of six of the company's enclosed, fiberglass-bodied F-16 models, complete with 23-inch projection screen and a slew of switches and dials instead of a keyboard. Each $29,000 model includes a Pentium-based computer on which to run off-the-shelf fighter simulation software.

A different kind of virtual reality business is being marketed by Virtual Images of Columbus, Ohio ((614) 459-1232).

REALITY+ uses a full-coverage helmet in which a 5.5-inch color liquid crystal display effectively fills the participant's field of vision. A hand-held controller, like a joystick without a base, has a button to let you move front and back and a trigger for shooting your opponent.


Two people play against each other, roaming around a simplistic urban environment of buildings, streets and cars. They can shoot at each other and enemy robots, or even ride an elevator to the roof of a high-rise and take off in a hang glider. A padded, waist-high, octagonal enclosure allows you to turn and twist as necessary to maneuver around the cityscape without danger of falling down.

You see where you look--up, down or side to side--with the 240-by-240-pixel screen being updated at a near full-motion video rate of 20 frames a second. The image is fuzzy, however, compared to that displayed on nearby monitors for those awaiting a turn to play.

Virtual Images has found that the best business use of these $55,000-per-player units is to rent a pair of them out for a day to a company for promotional use. It is easy to modify the software to display the renting company's logo on the side of the largest building in the scenario. Rental runs $2,000 to $3,500 a day.

The ultimate promotional use of virtual reality at Comdex was staged by Softbank of Monterey, Calif., a start-up firm getting ready to launch DOS and Windows software sales on CD-ROM disks. The idea was to let some rival software makers dogfight each other.

It hired Air Combat U.S.A., a Fullerton company that has perfected a fantasy aerial combat game. The planes and the G-forces may be real, but the experience is virtual reality, since participants aren't really fighter pilots nor are they truly in command of their aircraft. A real fighter pilot is sitting there beside you, maintaining control of the dual-control aircraft when necessary through suggestions, commands and a hands-on stick.

Air Combat ((800) 522-7590) charges $695 for the experience, which typically involves about an hour of actual flight, preceded by an hour of instruction and preparation and followed by a short debriefing. Flight schedules are available in major cities nationwide.

The planes are Marchetti SF 260s, Italian sport aerobatic planes used by NATO for air combat training, and the pilot/instructors are real fighter pilots. Mark (Sheik) Hession, who commanded my plane, for instance, left after the flight to join his California Air National Guard F-16 fighter wing for active-duty training.


The experience begins by donning an Air Force-style jumpsuit and being fitted with a helmet with pull-down sun visor. Instruction in the theory of combat maneuvers takes place at the blackboard as you learn how an identically powered aircraft can catch up with and attack another plane that is beyond the range of its guns.

Just before the flight, you strap on a real parachute, required by FAA rules for aerobatic flying. After a formation takeoff with your opponent aircraft and flight to an area isolated from other air traffic, you fly the plane, practicing the maneuvers that were chalked out earlier.

Then the fight is on. It usually doesn't take long for one aircraft to gain an advantage and tuck in behind, where, despite the wildest evasions, the pilot is able to lock on with the Air Combat's patented laser weapons system and score a simulated hit. You know when you've been hit because your plane emits a trail of smoke and you get whiffs of it in the cockpit.

Depending on your stamina, you may get in six fights before the commanders say it's over. Prior piloting experience may give you more confidence than a neophyte, but it doesn't guarantee victory.

My 870 hours of flying Pipers and Cessnas weren't good for more than a 2-2 tie with a woman whose titanium stomach more than compensated for her lack of flying experience.

Unlike the other virtual reality experiences described here, when you finish an Air Combat session, you can relive it over and over with the three-camera, in-plane video system that records the duration of each flight.

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