[The seminal Flight Simulator franchise is embracing multithreading with the latest version, Microsoft Flight Simulator X, and in this sponsored feature for Intel's Visual Computing microsite, engineers explain the threading techniques that help enhance the sim's visuals.]
For many pilots, no sensation evokes greater pleasure than that fleeting moment when gravity is undone, the accelerating rush of air over the curved wing surfaces gracefully lifts the wheels from the runway, and in an instant of exquisite weightlessness pulls the aircraft skyward. For many gamers and flying buffs, the closest way to capture the sensations of flying without leaving the ground has been Microsoft Flight Simulator*, a long-lived and respected presence in the oft fickle world of gaming. Now into its second decade of existence, the tenth version, Microsoft Flight Simulator X, successfully takes advantage of multithreading and Intel® CoreTM microarchitecture, thanks to ongoing collaboration between Microsoft development teams and Intel engineering staff members.
As you might expect from a computer simulation that models the intricacies of aircraft control systems, expansive scenery across the entire surface of the planet, and the complexities of flight, effective playback requires powerful processing capabilities. The engagement between Microsoft and Intel and the collaborative engineering efforts resulted in some of the most richly rendered visuals ever seen in a desktop flight simulator. The multi-threading techniques employed in Microsoft's latest release preview the possibilities in future business and entertainment software where processor-intensive tasks performed in parallel will give developers abundant opportunities to model and depict natural-world phenomena.
Any way you look at it, the processor demands of launching a computer-generated aircraft skyward, tracking and displaying its movement above diverse landscapes, and responding to the physics involved in flight maneuvers are considerable. For many years (since 1982 when the IBM* PC version was released), Microsoft Flight Simulator has pushed the boundaries of processing power and graphics display capabilities. Not everyone realizes that the first version of Flight Simulator, created by Bruce Artwick, flew on an Apple* II computer in 1980, where budding pilots had to use a lot of imagination with only a four-color or monochrome screen to display the surroundings and a rudimentary two-gauge panel that delivered airspeed and altitude data.1
The second generation Microsoft release, FS 1.0, modeled the behavior of a Cessna 182, improving on the prior Apple version by offering eight gauges, an improved coordinate system, four unique scenery areas with 20 airports to choose from, a pair of COM radios, and distance measurement equipment (DME). The simulator factored weather into the flight performance, giving the user nine different view directions, but the display characteristics were closer to abstract art than photorealism, with only four colors plus dithering to replicate the cockpit and scenery.
Figure 1. This screen from FS 1.05 tests the user's usual acuity to identify the Statue of Liberty.
Anyone with a sense of nostalgia about the good old days of computing can experience the early flight simulators- downloadable from The Old Flight Simulator Vault (http://fshistory.simflight.com/fsvault/). Emulators, available for downloading, allow early Apple, Commodore*, and TRS-80* versions to run on modern equipment, offering a revealing picture of how far the simulator has advanced.
1 Flight Simulator History, http://fshistory.simflight.com/fsh/timeline.htm.