Friday, 31 August 2012

Dr Vesuvius emerges from his secret laboratory, cackling madly.

Jess, my new Flight Attendant, before she's done her make-up.
"I have made a woman"

(Well Doc, there's no need to brag. There was bound to be one or two out there with low enough standards....)

"No, you buffoons!  I talk not of base carnality, but of the supreme act of creation.  I have brought forth life from unlife, using the power of SCIENCE!!!! MWAHAHAHAHAHAHA"

(Something tells me the science used falls somewhere under the "mad" category.)

To rewind the story to the beginning, in previous posts I talked about testing and then buying the Multi Crew Experience add-on, which adds a voice-controlled co-pilot and voice activated ATC (which is what I bought it for mainly).  But it also includes a ground mechanic (which is actually quite useful, initiating pushback verbally and refuelling you, as well as putting chocks around your wheels so you don't need the parking brake) and a Flight Attendant.  The latter is, rather limited in what she can do using the default voice commands - you can tell the cabin crew to open and close doors (useful), prepare for departure, takeoff or landing (which have no effect on the sim whatsoever - they may possibly be placeholders that integrate with the features of another product called GEX, which provides simulated ground services including passenger embarkation and debarkation.

Anyway, one of the things that I've seen in several YouTube FSX videos is simmers using various means to recreate the ambience and procedures of an airliner cabin, including safety briefings, cabin announcements etc.  Some of these are simply playing recorded announcements through a sound-effects switch panel.  But since MCE already has some functions of the Flight Attendant covered, I thought it would be nice to expand on that, but keep the cabin announcements in the same voice rather than use an existing recording.

So since MCE supports SAPI5 text-to-speech voices in addition to the pre-recorded voices it comes bundled with, the first step was to buy a suitable voice for my new girl.  After looking at some of the options, I settled with "Jess, UK English" from  The determining factor was the fact that she speaks with a northern English accent rather than the usual "Queen's English".  In fact, most of the Cereproc offerings have regional accents and their selling point is that they're "voices with character".

I surfed the web initially looking for samples of the traditional airline safety briefing.  You know the traditional "turn off all devices, there are the exits, here's how you use a lifebelt etc".  But I stumbled across a blog posting which listed sample scripts for several different circumstances on flight, including turbulence, arrival, gate departure and cruising.  Modified slightly, these let Jess cover the entire sequence of a flight.  But MCE has a limit on the number of characters it can include in a response, which is way too short for most typical airline announcements.  But the MCE creators at the Avsim MCE support forum pointed out to me that you can use MCE to create custom scripts that can, amongst other things, trigger .wav sound files.  So I downloaded a text-to-speech file reader to turn those scripts into audio files, then tweaked them to sound like they're through an airplane intercom system.

Finally it was just a matter of writing the MCE VoxScripts to trigger these events, along with a couple of others to reflect important Flight Attendant duties ("Any chance of a cuppa?" "What's the in-flight movie?")

The result, when we're starting Cold & Dark at a gate, I can ask Jess to open the doors to begin boarding.  I can then periodically check back with her until she tells me that boarding is completed.  Then I'll ask her to begin the Gate Departure process.  She'll chirpily agree, then leave the cockpit and go back to the cabin to read the standard "Welcome to the flight" speech, then once the doors are closed she'll come back and report we're ready for departure.  Other phases of the flight are covered, with a mix of speech generated on the fly within MCE and pre-recorded announcements, and it's all in a consistent voice.

I've done three or four flights with Jess now and she's working out beautifully.  This is all about immersion, and it's a really funny effect.  I mean, I've programmed Jess's responses and so intellectually I know she's just giving stock responses to things I'm saying.  But when she comes to the cockpit to report on status, or bring me a (virtual) cup of tea, I find myself automatically thanking her.  As time goes by I'll be able to add to her list of interactions as well, hopefully enhancing the effect further.

In order to share what I've done, I also went back and recreated the whole setup using the default Windows 7 "MS Anna" voice.  Anna is vastly inferior to Jess in terms of voice quality, but at least she'll be available to a majority of current MSFS users.  The result has been posted to the Avsim forum here in this thread, which lays the groundwork for what I eventually came up with.

I'm absolutely chuffed with the result of this little bit of "mad science."  Jess sounds great and her current scripts and speeches make a good basis for expansion.  It wouldn't be too much work for me to recreate the relevant recorded messages with flight-specific details such as flight number or destination, useful if I was flying a regular route with a virtual airline, or for a special "event" flight.  And it takes about two hours to create a whole new set of recordings with a different voice, starting from scratch and ending with them installed and running in MCE.  To be honest the limiting factor is the cost of the SAPI5 voices, which tend to be around £25-30 each.

Anyway, now back to flying the friendly virtual skies!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Should have known better.

So I fired up the old CRJ at UK2000's Manchester Extreme and hit Ctrl-Z to have a look at the framerate.

It was awful.  Single figures awful, and that was just in a cold & dark cockpit staring at a terminal wall.  Panning the view from side to side was mega jerky.

Now I admit I have the vast majority of sliders pushed to the right, and I know FSX's reputation.  But by god, I'm running a 4.5GHz quad-core here, with a mid-range graphics card so a six year old game ought to be running a hell of a lot smoother than that.

Then I had an idea.

When I first built the flightsim PC, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that adding the "proper" graphics card didn't disable the onboard Intel graphics adapter on the motherboard.  Since I'm a big fan of multi-monitor (for all things not just flightsimming) I used one of its outputs to give me a third 17" monitor display.  I generally only used it for very graphics-lite functions like the ATC window or the GPS window.  Surely that wouldn't interfere with the main graphics display.

Would it?

On a hunch I disabled the on-board graphics adapter in the BIOS and fired up FSX back at Manchester Xtreme.  Framerates were now steadily in the 19-20 range and panning was smooth as silk.

So as I understand it, the problem is right down at the hardware level.  Having a slower performing graphics card working alongside a higher performing one will drag the performance of the faster card down to the level of the slower one.  Even though my cockpit display was running on the faster NVidia card, it was effectively limited to the performance of the onboard Intel graphics.  Hence very disappointing frame rates.

I really should have known better.

However that doesn't change the fact that I'm getting framerates that are really no better than OK on a bang up to date overclocked box running a six year old game.  Just how inefficient must the FSX code be for this sort of performance?

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Business as usual

So after spending far too long playing around getting FS9 all purtied up and giving Flightgear a second chance, I've been back in the flightseat with FSX the last couple of days.  MCE speech recognition is still not operating at 100% but I'm finding certain phrasings that it recognises better than others.  As of now it can handle 90% of routine ATC comms, and most of the routine tasks that I like to hand off to the copilot (like tuning the radios or autopilot settings).  Readbacks of complicated instructions are still a bit iffy, especially in high traffic situations, but I've now adopted the policy of "try it twice, then hit the key".

Yesterday I did a nice late afternoon/evening flight from Manchester to Edinburgh to re-aquaint myself with the CRJ700.  Until now I've mainly tried to fly during full daylight hours, but the dusk landing did produce some absolutely gorgeous looking sunset shots.  While personally I'm not quite as enthused about a simulated sunset as I would be about the real thing, I have to admit that FSX does a pretty good job of it.

This morning I did another short-haul hop in the CRJ from Manchester to Belfast.   Things went well mostly except for one, tiny, tiny detail.  Landing gear.  Somehow during the excitement of landing I forgot to check that the gear was down and locked - I was sure I'd hit the landing gear key, but whether I didn't hit it cleanly, or the MCE pilot misheard a later voice command as "raise landing gear" I cannot tell.  But when I came to a halt on the runway I found I was unable to taxi, and it was only when I went to external view that the reason became clear.  To be honest I'm rather proud that the landing was so smooth and gentle that FSX didn't register it as a crash, lack of wheels notwithstanding.

So to try and rebalance the ledger, this evening I started a flight to Dublin long after sunset.  Since I want to start moving away from the CRJ and into slightly heavier tin, I loaded up a freeware Boeing 737-300 (though since I don't have the correct panel for it yet, I was using the glass cockpit from the -800)  The livery was BMI Baby "Robin Hood Baby" registry G-OBMP, flight number 6689.  MCE's recognition of the "Baby" airline code was a bit hit and miss - often mishearing it as "Cathay".

Taxi and take-off after dark was a new experience.  The landing lights were so bright they almost bleached out the Progressive Taxi indicators (though by now I'm almost at the point where I can navigate EGCC's taxiways by memory).  Unusually, Ground put me at 05L for takeoff.  After waiting for the aircraft in front of me to take-off I was put on hold while an incoming Ryanair flight came in on final.  But at the last minute they were waved off, and a couple of minutes later I got clearance for takeoff.

Feeling a bit cocky I turned on to the runway to do a rolling takeoff.  Things were going great except.... there was this bright set of landing lights dead ahead about five hundred feet above the 27R end of the runway.  Some bright spark in the MS ATC had decided to bring someone in for a landing on the same runway in the opposite direction.  Of course by the time I realised this I'd hit V1, so I rotated and climbed as steep as I could.  The other 737 passed by about 300 ft beneath me, but in the excitement I forgot the less forgiving jetliner flight model and didn't throttle back, resulting in an overspeed "crash".

The second takeoff attempt put me back on 27R, and things were much less eventful.  Before I knew it I was over the Irish sea.  The night scenery wasn't quite as eye-pleasing as the sunset, but it did give the opportunity to give a virtual wink at the moon in honour of Neil Armstrong, who passed away today.

Approach to Dublin was a barrel of monkeys.  First I got put on a northbound course presumably to set me up for an ILS Runway 16 approach, but again FSX sent me way further than it probably needed to, to the point where I found myself handed off to Scottish Center.  Then out of the blue, Scottish Center just cancelled my IFR flightplan with no warning.  I checked the ATC message log, they hadn't spoken to me after the initial handoff so I hadn't missed any responces, and MCE hadn't sent a spurious cancellation request (which it's done on a couple of occasions)  It took a few minutes to log a new flight plan and get turned around, but coming in almost on the runway course it looked like it was going to be an easy ILS landing.

True enough I caught the localizer and glideslope together in quick succession, and I went through the motions of final approach pretty much spot on.  But it was only a couple of hundred feet above the ground when I realised that the glideslope was bringing me down about a hundred yards short of the start of the runway.  I throttled up and managed to just clear the trees at the end of the runway (though watching the replay I think the ground crew will be pulling twigs out of the landing gear for hours).  The following landing was a little rough around the edges, but everything held together and the taxi to gate was pleasantly relaxing.

I think I'm getting close to ready to reattempt the Manchester EGCC to Rhodes Diagoras LGRP run, though I might do it in FS9.  At 3-4 hours it's still only officially a medium haul flight, which leaves me wondering how other simmers complete the really long haul flights (like trans-atlantic or transpacific stuff).  I know that both FSX and FS9 allow time compression, but I get an uneasy feeling that might be considered cheating somewhat (I know it's not permitted in VATSIM flying with live ATC controllers.) Leaving the PC unattended during cruise might be an option, but with all the ATC handoffs that MSATC seems to love inflicting on you, I expect you'd come back to find your IFR flight plan cancelled and ATC pouting silently.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The best things in life are free.. or at Platinum prices.

So here's the thing.  I've been reading on various forums about how a lot of people are still flying FS2004: A Century Of Flight, AKA FS9 and claims that it runs an order of magnitude quicker and smoother than FSX, while looking almost as good.  The killer moment came with an online video showing a split-screen view of a takeoff, half the screen FS9, the other half FSX, with the challenge to Can You Tell? Now while there are clear differences between the two, for much of the video I personally felt it was impossible to say that one was objectively better than the other (up until the aircraft starts to climb and you can see the coastline, something that FSX seems to do a lot better in my opinion.

So inspired by all this, I thought that since FS9 is available for under a tenner it was worth checking out, for curiousity's sake.

I really wish I hadn't done that.

For the simple reason that if I'd tried FS9 first, I'd probably never have spent the money I have on FSX.

Let's start with what for me is the worst feature of FS9 - the multi-screen support.  In FSX it's relatively easy to undock a window and drag it to another screen.  In FS9 when on full-screen mode that's not possible.  You have to ALT-ENTER to go to windowed mode to do so.  When you switch back to full-screen, the windows generally stay on the monitors where they're dragged, but without visible borders it's a little clumsy resizing them, plus sometimes they can drift from one monitor to another.  Worse is that once you've positioned them, ALT-ENTERing back to windowed view re-docks everything back to the main window for some reason, so you have to get the layout right first time or start again from scratch.

Apart from that, I'd say that FS9's visuals are at least 90% as good as FSX, even better in some instances.  Most importantly, where my FS PC was getting frame rates of 30 under FSX, it's getting 200+ under FS9.  Even flying over UK2000's Manchester Xtreme (15 fps on FSX) I had no problems maintaining a locked frame rate of 60, same for GAP's Rhodes Diagoras (which at night turns FSX into a slide show)  I'm able to run with every single graphical detail slider slammed all the way to the right, including extremely dense autogen, which makes things look superb.

So spurred on by this, I thought I'd see how pimped out I could make my FS2004 install without spending any more money.  The only payware I'm using on it are the two aforementioned airports - Manchester and Rhodes, and that purely only because I already have them (and fortunately they're dual compatible).  There is a freeware Rhodes airport that's pretty good, but I also wanted to use a free Rhodes photoscenery which for some reason puts the freeware Diagoras about a hundred yards out to sea.  The GAP version of Diagoras is somehow able to correct for this and appears safely on the photoreal land.  For Manchester the only freeware scenery I could find was the cut-down demo of the UK2000 Xtreme airport.  There is however a freeware Manchester Ringway 1975 airport out there, which represents the airport as it was when I was but a wee sprat, if flying vintage iron is your thing.

So off on a voyage of freeware discovery, I hit the various forums and searched for things like "best freeware FS9".  Funnily enough, the vast majority of posts I found asking this question were generally met with the irate response "This question has been asked so many times before!  Learn to use the forum search function!".  Or other equally helpful posts like "Best is a relative term.  Make your own choice." followed by a link to a freeware site listing thousands of titles.

But finding a few people willing to help and actually express opinions finally got me on the right track.  I found Peter Slater's scenery packs which were excellent.  Peter didn't create them, but he compiled sets of other creator's freeware airports into handy downloads for the virtual airline he was involved with, then posted them online for everyone's benefit.  The airports are an eclectic lot, including the must-have Princess Juliana at St Maarten (complete with sunbathers & planespotters on Maho beach)  He also hosts the work of the defunct Irish Flight Sim Design project, covering several airports & fields in the Emerald Isle.  Since I've added Dublin to my list of regular practice routes, this makes a welcome addition.

This video on Youtube showcases several very good airports, of which I've installed Zurich, Stanstead and Rome.  A comment on that video also led me to EGBBDesign, which is a pretty good Birmingham airport.  For EGNX East Midlands I was only able to find an old FS2002 freeware which, while compatible, really wasn't up to scratch.  Instead I installed the UK2000 free version of their East Midlands product.  It's a considerable improvement over the default, though naturally it's well short of the quality of their full Xtreme airport products.

With regards to the overall eye-candy quality of FS9 I did try a couple of things with mixed success.  A pack that promised a complete overhaul of the FS9 textures failed to deliver, as it made linear terrain items like roads and railways a lot more pixellated, and I honestly couldn't see enough of an improvement in the other textures to justify it.  To improve the seas and coasts I found a freeware add-on called Aquarama, which gave some very nice darkened seas.  Finally to pretty up the skies I found an environment package called HDEv2 which changed the sky colours, enhanced the clouds and with the aid of a third party shader added some really nice light bloom effects.

And last but not least, to boost up the AI traffic I returned to the World of AI, and downloaded a whole bundle of packages (every airline that it lists as calling at EGCC Manchester)  The only annoying feature of this is that some of the AI aircraft have been setup with the model/AI creator listed in the Manufacturer field of the aircraft.cfg, which means that their names show up in the red identifier text appearing above each aircraft model.  But the important thing is my FS9 EGCC is now just as bustling as my FSX EGCC.

For aircraft, while you still get sone of the same unhelpful responses in the various forums, there are a few freewares that people generally agree are above and beyond.  Project Opensky's Boeings, Project Airbus's Airbuses, Project Tupolev's... you see the pattern, right?  There's also the iFly Boeing 747-400, which comes with its own 300+ page manual (for freeware?!!)  I'm discovering the smorgasbord approach to freeware FS aircraft - find a model that you like, pair it up with your preferred panel setup then frankenstein them together in the aircraft.cfg  As someone who generally prefers to fly with a virtual cockpit on a single screen, it's taking a bit of getting used to flicking between 2D panels, but long term I can see how this approach might better suit those looking to create "real" simulators (i.e. physical things that feel like an aircraft cockpit when you sit in them, instead of sitting at a computer desk)

The result of this is that for a day's work, I've got an FS9 setup that looks almost as good as my FSX setup, with 10 times the frame rate, all for a tenner.  (Not including the two payware airports, or MCE which also works on both versions, though I've yet to get it working on FS9).  Compare that with £15 for FSX, £25 each for GEX Europe and UTX Europe and another £17 for TrafficX.

Honestly, if I'd started out with FS9, I probably would have been happy running it on my old 2.4Ghz quad core, which would have saved me the cost of the 4.5Ghz monster I built for FSX.

So if even a tenner is too much for your budget, the Flightgear free open source simulator team squeaked out version 2.8 last week.  I'd previously rejected Flightgear as something looking more like FS95, but some neat looking Youtube vids tempted me into giving it another try.  I have to say I'm very impressed with how much it's improved since 2.6 (the version I tried a month ago).  Generally we're still not up to FSX standards or even FS9, but 2.8 may be nipping at the heels of FS2002.  One area where I think it may even be better than FSX is with the city terrain, more on which below.

There's still a long way to go though.  Pretty much any setup required means delving under the hood and tinkering with XML files, including configuring a joystick.  Someone described Flightgear as "A flight simulator by people who enjoy creating flight simulators, for people who enjoy creating flight simulators."  It's a fair enough comment, though given how much tweaking and tinkering a lot of MS FS users have to do, not as damning as you would think.  It was a relatively easy hack to convince Flightgear to recognise my generic "USB Game Controllers" as a Speedlink Black Widow (for that's what it is) and from then it was able to use all the buttons and axes correctly.  I also experienced a problem with Flightgear insisting on starting fullscreen on one of my smaller secondary monitors.  While FG does claim multi-monitor support, the online documentation immediately takes you into the arcane world of editing camera views in XML files, rather than the simple fix needed for getting the default window to open on a particular screen.

Once up and running I still found the default Cessna 172 to be annoyingly twitchy compared to its FS9 and FSX cousin, but then I didn't know the keys to adjust any of the trims in FG.  The appearence of the cockpit was definitely the visually weakest part of Flightgear, looking very computer-y.  Defenders of Flightgear say that quality varies widely from aircraft to aircraft, but frankly folks the aircraft you bundle with your application ought to showcase the very best you have, especially something like the Cessna 172 which is almost certainly going to be most users' first choice for getting to grips with the sim.

To give FG a fair shake I downloaded its version of the Bombardier CRJ family, since I'd been doing most of my jet flying in the FSX version of the CRJ700.  For the most part the cockpit layout was comparable, with things generally in the same positions, so I was able to find most things in the startup sequence.  The EICAS however cannot be switched between views.  The cockpit designers have gotten around this to an extent by displaying a different view on the copilot's screen.  The Flightgear version does however have a functional FMC, unlike the FSX version.  The Flightgear CRJ did have a virtual cockpit view, but it was entirely non-functional and untextured.

I got about halfway through the aircraft start-up sequence based on my FSX experiences, but then hit a brick wall when I couldn't find the equivalent of the Fuel Flow switch.  Since I couldn't view the fuel system in the EICAS, I have no idea whether this step is even necessary, but the engines steadfastly refused to spool up.  In the end I relented and hit the Auto Start option, which brought everything in the aircraft up and online automagically.

From there getting the CRJ into the air wasn't too difficult.  The cockpit view seemed strangely close to the runway surface  Once airborne I was able to get the Autopilot engaged using the controls in the cockpit.  But I couldn't work out how to adjust the speed, altitude or heading bugs manually - the knobs in the cockpit appeared non-functional and I couldn't find it in the onscreen help.  In the end I took back manual control and just barnstormed around San Francisco for a little bit.

One thing that might not be obvious from this picture I took with the Cessna.  All of those buildings are in 3d relief.  Every... Last... One... I believe the effect is produced by a process called Displacement Mapping. Instead of seperate 3d models, there is a texture that says "this part of the ground texture  should be elevated X pixels"  This is a lot faster for the graphics engine to process than hundreds of tiny building models.  The downside is that side-on those raised bits have no side textures, so it looks terrible if you want to recreate the Death Star Trench Run down Main Street.  But once you're over a thousand feet or so the effect is spectacular.  It really looks like a proper city down there, unlike the "leafy Manhattan suburbia" that MSFS always seems to generate.

In addition, the SFX airport scenery visible in the background is the default model that comes with Flightgear.  It's certainly as good as any of the detailed freeware models I downloaded for FS9, and streets ahead of the default FSX airport models.

All in all I'd have to say that Flightgear isn't ready for primetime.  It has however progressed from public-access TV and is all over the daytime cable schedules.  What I'm saying is that in a few years this may well be a viable competitor for FSX and XPlane.  If you were looking to create an airliner type sim cockpit for a particular aircraft and are prepared to put in the time and effort required to get under Flightgear's technical hood, then I think it would make a quite acceptable engine for a "serious" sim.  I might keep it around to tinker with in times to come, maybe fly the odd unusual aircraft from its collection, but for eye candy, immersion and the sheer fun of casual flying it's not quite there yet.  But given how big an improvement 2.8 is over 2.6, Flightgear is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Hearing Voices - part four

And the winner is...........

No wait, before that let me explain how my last day's testing went.

I fired up Multi Crew Experience with the headset mic and flew the reverse of my previous test flight, this time from Glasgow to Manchester international.  Recognition was greatly improved, although I'm still unable to get the copilot to run many checklists.  But ATC comms was way up in the 90% range, and starting at the quieter Glasgow meant that I found it a lot easier to "get a word in edgeways" and acknowledge the IFR clearance.  I also started a second flight from Manchester to Dublin, but that suffered from some graphical glitches unrelated to MCE that forced me to terminate the flight over the Irish Sea.

Basically, with MCE set to start automatically on FSX startup and with the "stop nagging me" instruction to cut down on the "human" chatter, and with a little practice and giving fairly minimalist responses to ATC, everything worked smoothly.  I even played around with the cabin crew and ground mechanic options (although having asked ground for the pushback, I forgot about him and may have run him over when I started taxi-ing)

Then I fired up VoxATC.  On startup I had to wait several minutes while it initialised and loaded all the voices.  Then, when the ATC interactions began, I looked at the precise script I was being asked to read out.  Then I thought about the free-form responses MCE handled.  Then I looked at the VoxATC window again.

Then I uninstalled the VoxATC demo.  Having to read out a precise wording every time, whether prompted or unprompted, just felt too artificial.  Combine that with the long term cost of having to buy several 3rd party voices to give VoxATC the same variety as the default MS ATC, and VoxATC clearly wasn't the way to go.

Then this morning, I fired up It's Your Plane with the idea of doing a couple of last test runs with that.

And it threw up the usual "FSUIPC not open" error on aircraft startup.  Then stalled completely.  Then I had to drop back to Windowed mode, close the IYP window and restart it.  Then I had to wait while it ran through its startup routine, then the advertising speech about going to the website and the unnecessary command to start speech recognition.

And then I uninstalled it.

Sorry.  But I just want to get into the simulation and fly with a minimum of fuss.  VoxATC just needs you to open the VoxATC panel on an aircraft that has it installed, MCE can be configured to automatically start with FSX.  No fuss no muss.  IYP was just dragging me out of the sim world too much and taking too long and too much fuss to get its act together before we could fly.  It's a shame, because I really like the vibe I got from makers Pacific Feelings Media, and am impressed by their commitment to opening up the world of flight simulation to blind and visually impaired pilots (yes, blind pilots.  Who'd a thunk it?)  A lot of the extra bells and whistles IYP offers sound nice, but then again I can't test them because they're disabled in the demo.

To be brutally honest, the limitations in the demo are actually a major factor in why I decided against IYP.  I understand why Pacific Feelings set it up that way.  Having decided on a time unlimited demo, they don't want people to get a useful add-on effectively for free.  But personally I think that's bass-ackwards.  With almost all the cool features of IYP disabled (SuperATC, Copilot assistance during takeoff and landing)  AND you being limited to using it on a simple aircraft like the default Cessna 172 (which doesn't really need a copilot), I just don't think a potential buyer is going to get anything like an accurate picture of how IYP is going to work for them.  If I'm flying an aircraft that's listed as unsupported, will IYP be able to fly it?  Or even interface with its basic systems?  No way of telling, because the demo's limited to the Cessna.  Will I like having the inflight music option?  No way of knowing because it's disabled in the demo.  How useful is it for me to hand the plane over to Michelle to fly for a bit?  No way of knowing, because it's disabled in the demo.  How natural does the SuperATC feel to use?  No way of knowing... etc etc etc.

So we're left with the winner, and the lucky recipient of my credit card details...


Friday, 17 August 2012

Hearing Voices - part three

I've now dug out my USB headset and configured it on the flightsim PC.  I have the FS sound effects on the PC main speakers, the ATC comms traffic through the headphones and the co-pilot voices (if any) through the secondary speakers.

Because the Multi-Crew Experience demo is the shortest (four days or thirty flights) I tried that one first.  Before doing anything I reran the default MS speech recognition training four times (twice each through the "tips" and "background" sessions), then the VoxATC training, and all four of the Multi-Crew Experience training sessions.  It's worth noting that the MCE training is quite extensive, including a large number of "real" ATC responses with various callsigns and situations.  VoxATC offers a general training session, and also allows you to setup a session based on a given flightplan, which I assume would include destination and waypoints, handy if you're an Aussie simmer flying out of Wollabrawonga aerodrome, or somewhere similarly unpronounceable.

Using the USB headset did pretty much eliminate the problem with the copilot overhearing ATC chatter as commands.  But sadly the reliability did still leave a lot to be desired.  Here's a real transcript of one part of the test flight I did, just after takeoff, gear up and climbing through 2000.

Me: Set altitude to eight thousand
Trav: Roger, setting altitude to twenty-eight thousand.
Me: (sigh) No, set altitude eight thousand.
Trav: Roger altitude set to eight hundred.
Me (as the plane takes a nosedive towards the South Manchester suburbs): Noooooooooooo

 I'd say the recognition rate was no better than 50%.  Bear in mind that this was after quite a bit of voice training.  Some functions worked better than others ."Set Com One to XXX decimal YY" worked correctly about 80% of the time.  But requesting checklists only worked about 10%, and unlike It's Your Plane, MCE's copilot isn't proactive and won't suggest actions unless you initiate them.

Another problem I had was that Trav seemed to go daydreaming for some periods.  I'd ask for something and get no response, then after two or three requests I'd get several answers from him at once, most of them variations on "Huh, what did you say?", sometimes interspersed with a snarky comment.

Trav's personality was also becoming a bit of a problem.  The MCE programmers have done a wonderful job in making him seem human, and several times I found myself talking back to him for fun like I would banter with a real-life work colleague.  When he makes a justifiable snarky comment about your flying, it's rather fun and useful - for example he pointed out that my 40kt taxi-ing was a little too fast for comfort.  But he quite often seems to mishear things and interpret them as profanity, which gets a little tiresome.  And worse he sometimes decides to chip in with some "human" comment right when things are tting a little busy and you really need him to SHUT THE HELL UP AND LISTEN!  Seriously, the developers need to add a "professionalism" tickbox in the control panel to turn off the funnies for when they get old. (edit - I've just seen in an online forum that there is an option to tell Trav to "stop nagging" or disable it permanently in an .ini file.)

ATC still suffered from the problem of crashed calls.  It was soul destroying to read back a detailed response, have the option line flash to show that it had been recognised, then have an AI voice come on frequency before it could be transmitted.  Again, recognition rate was not great in the first place and in the end I started giving each response two tries before hitting the key to manually set the option.

I've got today and Saturday left on the MCE trial, plus a couple of days after that on the VOXATC demo.  Trying MCE with just the ATC enabled (no snarky Trav) is next on the aggenda, followed by a VOXATC run using the headset mike.  The Its Your Plane demo seems to be time unlimited so I'll give that one more try as well, but since I can't test the SuperATC function I'm leaning away from that choice.

Impressions so far: VoxATC seems to be the most reliable as far as ATC voice control went.  Even though it was just some simple test flights and I was mainly just reading the scripted responses, at least I was able to get up into the air and follow directions successfully with it.  The more realistic comms procedures aren't a bonus for me.  To be honest the procedures in the default MS ATC are quite enough to provide verisimilitude for me.  The big downside is the cost - VoxATC is expensive to start with, and really needs a number of add-on voices at £25-30 a pop to make it feel like there isn't an army of cloned Annas running the MSFS world's ATC network.

MCE offers an option for the default ATC, but with problems (see above).  It does however come with a base set of high quality recorded voices AND has the option of adding voice fonts as alternatives.  Not only that but the developes are promising to add a number of additional voices in the coming months as free updates.

Both do the core thing I want (i.e. speaking to ATC) - VoxATC is more scripted and uses "real" procedures, MCE is more open in the choice of words and uses the default MS ATC.   Vox ATC has the advantage in avoiding "crashed" comms (where someone else comes on frequency blocking your transmission)

Both also do something in addition to the core of what I want.  VoxATC does AI traffic generation, which I already have with TrafficX, but it does it well.  MCE adds a copilot function, which would be useful, but so far seems more trouble than he's worth.

Interestingly enough, I'm finding the hassle of trying to get the speech recognition to work rather detrimental to the sense of immersion.  Trying two or three times to say a response then hitting the option key in frustration does more to take me out of the simulation than simply hitting the button and hearing "my" voice read it out would.  Maybe that would get better with practice and more voice training, but for now I'm seriously questioning whether the hassle is worth it.

It's funny, the quest for "as real as it gets" means so many different things to different people.  I know some simmers take real-world ATC audio from LiveATC and play it while simming.  For me, listening passively to ATC chatter that I can't interact with and has nothing to do with what's going on in the simulated world would feel less realistic, but for them I guess it's more.  For other people it's all about raw frame rates, and they talk about making it more realistic by turning graphic details down or off.  And then there are those running incredibly detailed aircraft sims which emulate every last detail of an aircraft's operation.  Personally I'm less interested in sitting at my PC for 10 minutes while the gyros align themselves, or have to remember to turn on power to the cabin galley.  I want just enough detail to let me feel I'm running a complex aircraft, without requiring more than a couple of hours reading manuals and running through tutorials.

Your air-miles may vary.

Hearing Voices - part two

Managed a little more success with It's Your Plane last night, and also got started testing Multi Crew Experience.

I really, really want to like It's Your Plane, but there are a lot of things about it that just niggle me.  If I start it up before FSX, it throws up an error message when the FSX flight starts complaining that the connection to FSUIPC isn't open.  To get a reliable startup I found I had to start my flight, drop out back into windows and then start IYP.  There's then a wait of about a minute before it gets itself together.  Michelle, the IYP copilot also reads out an extensive script on startup, some of which is entirely unnecessary (such as suggesting I go to the "Quick Flights" page of the website, or that I should say "Start Listening" to start the speech recognition, even when it's already running.)  It's just a lot of faff that I find really immersion breaking.

The most frustrating thing is that the demo version of IYP is not just locked down to the Cessna 172, but also many, many of its features are disabled.  Not only can you not use SuperATC (which at the end of the day is that I really want this for) but Michelle can't take active control of the aircraft or help with takeoff and landings.  She also got very confused when my initial flightplan was still set for Rhodes Diagoras and instead I cancelled and flew VFR for Liverpool John Lennon (my standard Cessna "hop" flight).  On arriving she still seemed to think we'd arrived at Rhodes!  She also suggested checklists at inappropriate times, like calling for the cruise checklist after we had landed.  I suspect Michelle may be blonde.

Since I can't actually test the SuperATC functions with the demo, I have to rely on watching the demo videos and reading the documentation.  One negative factor I can see here is that it seems to require the user to break the comms traffic down into separate phrases with un-natural pauses in between. "Manchester Tower.... Bombardier Juliet Seven Zero.... With you... Altitude 8000 feet"

I have another minor problem with the way IYP handles Simple ATC+.  If you get your copilot to handle the ATC comms, it will basically trigger one of the regular MS pilot voices.  Which means if you shell out on a voice font with a British accent as I was considering, there's a mismatch between the copilot's cockpit chat and comms voices.  A very minor niggle, but another little immersion breaker, and since the whole point of this exercise is to boost immersion...

MCE on the other hand gets around this by having its own copilot voice read out the comms traffic, so that it's only the ATC & AI comms that use the default voices.  Like IYP, it's possible to set the copilot voice up to use a different sound device to the FSX effects and comms, so you could have all your aircraft noise on main speakers, the ATC comms chatter routed to headphones and the copilot on a second set of speakers to your right.  I've been testing with a similar setup, except I've been using a desktop microphone and the ATC on a third set of speakers.  This led to some problems, more so with MCE than the other apps, with ATC chatter being picked up and misunderstood as voice commands.

Testing the voice ATC comms, the first thing to notice is that when you push to talk to ATC, you're not actually "live" on the frequency yet.  You're buffered into the speech recognition engine which tries to work out what you've said.  If it recognises this a valid response, it will then trigger a default MS ATC response option.  The problem with this is twofold.  Firstly, while you're talking in a high traffic area, AI comms are highly likely to crash in while you're speaking.  At best this makes it difficult to read out a set of numbers while someone else might be reading out a different set of numbers,  Even if you manage to get the verbal response correct, there's still a chance that an AI message will start before MCE "hits the button", resulting in the usual squeal that you get when crashing someone else's message.  You then have to repeat the message, or as I found after several frustrated attempts, give up and hit the option button manually.

(I'm not sure but I suspect It's Your Plane will have the same problem.  VoxATC gets around this by using its own comms system.)

At Manchester International with traffic set at 50%, I found it nearly impossible to verbally get IFR clearance and acknowledge it before it was cancelled.

One nice thing about the MCE ATC is that it supports a wide variety of alternate phrasing.  The documentation gives the definition options in a markup style that's easy for a professional IT bod like me to understand, but might seem baffling to non techies.  Fortunately it also lists several examples of valid alternatives for each response, so it's relatively easy to work out the sort of things you need to say.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Hearing Voices - part one

I've decided I'd like to be able to talk to ATC rather than pick options from a menu, so I'm trying out a couple of alternatives.  On the testbench are VoxATC and It's Your Plane (the full version of which includes the "SuperATC" option)  As I try their demos I'm going to post here mainly as a way of organising my thoughts.

Firstly, this morning I've been flying with VoxATC.  This not only gives you voice control, but replaces all the default MS ATC with one that operates with procedures closer to the real world.  To do this it requires the Windows Text To Speech engine to provide a synthesised voice.  After a brief but confusing test using the default Microsoft "Anna" voice for all ATC & AI traffic, I installed the freeware "VoxPop" voices and set VoxATC to use them for AI aircraft, with Anna remaining the voice of all ATC controllers.

One other feature of VoxATC is that it generates its own AI traffic, but is able to use aircraft models and liveries provided by any other traffic addons you may have.  The regular FSX traffic must be turned off to avoid clashing, and the level of traffic desired set .  But when starting up at Manchester International, I was pleasantly surprised to see all the gates full and hear a healthy amount of chatter on the radios.  I normally run these days with the traffic sliders set to about 50%, and VoxATC's 50% seemed to offer about the same level of business.

In addition to the more realistic procedures, I found that VoxATC's controllers directed me to take off from 23L for the first time since I've been flightsimming.  I've read that in real life traffic is generally split between Manchester's two runways, one for takeoffs and one for landings.  Default MS ATC tends to only ever send me to 23R, and only occasionally to 05L, which seems to usually be handling both takeoffs and landings.  VoxATC seemed to be handing the traffic in a more realistic manner.

VoxATC also came with its own specialised speech recognition training, which teaches your computer to recognise a selection of aviation terminology.  With this, and because it' tends to listen out for what it's expecting you to say, I found the recognition hit rate to be exceptionally high, maybe asking for repeats of about 3% of what I said to it.

VoxATC Pro's so far

Feels like a much more realistic experience.
VoxATC does actually prompt you with things to say (which I didn't expect)
Menu option allows "unexpected" requests, including the much needed "declare emergency"
The VoxPop voices have a nice mix of accents, rather than the usual all-americans.
VoxATC's AI seems adequate and because it's using TrafficX aircraft, it doesn't render that purchase obsolete.

VoxATC Cons

Lack of variety in voices.  Default MS ATC has eight different voices, which is enough to generate the illusion of talking to different people all the time.  With the current setup I've got one controller voice and five aircraft.  The only solution would be to buy more add-on TTS voice fonts which leads us to....
Cost.  The base download of VoxATC is about £50, which would   The DVD version is about £85, but that comes with an additional two "AT&T Natural Voices".  SAPI5 compatible TTS voice fonts can also be bought seperately, typically for around £25 a voice, which is expensive considering it's an addon to an addon to a £15 game.  I've found a very reasonably priced app online which offers a bundle of four high-quality voices for about £50 which would give a comparable mix of voices to the default.  I'd maybe like to add a couple of extra voices to that, so overall we're looking at over £150.  It does allow the possibility of adding more voices as time goes by for greater verisimilitude, spreading the cost over time.
Bad Pronunciation - Some things like mispronounced place names are forgivable, but the synthesised voices are messing up very basic words like "wind" (pronounced wined) that breaks suspension of disbelief.
VoxATC is very much a seperate program from FSX, accessed within the sim via a special instrument panel.  So things like your call sign need to be setup in VoxATC's own setup program.

I had a brief play with It's Your Plane last night, with admittedly mixed results.  Unlike VoxATC, the primary focus of IYP is to add a simulated copilot.  The ATC function is simply a voice interface to allow you to pick response options for the standard MS ATC system, either using verbal menu picks, asking your copilot to handle the comms or by parsing your voice input for the correct RT terminology.  Unfortunately the demo is restricted to trying out the copilot functions in a Cessna 172 (if ever a plane didn't need a copilot, that's the one!)

I had a lot of faff getting IYP started properly.  It seemed to work best if started after the FSX flight was was started and ready to play, otherwise the app threw out several non-fatal errors before finally kicking in.  One very annoying feature, but one admittedly shared with VoxATC, is that it insists on the US English voice recognition engine to be loaded.  Having spent a couple of hours running through the voice training sessions with the UK English voice engine, I was quite miffed at having to start again and so dived straight in IYP without repeating the training.  As a result, the speech recognition hit rate was very poor, helped slightly when I put on a slight 'Merkin accent.  I'm sure this will be improved once I rerun the training with the US English engine, but I suspect it will always be slightly less reliable for me because of this.  Another factor possibly affecting reliability is that IYP is listening for a wider range of possible options and commands.

I can't say I got IYP working satisfactorily last night, but I'm planning to put a little more time into it tonight.  But so far my impressions are..

IYP Pros

Additional benefits of copilot on top of the ATC functions (which after all is what I'm really after)
Uses existing MS ATC voices, so all I'll need is one or two really good voice fonts for the copilot(s)

IYP Cons
Still uses the existing MS ATC, with all its little quirks.
Again, IYP requires a seperate progam running outside D

IYP Maybes
Although it supports all the default aircraft and a range of addons, it doesn't support several of the aircraft that I want to fly.  Now just what "unsupported" means isn't quite clear.  It might just mean that the simulated copilot isn't able to fly and land the plane by itself.  Or it might mean that it can't access any of the unsupported plane's functions.  Finally, the unlikely but worst case scenario, is that it doesn't allow you to use the SuperATC functionality in unsupported aircraft (which since that's what I really want it for, is a big dealbreaker)  More testing and maybe some questions on the support forums will clear this up.


Other products in this area I'm aware of: Radar Contact: this looks like it replaces the MS ATC & AI voices entirely with fresh recordings.  From what I've heard in various YouTube videos, these sound like regional English accents, which while nice are a bit.... well let's just say having the Kuala Lumpur ATIS report red by someone with a broad Yorkshire accent is somehow worse for me than hearing an American accent everywhere.

Multi-Crew Experience - this seems to fit in the same niche as Its Your Plane.  Ad copy says that the latest versions include newly recorded voices, but are not clear whether it can still use TTS voice fonts (which as far as I can tell was how it worked previously). It does have a free demo download though, so I'll give it a run through after IYP.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Miles to go

Here's a valuable life lesson - Don't mix up kilometres with nautical miles.  Espcially when looking up aircraft operational ranges on Wikipedia.

Oh it's not quite as bad as that.  Actually the entry for the CRJ700 on Wikipedia did say it had up to a 2200+ mile range, but on closer inspection it would appear that this would be for a long range variant.  The standard model's range of 1400 miles means that it's not capable of doing the 1800nm run from Manchester to Rhodes, which is a pity because I'm just about getting operating the CRJ down pat.

I found this out the hard way the other day, when on an impulse I thought I'd try it.  At first it looked like things were going smoothly, until somewhere over southern Europe it became clear that the fuel consumption was rapidly outstripping the miles covered.  I decided to abort the planned trip and divert, first to Makedonia airport (the closest airport to the flight path) and then when it became clear that I wasn't going to even make that one, to the nearest field I could find.

Naturally I flamed out within sight of the runway, when I was lined up perfectly and just caught the correct glide slope.  Unfortunately "glide" slope is a bit of a misnomer and I augured in about a mile short, despite trying everything I could to keep the plane aloft.

Fortunately real life pilots have to put a little more planning and forethought into their trips than I did!

Anyway it's clear that I can't do the Manchester-Rhodes run in the CRJ, so it's on to the 737, which incidentally is probably the aircraft that carries out the run in real life (According to, Jet2 operates that route and their fleet is mostly made up of various 737 variants - it might be fun to see if I can dig out a Jet2 livery for the default 737 model for the next EGCC-LGRP attempt)

I must confess I am not enjoying the FSX "Lessons" in the Learning Center.  The interactive element's AI is very limited and makes progress very difficult.  The problem is that it operates very limited criteria with no "common sense" in relation to the aircraft's status.  For example, the lesson might want you to level off at 5000 for a landing approach.  It will keep telling you to change your altitude to 5000 feet until it's happy, even if in real terms you've moved past the point in the approach where you need to start descending.  OR if the criteria is for a certain speed, pitch and engine throttle, it can insist on three impossibly contradictory actions like "Pull the nose up", "Increase speed" and "Reduce the throttle".  And I swear I've had it tell me to "Increase altitude" and "Decrease altitude" simultaneously.

And while I'm having a jolly good rant - the first lesson in the Commercial Pilot series - "Piloting complex aircraft" puts you into a twin-engined Beechcraft, which requires manifold pressure and RPM to be controlled seperately.  It also requires you to manage the "cowl flaps" that control air intake to the engine.  Only there is no cowl-flap indicator on the default cockpit panel, and the only way to see the switches is to switch to Virtual Cockpit view and pan all the way down to an angle that doesn't let you see either the viewport or the flight instruments.  In a real aircraft it's a matter of half a second to glance down, but with a VC it's just a little too clumsy.

I would like to be methodical and work through the lessons and checkrides properly but frankly I'm finding them particulary unfun, especially when they keep ending the lesson because the instructor AI isn't happy with my turns (or in one instance because I'd only 3/4 closed the cowl flaps instead of fully closed.
I think I'm probably just gonna wimp out, run through the ground school reading for all the rest of the lessons and try each flight lesson once or twice before moving on.

Friday, 3 August 2012

No man is an island. Unless he lives on Rhodes.

It's been a busy couple of days here at Vesuvius Air.  On Wednesday I bit the bullet and delved into the shadowy world of processor overclocking.  I'd deliberately bought an i7 2600K processor with this in mind.

The PC motherboard had an option for pre-loaded configurations to boost the 3.3GHz clockspeed to anything from 4GHz up to 5GHz, so I started with one of those for a modest 4.4GHz.  Unfortunately under load, the processor temp started creeping up beyond my comfort zone at 70C, so that course of action was quickly dropped.

Next I found a couple of overclocking guides on the web, but these seemed to spend a lot of time looking at memory speeds as well, plus when I used the recommended Vcore value they started at, it turned out to be nowhere near enough to get the PC to boot.  I had some scary moments with the PC looking like it wouldn't even POST, but completely removing the power lead for a few seconds was enough to reset things.

In the end I took a leaf from Intel's own advertising blurb "Overclocking so easy, your granny could do it." and simply raised the clock multiplier and then brought the Vcore voltage up in steps until the machine was stable.   The result is that the i7 3.4GHz is now running happily at 4.5GHz.  Funnily enough, though the processor does naturally run hotter under extreme load (and by that I mean using a test program to drive all four processors to 100%, something that rarely happens in real life), the temperature quickly stabilises into the low 60Cs, well within safe tolerances.

After that I thought I'd take a turn around the island of Rhodes, one of the few places I have actually flown to.  My flightsim mini-goal is to replicate that flight from Manchester International to Rhodes, but for this I just fired up the default ultralight at Rhodes International Diagoras and let fly.  The default FSX terrain for the terminal isn't bad, but as I gained altitude I realised that something was wrong.  There were absolutely no other buildings visible outside the terminal.  Now I knew in real life that the last time I visited (about five years ago) the area around the airport was a bustling scene of development projects (most of them half completed thanks to Greece's strange tax laws.)  Puzzled, I headed north up the coastline to Ixia (where I had stayed) only to find it too was unspoilt countryside.  Cresting the northern plateau to where I would expect to see Old Town and the harbour spread out below.... again absolutely nothing.  The coastline showed the distinctive outline of the harbour, where legend has it the great Colossus of Rhodes once stood, but there were absolutely no signs of habitation.  Clearly FSX had thrown me hundreds of thousands of years forward in time to a later geologic epoch where all trace of humanity had been erased from the planet.
The only building on the island.
Eventually though, after scouring the island, I did find one single, solitary house.  Who knows what strange tale the occupant could have told about what had happened to the rest of the island.

Flying over the freeware version of the city and harbour.
This clearly wouldn't do.  The first thing I did was search online for freeware scenery for Rhodes, which I found at Avsim.  This didn't do anything to the Diagoras terminal buildings, but it did add photoreal textures to much of the island, plus a few 3d buildings and boats were added to the harbour and city.  This was significantly better especially once you were up to about 2-3 thousand feet.  One thing it changed that I didn't like was the addition of a wooded area between the runway and the sea, which I'm pretty sure doesn't exist.  But I did a complete circuit of the island and I would say that about 3/4 of the island is covered by these photo I would almost have been happy to leave it at this, but I knew better was available.

GAP's Rodos payware, flying over Old Town.   You can
clearly see the old fortress modelled.
The following morning I bought the Greek Airports Project Rodos addon, for a very reasonable price IMO. This pack not only revamps the terminal, but the adjoining village of Paradisi, further up the coast to the hotels at Ixia (where I'd stayed) and through into a completely realised city complete with fortress and harbour.  There's also another version of the photo-textures to fill in the areas that haven't been fully modelled.  It's now a much nicer place to fly, and should give good views when coming in to approach.  I think this is it for payware scenery for me.  Unless there are any major omissions at a destination I want to fly to, like the complete de-population of Rhodes, and even then I'll probably look for freeware first.  I can totally understand though how simmers can wind up sinking hundreds of dollars into addons.

Arrived at Heathrow
For the rest of the day I retried my usual hop from Manchester to EMA, but it became clear that EMA has stopped giving me ILS landings, possibly as a result of installing the UK2000 VFR Airfields pack that covers it.  So in between all the real-world visitors we had that day (none of them particularly exciting) I managed to squeeze in a flight from Manchester to Heathrow instead, which went off without a hitch.

I've also finished all of the Private Pilot lessons in the Learning Centre, but after several tries I gave up on the "checkride" at the end.  It's a very fussy examiner, on one occasion failing me because my roll-out was both too early AND too late.  Which is funny because the maneuver she failed me on didn't include a roll-out.  Go figure.

Next up I'm planning to move onto the Instrument Flight section of the lessons and get a little more comfortable with VORs and ILS.  I understand the theory behind both, and in practice I've been able to futz my way onto the glideslope about 75% of the time, but I really don't have a firm enough grasp on either to be confident about them.