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As real as it CAN get!

An aerial image on Bing having a resolution of 5cm. Satellite images and photogrammetry on Bing can reach a 3cm resolution. These images will eventually cover the whole world and require just 2PB of storage…. Image credit: Microsoft

Do you remember MS FlightSimulator X, released in 2008? The tag line was “As real as it gets”. Well, next year MS will be back after ten years since its last FlightSim product with a new Flight Simulator that will be “as real as it CAN get”!

Now, I know that nothing is so good that it can’t get better but if this new Flight SIm will be as good as the first peek show it may reach a level where further improvement in visual realism may not be perceivable by our eyes.  Don’t take my words for it but lean back and look at the clip. What you see is even better than what you can see from a real plane.

Some figures: the flight sim will be using Bing images of the world, taken from satellites (3cm resolution), photogrammetry (3 cm resolution) and aerial photos (5cm resolution) covering the world (and requiring just 2PB of storage, but of course you don’t need that storage capacity back home, you can download locally what is needed as your flight progress, and the fast connections we have today makes this possible). MS is actually planning to run FlightSim on Azure, its cloud service and if you are not connected you can cash the parts that will be needed. It contains over 40,000 airports (they claim all of them will be included).

Now, this gets interesting. For something like airports you have both the photos and the data characterising those photos so that each of the elements contained, like windows, tarmac… can be managed accordingly. However, for most part of the world, let’s say 99.99% of it MS has photos but they don’t have data. Take, as an example “trees”. They have satellite and aerial photos but they do not have data on single trees and there are an estimated 1.5 trillion of them. For this the MS FlightSim team has applied machine learning, and computer vision (also AI based) to detect each single tree.

More than this. Having an amazingly accurate representation of the real world from photos and associated data is not sufficient since that representation is static. When you fly over a forest or a lake the trees move and the lake surface is altered by waves as consequence of the wind. MS is using AI to transform those static images into dynamic videos consistent with the context (if on landing the airplane is buffeted by wind you will also see the effect of that wind on threes and grass -grass is represented by millions of grass leaves).

Flying is not just about looking at Earth below you. It is about looking ahead and experiencing weather. MS will be providing real time weather with actual pressure and wind vectors (including down-drift and up-drift)in an area of 600km around your aircraft. If you have time to relax and look up to the stars… well, you will be pleased to know that also stars are actually positioned where they are supposed to be.

I was just about to forget. In a flight sim what you also need is to simulate … the plane! All planes included in the FS (there will be 3 of them included in the starter package) will be accurately modelled mathematically, including the friction of tyres on the tarmac and the sound in the cockpit.

So what else? It simulates the Earth surface, the airspace, the sky in a dynamic consistent way. Well what about simulating … me? At the moment we do not have information but I would expect that if not immediately in a next release there will be the feature of simulating the position of my body and wearing a VR goggle I will be able to sit in a virtual cockpit and look around reaching out for knobs and switches and my chair will be also an haptic device providing acceleration sensation.

Now, how is it possible to have reached this peak of performance and realism? MS is telling us that this is because the convergence of several technologies and actually is this convergence that has pushed MS to return to flight sim. Keywords? Cloud, low latency and broadband, artificial intelligence, high processing capacity at the edges, image recognition, availability of world data…

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.