Virtual Reality and Helicopter Simulation

Jeff Tucker, a former OH-58 and now a CH-47 pilot is a newcomer to VR. In this article he talks about his experience with virtual reality.

Virtual Reality: has it landed?

Virtual reality has been on the market for some time but comparatively speaking, is still a technology in its infancy. Compared to other forms of simulation hardware, it really is the brand new kid on the block and before I get too far into this article, no this isn’t a, “should I buy one?” Or “which VR is better,” type of article.

This is more aimed toward the individuals on the fence about purchasing a computer that can handle VR and then a VR headset itself. Also, as much as I wish it were the case, I’m not working for a VR manufacturer and trying to shamelessly plug one product or another – although, if any of them wanted me to, I would probably jump at the opportunity.

Up until recently, I had been on the very same fence that I know many simulation users are on right now – they know they want VR, they know that VR is the direction the industry is heading towards but, we’re going to hold out just a bit longer… But, why?

I pitched the same arguments:

It’s still too new

Resolution isn’t good enough

Haven’t had time to research which one is best

Don’t have the computer to run one

Luckily and thankfully, my girlfriend is amazing and surprised me with an early birthday present.

After over-hearing me talking about VR to some of my normal sim buddies, she plainly stated, “I’m getting you the computer and VR rig that you want for your birthday, just tell me which ones I need to get.”

Well, that pretty much put the nail in the coffin right there. I did my research and then, within a few weeks, I was anxiously awaiting the UPS delivery. I can’t remember being that excited about a simulator since I was 13 and starting up Microsoft Flight sim 5 for the first time.

Like I said, I won’t go into technical specs or which VR setup is best (unless there is a real desire from the community for me to do so), but with everything setup nicely, I loaded into Fred’s fantastic Dream Foil Bell 407 on X Plane 11; being familiar with Bell helicopters, it just seemed to make the most sense.

I was met with the most amazing simulation experience I’ve ever had. This is where writing gets difficult because, unless you’ve had the fortunate opportunity to fly a real helicopter, words can’t really do it justice.

I’ve always compared flying a helicopter to riding a bicycle. Once you strip away the technicalities of flying, that’s the closest comparable sensation I can really think of – the ability to really interact with the machine and let your body (in the case of a helicopter its your hands, head and feet), move the bike along and really tune-in to what the machine is doing and what’s happening between the controls and craft itself.

Thankfully, I haven’t found a helicopter that requires pedaling to keep it hovering though.

Now imagine riding a bicycle on a computer monitor. Seems pretty boring right? Then imagine, strapping a VR headset onto your noggin and then climbing onto the same bicycle, being able to look around 360 degrees, underneath, above and being able to really lean into your turns and feel the rush of speed and subtle movements of that machine as you prepare to mountain trek across some treacherous terrain.

Now, imagine doing this in an MD 500 with a slab of plexiglass above your head, stretching down below your feet while your turn and twist through a river bed. Or, a Bell 407 with a generator slung beneath it while you lean out the door and lower it atop of a high-rise helipad in Seattle; the sensation is indescribable.

If this all sounds amazing, trust me, it is – words just can’t do it justice. But there are some ugly truths and some limitations that must be addressed:

Resolution

Many potential VR users are still put off by the reports of horrible resolution. Yes, its true, VR encounters a critical limitation due to the design of the headset or, Head-Mounted Display (HMD). But truthfully, its not really the resolution that is the limiting factor here.

The two most touted VR setups, the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, both utilize OLED displays that offer 1,080 x 1,200-pixel resolution which brings total resolution to 2,160 x 1,200 and a 90Hz refresh rate. Basically, the user is seeing the exact same graphics on the HMD that is on the computer screen.

What makes it tough is the pixelation caused by the lens designs. The Vive uses concentric machined rings to build the lenses and the Rift uses a different technique but both result in similar results which is a somewhat blurry feel when off-center viewing or difficulty in reading small font and numbers.

The sensation is noticeable and can be frustrating (rarely) at times. Although, if this alone is keeping someone from diving into the VR experience, I encourage you to not let this limit you. General immersion more than makes up for something that is not really as big of an issues as I first thought it would be.

The headset is bulky and heavy

While yes, the headset is bulky and can feel cumbersome initially, both the Vive and Rift utilize separate but equally efficient mounting solutions that quickly make the (light) weight and size unnoticeable after a few hours of play.

Honestly, the biggest limitation I found to the headset was that it encumbered my ability to quickly interact with my desktop and my keyboard and mouse and is honestly my biggest complaint. While this limitation is the worst kind of catch-22, it’s also the most understandable and I find myself having to rely on my old school lessons of learning to type and interact with the keyboard without looking at it (which sometimes leads to some silly messages or ill-placed keystrokes).

Although, games like X Plane are helping over-come this by being natively integrated with VR and providing “digital keyboards” for interfaces where the user would need to do some typing (searching for an airport for instance).

Controllers

There’s really no way around this one – controller are both essential for the full VR experience and also a huge pain in the ass.

In my little gaming hole, I have a throttle, stick, pedals, now an HMD, two tracking base stations, a headset, computer, monitor and now two additional controllers that require charging and wrangling along with the rest of peripherals.

It is THE definition of first-world problems and I should probably stop complaining. Thankfully again, software developers are easing this burden of the controllers by making them useful. Fred and a few others have made them useful by allowing players (specifically in X-Plane) to use them to fly the aircraft and interact with key features of the systems.

This is a very, very useful function and one that I’ve come to be very pleased with. Although I admit, my usage of the hand-held controllers to actually fly the aircraft is very limited, (I tried it out for maybe 10 minutes), its also a cool feature that I could see being very useful for players that want to step into simulation flying but don’t want to spend the additional $400+ on additionally gaming controllers or potentially don’t have the spare income to afford the latest stick-hardware.

The key limitation with using VR controllers as a substitute for hardware is that they will not provide a means to manipulate pedal inputs, which with helicopters is required. As for normal use, I love using the controller to reach up and set lights, power, and fuel boost pumps. Not only is my arm used to the movement from flying real helicopters, but when the seat position is set correctly, its exact – I’ve reached up thousands of times and flicked the battery switch on in a Bell helicopter, when I do so in VR, it feels identical.

My only word of caution would be to make sure your sitting in a clear space when you do this because my computer monitor has a few more dings from me reaching out and jabbing it with a stray controller.

Additional Notes

Cord management

Since there have been computers, I can almost guarantee there has been someone like me, complaining about the amount of cords and the inevitable rats nest of them laying under the desk. Well, with VR, you have three more strapped to your head.

Through a liberal use of zip-ties and Velcro, I found a method that both works for me and keeps them neatly out of the way. It would be really fascinating to see other methods people use for wrangling the feral mess of cords that eventually will knock over a drink or tie you (inadvertently) to your computer chair.

Motion Sickness

There are cases of people that experience vertigo or motion sickness from using VR. Usually the bouts are short-lived and pass quickly. If you feel this may be an issue, try to use a set before fully investing in one.

For people that already suffer from it, try to focus on a fixed object when doing aggressive maneuvering or move your scan outward. What’s happening is a motion parallax – essentially, your eyes are sensing movement but the semi-circular canals in your ears which are filled with an endolymph fluid and are responsible for balance, is not moving.

Therefore, your brain is tricked into thinking there is a relative motion, but your body is firmly telling you there is not a motion.

Eye relief calibration

Ensure if you have a VR headset to not only set your pupillary distance correctly (the distance between the center of the lenses) but also, your eye relief. This is a short but involved process that is a requirement to enjoy the VR experience.

First, measure the distance between your pupils and set that accordingly. On the Vive, there is a twist knob on the lower right of the HMD to do this. Then, adjust the straps around your head correctly to ensure the HMD is resting comfortably, but securely in place.

Ensure not to adjust it too tightly or this will cause discomfort. After, you can adjust the eye relief by the two gray knobs on either strap to get a good, clear focus. Not having this adjusted correctly could result in blurry vision, eye strain and headaches.

Those are the biggest issues I’ve encountered so far but honestly, I can’t imagine going back to a regular screen or Track IR after using a VR headset.

Yes, there are limitations as described above but do they really take away from the experience? No, not in the slightest. I would say they provide far more depth and enrichment to the simulation flying experience more than anything else.

Besides doing it for real, there is nothing more exciting than loading into a simulated helicopter and looking across the panel at the size and depth of these machines. With VR, not only can you fool your brain into thinking your really strapping on one of these machines, but you can see the work and beauty that goes into what developers do with these aircraft.

There are also a host of other games (Steam shows 35 pages worth) that support VR natively. As stated at the start of the article, VR is still in its infancy, but I have a feeling with how fast technology develops, it won’t be long before we’re using it almost exclusively for most simulation and gaming applications.

I for one, can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Jeff Tucker

About Jeff Tucker

Jeff has been playing with flight simulators for 20 years. Thankfully, he was able to convince people to actually let him fly helicopters and get paid to fly too! After seeing many simulator pilots with the desire to talk with industry professionals and figure out “how its really done,” he’s always looking for new ways to help the simulator community.

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