It has been almost a month since my last post on Vulkan and the state of development; a lot has happened since then, both for Laminar Research and the world.
First, at this point, no one working for Laminar Research has COVID-19. We have people working on X-Plane in at least six countries, including northern Italy. The team news on Slack as of Tuesday was that everyone is in some degree of lockdown and/or voluntary social distancing, varying by country. Schools in the US are temporarily closed, so both Chris and I have the kids at home.
Being sequestered at home has not affected our internal pace of development because our entire team is distributed and works at home; we have no office to close. This work-at-home pattern started almost twenty years ago when Austin had people like me working on part-time contracts to modify specific parts of the sim – it never made sense to relocate people to South Carolina and open up an office. Being remote also lets us hire people anywhere in the world who have the unique blend of skills we’re looking for.
At this point we haven’t seen any operational issues either; mostly running our business requires that our devs have internet and electricity and that the data centers we use for our cloud servers remain open and operational.
So in summary, we are very fortunate that the new coronavirus is not affecting our development and operations; other industries are paying a high price to stop the spread early. We have several things we are working on right now, and this spring is a critical time in our development schedule.
Vulkan and Metal
Update: I have gone in and changed Vulkan to Vulkan/Metal in a bunch of places – Mac users were confused as to whether we had silently dropped support for Metal at the last minute – we have not!
We are posting developer preview nine to our private testers today; hopefully this will be the last private build before a public beta candidate. We acknowledge we’re reaching public beta much later than we had hoped/wished/anticipated, but we are now aiming for a public Vulkan/Metal beta by the end of March. If you are already rolling your eyes at a public beta date that is less than two weeks away, I don’t blame you; having been this late, it’s on us to post the beta to show progress. With that in mind, I am going to describe what we’ve been doing for the last three months and why it has taken so long to get here.
The Vulkan/Metal public beta is several months later than we had anticipated because of “scope growth” – that’s manager nerd speak for “we added more stuff to it than we originally planned.” Scope growth (adding more features/code/tricks than you originally planned) is one of the big ways that projects miss original deadlines, so the big question is: what did you add and why did you add it?
The first thing we added was better handling of plugin drawing. The rewritten plugin compatibility layer provides better drawing compatibility for more plugins, including weather plugins on Windows. We went with the rewrite mostly because of the level of bugginess we saw with third party add-ons in the early developer previews.
Plugin drawing was definitely a case where we learned how to do a better job from the first version of the feature (plugin compatibility that went into the first private beta); if we had received that second-generation design via time machine we probably could have shipped faster. Adding weather support was pure feature creep–a new thing we didn’t plan on, but something that we thought was worth extra schedule time.
The second thing we added was better handling of texture paging. Once again, this was a feature where we had to rewrite the feature (multiple times in fact!) based on the feedback we got from our testers to really come up with something solid.
Our first generation texture paging around the first private developer preview was very simple: most stuff lived in VRAM, with a little bit of code to move unused stuff out of VRAM. It was a minimalist strategy that let us develop the rest of the sim and worked great on high-end cards. It was clear from day one that it wouldn’t be good enough for public beta.
Our second generation strategy added automatic movement of texture res up and down with VRAM pressure and code to page out textures that weren’t being used. This shipped about half way through the private beta, and was better, but suffered from one fatal flaw: as you turn your head, the stuff behind you isn’t being used. Under heavy memory pressure users would constantly turn their head and see blurry textures that would then “res up”. The results were distracting and unacceptable quality-wise.
We now have finished our third generation strategy: besides automatic texture res control based on VRAM pressure, we now set the relative resolution of non-orthophoto textures by distance to the aircraft. A background task on another core “crawls” the scenery near your aircraft and reevaluates the texture res of nearby scenery constantly, effectively transferring VRAM to where it is needed most. This process is completely transparent; authors do not need to modify scenery in any way for it to work, and since it runs on another core (as does the paging), it does not affect framerate.
In these pictures, you can see the new pager at work. I have parked my aircraft on the ramp at SeaTac and moved the camera across the city, so that the distant autogen (from the pilot’s perspective) is now close and the airport is in the background.
In this first picture, green represents full-res textures, with the next levels down being yellow, then magenta. You can see some nearby autogen down one level and far-off autogen down two levels; the loss of res is put far from the user.
Why is there so much green (full res) near the magenta autogen? Texture reuse. If a texture is used near the user and far from the user, it gets high res because it might be seen up-close.
In this next picture, I artifically lowered my machine from 4 to 1 GB of VRAM using a developer tool. Now you can see magneta autogen close to the airport, yellow even closer, and some really dark green (the next level down) where we had magenta. In other words, everything got a little bit lower res because we were tight on VRAM, but again nearby sceney is prioritized.
It looks like this third strategy is a keeper – it combines the careful management of VRAM to use it where it is most needed with a stable heuristic that isn’t constantly changing, which avoids chaos and unreliable behavior.
So at this point we are just fixing bugs. This is a big step forward for the private beta because past betas were dominated by coding new things, which in turn creates new bugs. At this point we just have to kill bugs off to the point where the build is high enough quality for a public beta.
I cannot promise a particular build number or date will be the public beta full stop, because I do not know yet what other bugs we may find. But I can say that we are in the part of bug fixing where things are getting locked down.
Vulkan is Not the Only Iron In the Fire
A flight simulator is more than its rendering engine (or at least, people tell me that). While we are pushing as hard as we can to get Vulkan and Metal to public beta, we also have several other irons in the fire. This includes new features for mobile, next-gen features for desktop in several feature areas, and even a few extra non-Vulkan/Metal features that have snuck into 11.50. We’ll post more about the mobile and 11.50 features as they become available; the rest is still in stealth mode. Often when the dev blog is quiet, it means we’re working on new things and putting features in the bank; this is the case right now.