Category: Aircraft

A Tip For Updating Electrical Systems

X-Plane 940 has a new electrical systems model and it has a few important differences from 930:

  1. You must specify exactly how many buses your plane has. 930 provided two buses but then did a bunch of cross-tying behind the scenes in case you didn’t have enough power sources.
  2. X-Plane 940 requires that each battery and generator be on exactly one bus.
  3. X-Plane 940 will not allow systems to be powered by non-existent buses.

Now this can have some strange side effects. Consider the default king-air with two generators and one battery:

  • In 930 it has two buses, battery feeds both buses, and each generator feeds one. You could have systems split by bus and they would work unless you lost one generator and the battery.
  • 940 defaults this plane to one bus, because on battery power only one bus will be fed.
  • This means that in 940 all of your systems will be reset to bus 1.

But wait…if you import into Plane-Maker, the import will trash your system bus selections before you can increase the number of buses to 2. What can you do?

Here’s a work-around: before you update your plane, make sure you have two battery and two generator switches on your panel. Then open in 940. The import will set 2 buses and your systems will be preserved.

Of course, by the next few betas this may all be moot because we may get something less crazy in there.

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Lego Brick Code

When Sergio first proposed generic instruments, his model was “lego bricks”. The idea was to provide a number of very basic parts for panel makers and let panel makers mix and match. The result would be huge flexibility for airplane authors without code bloat.

The problem with non-generic instruments is that there is such a huge variety of behavior among airplanes…if Plane-Maker were to have options for every possible plane, the “special equipment” screen would require 3000 tabs and be completely unusable. Hence the need for a smaller unit of modeling: the lego brick.

The prop disc is the first feature I have done that is meant to be used only by a plugin, e.g. “lego brick” code. The X-Plane systems code sometimes suffers from the same “code bloat” problem as the instruments: a ton of very specific, very tweaky behaviors that interact in strange ways and become very difficult to manage. It’s not that the systems code is bad code – it’s that the scope of the problem is simply too large. That is, you can’t expect X-Plane to cleanly simulate the systems of every airplane ever in a ton of detail through an a la carte menu of check-boxes.

The idea of the prop disc is: someone (LR or otherwise) can write a plugin that encodes a certain style of prop disc. That plugin can then be picked up and moved around like a generic instrument between planes (perhaps with a corresponding text file to control it).

If someone else comes up with a different/better prop-disc algorithm, compatibility isn’t an issue…that person writes a new prop disc plugin and the airplane author selects the one desired. Think of it as sort of a portable flight model that stays with your plane.

So we win in three ways:

  • Anyone can write the prop disc algorithm, not just LR.
  • The code lives with the plane, to avoid compatibility problems.
  • More than one plugin can exist, giving authors an a la carte menu.

That’s the theory at least.

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Tweaking the Prop Disc in 940

X-Plane 940 allows plugins to customize the prop disc. Details here on the wiki.

I put these datarefs in so that modelers wouldn’t have to try to model prop discs with OBJs. The problems with prop discs are many:

  • They need to be billboarded, and X-Plane does not provide datarefs for manual billboarding inside an airplane (particularly not to the engine’s coordinate system, which can be transformed by all sorts of fun stuff).
  • They often need variable translucency, which OBJ does not have.
  • They cause all sorts of depth buffer errors, which OBJs cannot manage.

In short, prop discs are weirdly special-cased enough that I thought it would be better to provide a general set of parameter datarefs for prop discs and let X-Plane do the drawing.

These options are not available in Plane-Maker. Why not? That’ll be my next post.

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940 Beta 2 – Recovert Airplanes

I have ranted in the past about the importance of not treating beta builds of X-Plane as having finalized file formats. Generally a beta should be used to explore, experiment, and test old content, but not to create new finished work or ship product. File formats sometimes change during beta to work around bugs we find.

Another reason not to depend on the file formats of new betas is that sometimes we screw up. In the case of 940 beta 1, the code that converts 930 airplanes forward to the new 940 electrical system is pretty buggy (hence the reports of electrical systems doing wonky things, panel instruments disappearing, and general weirdness).

This one is our bug to fix and will be fixed in beta 2 (at least we think). But to “get the fix” authors will need to open their 930 saved airplane in 940. If you already re-saved the airplane in 940 then the 930->940 conversion code won’t be re-run.

I’ll try to post some info on the new electrical system on the Wiki, but for now: if in beta 2 you have a bug with a plane that used to work in 930, send us the 930 version of the plane so that we can convert it and watch the conversion screw up. If the plane is already in 940 format we don’t know what our conversion code broke and what you edited in Plane-Maker.

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Normal Maps in X-Plane 940

X-Plane 940 now supports normal maps on OBJ models (both scenery and airplane). I’ll get more formal docs up once the rest of my office is moved and unpacked but here’s the details for now:

The normal maps are in “blender” format see here. The alpha channel is optional; if it is present, it serves to modulate the level* of specularity. Opaque means full specularity, transparent means none. You can use this feature to make some parts of an object shiny and some dull on a per-pixel level.

Shininess level is modulated by both ATTR_shiny_rat and the alpha channel, so you need ATTR_shiny_rat 1.0 and an opaque alpha channel (or no alpha channel) to see full specularity.

Normal maps are only available for objects and only appear if pixel shaders are on and per-pixel lighting is enabled.

Normal maps should be PNG format, not DDS – they will not be texture compressed because S3TC compression tends to kill them. (There are some modern formats for normal map compression supported by the newer cards but we don’t use them yet.)

* Specular level: most serious 3-d programs let you control both the specular exponent, which controls how “tight” the specular hilights are, and the specular level, which controls how bright they are. X-Plane only lets you control specular level; if specular hilights exist, they are always as the maximum exponent for the sharpest specular hilights.

Posted in Aircraft, Development, File Formats, Modeling, Scenery by | 4 Comments

A Modern Cessna

With X-Plane 930 beta 8, we finally integrated the latest version of Max’s Cessna 172 SP. Grab the new beta and try it – he’s added a number of new features that demonstrate some of the newer X-Plane 9 airplane features.

  • Real 3-d lighting in the 3-d cockpit. Note how the map light tends to illuminate only some of the cockpit as it fades out.
  • 2-d back-lighting on all of the major steam gauges.
  • A bunch of parts can now be dragged in 3-d, including the door handles. This is done via manipulators.
  • Walls! In 3-d cockpit viewer mode you won’t be able to leave the airplane until you actually open the doors. The cockpit viewpoint is constrained.
  • The model has the glass parts separated out for correct shadowing, and the glass works correctly from all viewpoints.
  • Panel uses cockpit regions for accurate lighting.

The cirrus jet has been similarly updated. I plan to use the Cessna for a series of tutorials showing how to use these recent X-Plane features.

Posted in Aircraft, Modeling, News, Panels by | 3 Comments

ATTR_light_level vs. Generic Instruments

Propsman caught something:

…is modifying the value of a batch of ATTR_light_level tris comparable [performance-wise] with toggling the state of a backlit generic instrument? Instinct tells me that you must have the latter more streamlined than the former, but maybe not?

He is right: in the current implementation, ATTR_light_level is probably a bit more expensive than using generic instruments. This may not be true in the future though.
  • The generic instrument code is pretty tight.
  • Right now ATTR_light_level sometimes has to adjust shaders, which can be expensive.
  • In the future, ATTR_light_level has the potential to be very heavily optimized, while the generic instrument code will always be CPU based.

But to put it in perspective, all instrument drawing is slow compared to scenery drawing – in the scenery world we draw 50,000 triangles of identical OpenGL state in a row, and modern cards do that very, very well.  In the panel, we have to put in a lot of CPU time to figure out how to draw each quad or tri-strip.  Fortunately you probably don’t have 50,000 individually programmed flashing lights in your panel.  Heck – there’s “only” 3608 datarefs published by the sim.

Perhaps other questions are important when picking ATTR_light_level vs. panel texture:
  • Which is more useful: to be able to have several variant images and variant images that are not “lights” (this is only possible by generics) or the ability to vary the light level gradually and not just have on or off (this is only possible with ATTR_light_level)?
  • Which is simpler to author given the rest of the panel?

In other words, it’s all pretty “slow”, but fortunately “slow” isn’t that slow.  If your light has to blink, you may want to pick what looks best and is straightforward to author.

Posted in Aircraft, Aircraft & Modeling, Cockpits, Development, Modeling by | 3 Comments

Datarefs Vs. Commands IV: Duplication

In my previous posts I have tried to explain the difference between commands and datarefs, and when you might use each.  To review:

  • A dataref represents information. You can always read it, and you might be able to change it.
  • A command represents an action.  You can always invoke the action, but you can’t tell if it worked without looking at a dataref.

So…why is there so much overlap and duplication?

Dataref Vs. Dataref
There is duplication in the datarefs because we don’t delete old datarefs when we add newer, improved ones. The old datarefs stay in place to keep old plugins working. Here are a few reasons why we’ve added new datarefs:
  • The cockpit2/ and flightmodel2/ sections were added as a new, simpler, easier to use interface for authors in version 9.  (Read more here and here and here.)
  • In some cases, the old dataref was a bit-field while the new one is a simple integer. While plugins can use bitfields, modelers cannot animate using bit fields.
  • In some cases, the old dataref did not represent a clean view of the data. Some old datarefs exposed X-Plane internal structures that are not appropriate for long-term use.

To see this in action, let’s look at the autopilot.  How many ways are there to set the autopilot mode?

  1. sim/cockpit/autopilot/heading_mode. This is the original heading mode, and it is marked deprecated, because it exposes a bunch of internal X-Plane autopilot values.
  2. sim/cockpit/autopilot/autopilot_state. This is the ideal autopilot dataref for plugins. It provides all functions, but since it is a bit-field it is not useful for authors.
  3. sim/cockpit2/autopilot/heading_mode. This is a clone of the original heading_mode into the cockpit2 domain. Honestly I am not sure how it got there – I know it was me who put it there, but it sure is a dumb idea; the original dataref is deprecated, so it was stupid of me to duplicate it!
  4. sim/cockpit2/autopilot/heading_state. This is coming in 930 and provides a heading-state enum set appropriate for authors…basically an enum that matches the two heading bits of the autopilot_state dataref that programmers were using.

How do you sort through this? Three rules of thumb:

  • Try to use sim/cockpit2 and sim/flightmodel2 when possible.
  • More recent datarefs are usually better.
  • Use the most useful dataref you can find.
Commands Vs. Commands
Sometimes there is some duplication of commands, e.g.
sim/engines/carb_heat_on                           Carb heat on.
sim/engines/carb_heat_off                          Carb heat off.
sim/engines/carb_heat_toggle                       Carb heat toggle.
Here it’s a lot more obvious why there are multiple commands: they affect the carb heat in multiple ways. Typically this is done because commands are mapped to joysticks and other USB hardware; some hardware generates a button press when a command is toggled, but some hardware generates two commands, one for the off and one for the on position.
The rule of thumb is: use the command that gives you the action you want.
Commands Vs. Datarefs
Very often there will be a command and a writable dataref.  Typically we need them both:
  • The command is needed to let users set up their joystick and keyboard.
  • The dataref predates version 9 – writing it was the only way to invoke an action.

Newer datarefs are more likely to be read-only, as we put new “changing the sim” functionality into commands.  To go back to our autopilot example, we have on command: sim/autopilot/heading that lets us arm heading mode.  This command is probably preferable to any of the datarefs for changing the autopilot state.

My previous post discusses writing to a dataref. vs. actuating a command in more detail.
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Datarefs Vs. Commands II: Which One Should I Use?

There is a lot of overlap between the datarefs and commands; very often there is both a dataref (telling information about some part of the sim) and a command (which takes action to change some part of the sim).  Which should you use?
Here are some general guidelines:
  • If you want to set up a joystick or keyboard, you have to use a command. The joystick and keyboard configuration dialog box lets you associate actions with a keystroke or button press, not information!
  • If you need to show the status of a system (E.g. “is the landing gear down”) use a dataref. I will cover this issue in more detail in part 3, but basically only datarefs show you information.
The ambiguous case is whether to use a dataref write or a command to change a system when both exist.
  • If there is a command that exactly does what you want to do, prefer the command over the dataref.  For example, it is better to arm the autopilot using the commands than the datarefs.  Changing the autopilot state often involves changing a lot of variables at once in complex ways.  When you issue the command, that work is done for you, correctly, every time.
  • If the command is not really suitable for your purpose, use a dataref.  For example, to change the engine throttle position, do not use the command sim/engines/throttle_up to move it up “a little bit.”  Use the dataref sim/cockpit2/engine/actuators/throttle_ratio to set the throttle to the precise position you want.  The throttle-up command exists so that users with no joystick or mouse wheel can fly with the keyboard by pressing the F1-F2 keys (bound to throttle-up, throttle-down).  It is not meant to precisely control the throttle position!
(I will discuss why there are so much overlap between commands and datarefs in part 4.)
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The Mathematics of Field of View and Vanishing Points

In order to understand the vanishing point in Plane-Maker, we first have to look at field of view and the process by which X-Plane simulates a 3-d world on a 2-d monitor.

Field of View
Field of View is the angle that you get if you go from the left edge of your vision to your eye, then back up the right edge.  In the case of a monitor, we can calculate this (depending on how far back I am sitting).  For example, my 19″ LCD is 14.8 inches across the top; to have a 45 degree FOV I need to sit about 17.8 inches away from the monitor.
X-Plane lets you set the field of view.  Imagine that you were sitting in front of a window on an airplane.  As you put your face closer to the window, you can see more of the world outside. Effectively you are increasing your field of view.  X-Plane works the same way – turning up the field of view parameter will increase the amount of “stuff” you can see.
Where Is The Horizon?
So where is the horizon?  The answer is: it depends.  Assuming you are looking straight forward, the most logical place to put the horizon is exactly half-way up the monitor.  And this is what X-Plane does in any external view.
As you rotate your head up and down, the center of your vision changes relative to the horizon. But if you simply move your head up and down, the horizon doesn’t move.  This is due to parallax.  The closer an object is, the more it moves as you move your head.  This is what lets me look “over” the dashboard of the car by sitting on a phone book: as my head goes higher, the dash board (close) appears a lot lower but the road (far) appears only a little bit lower.  The horizon (very, very far away) doesn’t move at all.
This effect works in X-Plane.  Try moving the view point up and down in a plane with a full 3-d cockpit, like the Cessna 172.  As you move your head up and down, your ability to see the runway out the window will change.
2-D Panels
Things get weirder when we have a 2-d panel.  A 2-d panel is sort of a flat image of what a 3-d cockpit might look like.  We need some kind of correlation between the 2-d world and 3-d world…that is, where does the horizon appear through this 2-d panel.  That location is the “vanishing point” in Plane-Maker.
Here’s where things get strange: what do we do when we scroll the panel?  Do we move our head or tilt our head?  The answer is: neither.  Scrolling the 2-d panel simply scrolls the “window” within the 3-d world that we look through.  This has the effect of moving the horizon (by the exact number of pixels the panel scrolled) without rotating your view point.
This isn’t necessarily the best way to scroll the panel, but it looks pretty good, and anything we do with 2-d panels is going to be an approximation.
And Now The Bug
Of course, there must be a bug in here somewhere…these blog posts are usually the result of an investigation into an edge-case in the sim.  In X-Plane 930b6, we pick a vanishing point based on the 2-d panel when we are in 3-d cockpit mode.
Why would we do such a silly thing?  Originally it was to keep the horizon from jumping when there is no 3-d cockpit object.  This behavior is okay in that case, but here’s how we get burned: if the 2-d cockpit has to scroll, the vanishing point might be off the top of the screen.  Authors who have made very large 2-d panels and separate 3-d cockpits see this as the 3-d viewpoint being stuck straight down.  What’s happening is the vanishing point (and thus the center for the mouse) are off the top of the screen.
For beta 7 I am fixing this:
  • If there is a 3-d cockpit object, the vanishing point will be the center of the screen, which is almost certainly the right thing to do for a real fully 3-d view.
  • If there is no 3-d cockpit object (but instead X-Plane’s default of the 2-d panel floating in space) the vanishing point will match the 2-d view, but taking the default scroll position into account. This should keep the horizon at a reasonably sane point.

As a final note, it is possible to specify a 3-d panel without a 3-d cockpit object in X-Plane. Don’t make a plane like this.  It’s a silly thing to do!

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