Cut the Cord, Man!

Guest Contributor Eric “smokinhole” Anderson gives us some insight on his shift from hardware to virtual controllers in his quest for full immersion virtual reality.

A Revolution Within A Revolution

With a dollop of hyperbole – this is how I view the ability to use Virtual Reality (VR) controls to replace the traditional joystick and throttle in flight simulation. The wider revolution is virtual reality itself and I came late to both. While VR arguably has some limitations currently,  ditching the joystick and throttle comes with a few more , making it harder yet to embrace for most virtual pilots. It takes time and effort. Without some impetus to pry one away from his perfectly good hardware, there is little reason to try. I will first explain why I did, and then, if you are still with me, I will explain how to get over some of the hurdles that make flying with VR controllers at first seem more of a nuisance than a revolution.

But before diving in I need to narrow the scope of this discussion.  So far, I am really only describing a method of manipulating switches and controls within civilian sims and X-plane in particular.   If you are a Mudspike regular, chances are high that combat sims are a focus item for you. Maybe someday.  But for now, if the thing you wish to fly also does violence to the world around it, a good HOTAS is still the only way to go.  (Yes, VTOL VR is a masterpiece of a combat sim for which VR controls are the only controls allowed.  But I exclude it from this discussion because the flying machines in VTOL are fictional and created entirely around the current limitations of VR, as both a display and as an input method.)

X-plane as a product was also a bit late to VR.  In December 2017 they launched their first VR compatible version of the sim in beta.  The developer’s blog practically begged users to try it without sticks first.  This is what X-Plane’s Chris Serio had to say:

“Things To Try!

I know many of you have very elaborate and expensive hardware setups. I encourage you to abandon them…cut the cords man!!!!….move your chair away from your desk….just for a little while…and try flying the aircraft with JUST the VR controllers. I think it’s important to see how usable things are without the need for any hardware at all. Of course, we expect many of you will return to your hardware devices, I think it’s still a good idea to leave your comfort zone and just have a little fun too!…”

Chris Serio – X-Plane Developer

So I did.  I took up the Aerolite 103 and puttered around Las Vegas.  That first beta had significant performance issues and I can’t claim to have been entirely sold at the time.  But before pulling the chair back up to the desk I let my daughter give it a go. She was able to takeoff, zoom around the iconic Las Vegas Stratosphere spire and land.  She had fun and so did I. But if anything the Aerolite, with its lack of separate rudder control and sparse panel, almost did more to highlight the limitations of VR controls than to promote them as an alternative to a joystick.  As Chris predicted, I went right back to my “hardware devices” and over the next few months watched X-Plane quickly push VR to levels of performance, visual complexity and visceral beauty unmatched by any sim I own.

The only VR setup available in the 2D screen is this one, “VR Hardware”  I find that the sim runs noticeably slower with “Enable VR Mouse” checked.  

I can’t recall why exactly I returned to VR controls.  I think it was a combination of my fascination with VTOL VR and my frustration with my own performance in IL2 and DCS.  My whole life I have been a miserable multiplayer flyer. My virtual ineptness was impossible to hide even from myself so I temporarily rage-quit combat sims and filled the void with X-Plane.  I took my beloved Dreamfoil Bell 407 to Propstrike Studio’s Quatam River.  Quatam is the ultimate pilot’s Disneyland–a fictitious, ingenious spread nestled along a dazzling fjord that hosts a logging operation filled with detailed structures, a busy hive of working vehicles and forests of trees swaying in the breeze. The scenery is filled with remarkable detail.  So much so that I often found myself landing and getting out to go for a “walk”, VR style.

Using the controls instead of a mouse and keyboard really requires that one step well back from the desk or you’ll eventually spill your coffee or poke a hole in your monitor.  It was either return to the desk to fly with the stick or stay a few feet back and fly with the controllers. I quickly learned that flying this way requires a bit of effort before one can leave the ground with acceptable results.  The Bell already had a control profile that I had set up around my Saitek X-56 but another separate control profile would be required.. (Let me say here, in case you wish to jump the gun, that setting up VR controllers can only be done in 3D.  Once you exit back to 2D, the VR controllers cease to exist in the joystick setup menu.) The only programming I did within the profile was negative: every button and axis on the Saitek was remapped to “None”. There is much to the setup that I will get into later but for now let’s simply state what is fundamental for the two VR controllers:

  • Both triggers need to be able to “VR select”.  This is akin to the left mouse button. More importantly, the triggers are also the “grab” commands.  If you need two hands to fly, you need two triggers for grabbing.
  • Both thumbsticks are assigned to “teleport” by default.  Only one controller thumbstick needs this function. You will soon enough get over the initial common mistake of bumping it to occasionally amusing results.  Just having one teleport frees the other stick for functions such as trim.
  • One button should be, and by default is, set to “center view”.  View centering can also be done through the VR menu but since centering is done so often, it is better to have it activated as a single step.  
  • Zoom. I hate that we need it but for now we often do.

When assigning a button or axis you initially have access to a few dozen common controls, including some of the VR commands.  But if you scroll to the bottom of the list and click “Custom Commands”, you will have access to perhaps hundreds of commands or more, depending on the number of aircraft and plugins you have installed.  The search function helps.

So with the initial setup out of the way we still have work to do.  X-Plane gives developers a lot of latitude in how the controls are implemented.  Some models require that the pilot grab and move the control exactly as in real life.  For instance, a yoke might move forward and aft a foot or more while requiring that you raise and lower your wrist as you would a steering wheel with your hand at 3- or 9-o’clock (remember that from driving school?).  And in both cases, again, the displacement is exactly the same in the virtual space as it would be in the real space. This is perfectly fine but with your arm suspended above your lap physically holding onto nothing but the controller, it can get fatiguing quickly.

The other option, “ergonomic”, allows X-plane to ignore all translational inputs and only “see” rotation.  This way you can grab the stick or yoke, freely move your hand without making a flight control input, and rest it on your thigh.  At that point your wrist does the same thing it does with a joystick – rotation away from center moves the in-game control. To add to the confusion, these two options may be either/or <or> no choice.  It is totally up to the developer. If I do have a choice, regardless of the aircraft type, I prefer ergonomic. I find that I overcontrol less and that I have a better sense of neutral. With X-Plane, the selection is global across all models until you choose again.  All this simply means is that you must get in the pit, grab the control and move it the way you wish. If the control moves appropriately, great. If not, go to VR options and select the opposite box (i.e., “Realistic” instead of “Ergonomic”). If it still doesn’t work (rare) then begging the developer may be your only option.

Pedals are still required.  X-plane does not support using twist for yaw.  VTOL VR demonstrates that this is technically possible.  But it takes skill and even after dozens of hours playing I could never completely separate yaw from roll.The “stick” (pitch and roll) is grabbed with the trigger and held automatically until the trigger is pressed again.  At that point the in-game control remains where it was when released. Real controls don’t do that unless they have been accurately trimmed when released. This is a necessary concession away from reality as the VR controller offers few cues as to what is “in-trim”, especially when the user is new to the experience. The collective or throttle on the other hand must be grabbed continuously by holding the trigger.  If you let go of the trigger, you let go of the control. VTOL VR smartly allows the choice of a latched grab or not. The 757 Professional which I will talk about shortly has a smart alternative but so far that’s the standout in my “hangar”. It turns out that this isn’t hard. The trigger is a light pull and with practice you soon forget that you are doing it. One doesn’t need to actually grab the collective or throttle directly.  You can laser point with a light trigger pull until you strike a part of the collective that isn’t a button or switch. You then squeeze the trigger fully and actuate the control remotely. Depending on the helicopter, I might do a combo where I laser-point the collective up until it is high enough to be a comfortable grab with my left hand.

When mapping assignments to one controller, do the selecting with the opposite controller.  Don’t forget that both hat buttons are available for assignment. In complex helicopters, I use the right hat button to switch between SAS and ATT.  In airliners, I use it for “Autopilot disconnect”

When first getting light on the skids or gently rotating to liftoff, the lack of centering resistance feels odd, maybe even initially uncontrollable.  It’s a hump to overcome. But so is a stick. The classic, center-sprung joystick is the enemy we all know and we easily forget that long ago we overcame its limitations as well.  “OK”, I hear you asking, “where’s the revolution?” Yep that’s a tough one. Explaining it is like explaining VR itself. I guess part of it is that, for the first time, we can stay in the 3D space that developers worked so many countless hours creating for us.  The desk limits our freedom of movement. The HOTAS puts our hands in the wrong places. The mouse is an awkward 2D input method when your body actually wants to move and stretch and reach. VR exposes to the player how expansive or constricting these cockpits really are.  But some of that newfound sensibility is lost when you can’t actually reach around freely to interact within that space. Reaching up, flipping on the battery switch and watching your ride come to life is a newly appreciated thrill.

The controllability hump that I mentioned above does take time.  I find it a little easier initially, at least with helicopters, to fly with models that allow the “Realistic” VR controls option. The large range of throw matches the real thing and is somewhat less sensitive than rotating your wrist along X and Y. But even the “ergonomic” option is, I submit, more precise than a stick. Why?  Because the VR controllers are smooth and free of slop. The slightest move is captured. There is no spiking. There is no need for curves.

There is some downside: without the spring it is difficult to separate roll from pitch when making big, aerobatic inputs. Another negative might be that you are now away from the desk and waving your controllers in little circles.  If anyone is around to witnesses this sight, you may inspire in them a reaction of bemusement if not pity. Perhaps lock the door.

“Manage Profiles” is relatively new to X-Plane.  Now we can have multiple profiles for each aircraft or share profiles across similar modules.

Late last year I decided to walk away from the 737 after twenty great years and switch to the 757/767 (my airline combines the fleet).  These machines are quite old and probably will not be around much longer. They also happen to have a reputation as being two of the best handling airliners ever made.  So it was now or never for me. My purchase of FlightFactor’s 757 marks the first time I have ever used a desktop sim to seriously study a real airplane.

This isn’t a module review so I will put a damper on my impressions of the model other than to say that, while it has a bunch of esoteric flaws, it really is a 757 and it worked remarkably well as an initial exposure to this beautiful machine.  FlightFactor knew that there would be users like me: people who needed to be “in the space”, reaching for switches and swimming through flows rather than hunched over a desk clicking with a mouse. They used the power of the plugin to change the VR controller logic in practical ways that made the plane easily managed away from the desk during all phases of flight.  It comes with detailed instructions on the setup (which, again, must be done in VR). The process for this and any other module is much easier if you are proficient in how to use your VR environment’s virtual desktop feature. This way you don’t need to remove the headset to read along. There are a couple of innovations that FlightFactor built into the model that I found helpful if not essential.

Earlier I said that throttles must be continuously latched with a constant press of the trigger–true also for the 757. FlightFactor provides another option:  laser-point at the base of the throttles and click the 2nd trigger on your RIGHT controller. This temporarily assigns the right hat to the throttles until the 2nd trigger is clicked again.  For trim, the LEFT 2nd trigger is held while moving the yoke away from center. I.e, pushing forward trims nose down at a rate that varies with displacement away from center. You do not lose elevator control while you do this so as you get closer to an in-trim condition your hand will naturally move the yoke back to neutral and trimming will stop.  The in-game iPad provides everything you need to manage your flight away from the desk from sim options to catering and from maintenance to the push tug. I just wish the iPad would not appear six inches in front of my face when called. I am reminded of my daughter back when she was three showing me a Lego creation so closely that my 40 year old eyes would cross trying to focus.  (Politely push it comfortably away from your face and complain. Maybe FlightFactor will take the hint. My daughter never did.)

I find the CDU easily viewed and programmed where it is by leaning forward and laser-pointing key presses.  However, if you laser anywhere on the CDU’s display a big version will pop up; again six inches in front of your nose.  With the initial cockpit setup complete, it’s time to learn the walkaround. FlightFactor populates the ramp with vehicles, loaders and the din that is a constant part of life “below the wing”.  Don’t forget to stand up if you care to get the perspective right.

I arrived at the training center in Denver better prepared for initial training than I had ever been before when learning a new airplane.  I also arrived with a couple of misconceptions about the jet. Overall though, the familiarization with switches, systems, taxi geometry, and handling characteristics paid off.

A page from the Flight Factor 757 Pro VR Guide.  Few aircraft in X-Plane have documentation this good.  Nothing is left to doubt. With modules that are less clear, you may find that the module designer added their own list of controls to X-Plane’s long list of “custom commands”.  (Used with permission)

I know I have been mostly preaching to the choir.  You have kindly read this through to the end because you share my wonderment of virtual reality.  It will only continue to improve and become a part of everyday life for more and more people, in ways both good and bad.  There are few gaming genres better suited to VR than flight simulation and, eventually, virtual air combat. Speaking of which, I simply cannot foresee a future where combat sims will not be commonly flown this way.  If I may pick on IL2 for a moment, they were quite clear from the beginning that the cockpits would not be clickable.  I never really understood why since all the controls were already animated. How hard would it be to add a click zone or two to the existing controls?  Later though, they were early perfectors of VR implementation. Pre-HOTAS fighters and bombers, all the planes modeled by the current versions of IL2, would be perfectly manageable with the limited number of axes and buttons on the VR controllers.  It is such an obvious next-step. So it will happen. The question of when will be determined by how badly users want it. That is part of the reason I am being such a cheerleader now. I am totally ready to suck online away from my desk as spectacularly as I do when I am at it.  Meantime, back in the civilian sim world and seated at your desk with your hands resting on that cold, hard Warthog, you are, I submit, enjoying something less than the full experience.  Slide your chair back three feet, curl your toes under your pedals (you do fly barefoot don’t you?) and drag them to a comfortable spot.  Now, isn’t this flying!?

A short video demonstrating some of the compelling reasons for flying with VR controls.

Eric “smokinhole” Anderson