Sunday, February 18, 2007

Fine Print: Water on the Bottom Please

Here's one of those little details that probably isn't in the scenery docs but needs to be: if you are making base DSF meshes and they use water (the special terrain type "water") it must be on the bottom of the stack of terrains - it can't be used as an overlay!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Polygons Part 5 - Orthophotos

I just finished an example scenery package that shows how to place orthophotos using .polygon files. Check out the scenery website (look under tutorials) to download the package and also read the illustrations. (This is an experiment: this is more of an annotated scenery example tha a true step-by-step tutorial.)

The basic anatomy of an orthophoto-in-a-polygon is:
  1. A PNG file contains the orthophoto. (In the case of our example, ksbd_alpha.png.)
  2. A .pol file references the PNG file and defines the physical properties and layering information. (In the case of our example, ksbd.pol.)
  3. An overlay DSF references the .pol file. (In our case this is +34-118.dsf.)
  4. The DSF overlay contains exactly one usage of the .pol file, with a polygon parameter of 65535 (a flag to indicate that texture coordinates are in the DSF) and each vertex of the polygon contains texture ST coordinates.
This pattern is actually the same design pattern that is used everywhere in the X-Plane scenery system:
  • PNG files are never used directly by DSFs, they are always referenced by some kind of "definition" file, like an OBJ, .pol, .ter. Sometimes the definition file has a lot of info (like an OBJ, which contains a 3-d model), and sometimes they just contain some basic attributes (like a .ter or .pol file, which contain info for the physics engine).
  • The artwork definitions are always separate from the DSF, so that they can be reused easily in a lot of DSFs.
  • The DSF says where the polygon goes and the .pol file says what it looks like, just like the DSF says where an object goes and the OBJ says what it looks like.
One decision I made early on in my work on the scenery system was to stop using "magic file names". Prior to X-Plane 8, in a number of cases it was enough to add _LIT to the end of a texture file and a lighting mask would appear. In all modern file scenery format, there is a texture command (usually TEXTURE_LIT) to add this information.

Now this is probably more confusing to new users, and certainly a little bit confusing to anyone who was used to X-Plane 7. To some extent my goal is to have most scenery files be generated automatically - we're still a long way away from that, so my decisions to prefer extensibility to ease-of-use in the low level formats cause problemes for now. (But try the new AC3D X-Plane plugin version 3.0 - with UI to edit all X-Plane properties, does it matter anymore whether OBJ8 files are easy to read? We now have a real UI for editing X-Plane specific properties.)

In the case of file formats my concern was extensibility. There are only so many "tricks" that we can possibly cram into a file name, and the more we try to make the file name do, the less simple it becomes. When textures can only be "lit", tagging _LIT on the end is simple, and haivng to add TEXTURE_LIT can be annoying. But since then we've also added layering information and physics information. Imagine ksbd_LIT_AIRPORTS_-1_GRASS.png. Now we're getting into the domain of confusing file names.

Take a look here at some of the things we'd like to someday do for textures...seasonal textures would really make the texture names crazy. (MSFS9 accomplishes this using four seasons, which keeps the names simple...but what if we want to customize the time range for seasons?)
And dataref-controlled textures? Well, you can't encode a dataref in a file name - the / is reserved!

So all of these text files (.OBJ, .pol, .for, .ter, etc.) provide extensibility - they let us add new features to the way that DSF content is viewed without requiring cahnges to the DSF file format itself.

Since this blog post has gone off into a philosophical rant and the real info is in the tutorial, let me drift totally off subject by mentioning that while you're looking at tutorials, take a look at Kriss's tutorial on OBJ8 animation using the new AC3D plugin. If you've tried using the old system of animation (by typing cryptic goo into the AC3D object naes) you'll find the new plugin will let you work a lot faster!

Polygons Part 4 - Anatomy of a .pol file

Before I do this, an important disclaimer: we want you to use the .pol files that are found in the default scenery using the library system, not to copy the files! I encourage you to look inside the X-Plane resources folder to see how the system works, but don't copy a file if you can use it via the library; the library system saves loading time and VRAM.*

With that in mind, here's a line-by-line of what we might find in a .pol file. This one came from my X-System folder in Resources/default scenery/820 world terrain/pol/apt_desert_hot.pol. We have:


This is a standard header for a .pol file, which defines the look of a draped polygon.

TEXTURE ../textures/apt/apt_desert.png

This defines what texture the polygon will be drawn with. In this case, we are using our apt_desert.png file, found elsewhere in our package. (The double periods, .. move us up to a higher level directory. This is legal within a single scenery package.)

SCALE 500 500

This defines how large the texture appears in the X-Plane world. In this case, the horizontal span of the entire texture (before it repeats) is 500 meters (the first number), and the vertical span is also 500 meters.


This tells X-Plane to ignore the alpha channel on the PNG file. Often PNG files used for base textures have alpha channels consisting of noise, for the purpose of creating terrain transitions. Since seeing this alpha isn't desirable in an overlay polygon, this command can be used to strip out the alpha. This lets us use one PNG file for two purposes.


This defines the physical surface properties of the polygon. In this case, it is "dirt", which for X-Plane means some dust puffs will come off the wheels and your plane will clonk around. See the OBJ8 specification for a list of all possible surface types. (These names match the ATTR_hard command in X-Plane 8 objects.)

LAYER_GROUP airports -1

This defines where in the drawing stack to draw. In this case, we will draw one layer under airports (-1 means under, +1 would mean over). This means that this surface will be seen right below all aspects of the airport, but above regular terrain, which is what we want. The names here correspond to the same names you'd find in an OBJ8 in ATTR_layer_group - see the OBJ8 spec for the complete list of names.

* Basically any time there are two PNG files on disk, the VRAM is allocated twice, but any time one PNG file is referenced multiple times, the VRAM is shared. Since the library system lets you share other packages' resources, using it almost always means a savings in VRAM.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Polygons Part 3 - Airport Grass Terrain

In my previous post I discussed airports using the apt.dat and polygons and when to use custom artwork in a DSF.

One problem with the X-Plane scenery system (and a topic for another blog) is that, because scenery is fully pre-processed*, introducing a new airport won't put grass underneath the airport surface area. (Only airports that existed at the time the global scenery was created have grass underneath them.)

To make an airport there are two types of processing you need to do to the underlying area:
  1. Flatten it, if it has bumps. Since our mesh comes from SRTM, which is "first return" (meaning whatever the radar bounces off of first, that's the height of the terrain, even if it's a tree top), it often is quite bumpy.
  2. Change the underlying texture to something appropriate for an airport.
With X-Plane 8.60 (in RC as of this writing) you can do both! I've blogged about airport flattening (and why it isn't very good) before; today I'll try to describe how you can fix the base terrain.

You can cover the base mesh with a draped polygon in a DSF overlay. All you need to do is:
  • Create a .pol file that references a PNG for the texture and describes the resolution it will be applied at (i.e. how many pixels per meter) and
  • Use that .pol file in a DSF with a polygon in the overlay to describe where to put that texture down.
In X-Plane 8.60 we provide .pol files for you for all of the basic airport terrain textures. If you open the file Resources/default scenery/820 world terrain/library.txt you will find the library listing for the global scenery terrain. Toward the bottom you will see a section like this:

EXPORT lib/g8/pol/apt_sdry_cold.pol pol/apt_sdry_cold.pol

What this means is: the library path lib/g8/pol/apt_sdry_cold.pol is apped to the file pol/apt_sdry_cold.pol in this scenery package. You will see a fairly large number of .pol files on the left. Basically these represent the basic "environments" that an airport can exist in.

So to make an overlay DSF that has wet cold grass underneath it, make an overlay DSF with a .pol file using the path "lib/g8/pol/apt_wet_cold.pol".

EDIT: Important -- there are actually four .pol files in this library that do not work!! They are:


You will know they don't work because your scenery will not load with them. Basically, they are accidental hold-overs from a previous naming scheme for airport terrain, but were never deleted. Note how they name only an amount of rainfall (except for apt_grass, which tells us nothing). The rest of the files are named things like apt_sdry_cool, which gives us both temperature and rainfall. This 2-dimensional climate grid (with rainfall and temperature) is how most of the X-Plane terrains are organized.

Why use the library system to do this? Three reasons: copywrite and VRAM, and compatibility.

One advantage of using our library is that it gives you a way to use our artwork without copying our artwork. Remember that you cannot copy the X-Plane PNG files into a custom package and then sell it - it's a violation of X-Plane's EULA. But you don't need to! You can simply use the .pol file and X-Plane will load up the appropriate PNG files.

This is also a win for VRAM. If the wet grass texture is being used in the base terrain (for an airport that has wet grass underneath it from the global scenery) and in your overlay DSF (via the library .pol file) X-Plane will only load one copy of the texture, saving VRAM, speeding up load time, etc. If you copied the PNG file, besides being a EULA violation under some circumstances, you'd also be wasting VRAM. So the library system is more efficient!

Finally, by using our polygons, you ensure that your base grass will match the rest of the scenery system. If we update the look of our grass, because the library .pol files reference our artwork, you will see the same thing in your airport that we have in the default ones.

(Of course my warning from last week applies: if you use a wet airport grass polygon for something other than wet airport grass, then in the future our improvements on the artwork may make your scenery look strange. With these airport polygons we are aiming for "as much like an airport as possible", not "as much like 850 used to look as possible"!!)

* By this I mean, all the decisions about how scenery will look are made ahead of time, so the look of scenery does not respond to the combining of multiple packages by changing the underlying packages - only by superimposing the new ones on top. Thus a new apt.dat layout does not change the underlying terrain from urban and forest to grass. This is a design trade-off; full pre-processing has both good and bad aspects.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Warning: Orthophoto Polygons Are Not a Magic Bullet

With the new version of DSF2Text and X-Plane 8.60 it is possible to overlay orthophotos on top of DSFs. I'll get into this in more detail in a future blog post...the purpose of this post is to be a wet blanket.

Using polygons to overlay orthophotos on the base mesh might seem perfect. It's easy to do and you can clip polygons to any shape. Perfect, right?


There are a few major problems with overlay polygons that make them well suited to some cases but not a general purpose cure-all for orthophoto-based scenery. Here's the fine print:
  1. Orthophoto polygons draw over the base mesh. In particular the base mesh is still drawn underneath the orthophoto. This means that wherever you use them, X-Plane is drawing twice! This is bad for will cut the speed of mesh drawing in half. Ouch! (This is not an issue when working on very small areas like airports, but it is an issue when working on very large areas.)
  2. Polygons are not built up until you fly near them. Polygons are part of the 3-d "clutter" part of the scenery not the base mesh, so we defer building them until we get near them to save memory. (This is the same as airports - look at an airport in textured map mode when far away from it -- no taxiways!) But this means that if the orthophoto is huge (and thus visible far away) its absense will be quite obvious.
  3. Polygons burn CPU time when they are built up. For very small polygons this isn't that noticable, but the larger the polygon, the more work X-Plane does "draping" it over the base terrain. So on single-CPU systems with large polygon orthophotos, the framerate may be adversely impacted.
Basically overlay polygons are great for texturing small areas like airports or special landmarks within a city, but are not appropriate for making wide-scale orthophoto base meshes. For that you really need to replace the base mesh DSF!

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Future of Facades

Sergio and I were discussing the future of facades today. Facades are DSF polygons that are extruded into buildings by pushing up the polygon into a roof and texturing the roof and walls from a single texture using some simple formulas. The rules for facades are very simple - we originally thought them up for the purpose of creating buildings that precisely fit a city grid no matter what the block spacing.

The problem with facades is that the rules make very simple buildings - especially the roofs. So we want more powerful facades and the question becomes: how best to do this? There are two possibilities and I mention them here because they underscore what I think is the largest overarching design decision when creating a flight simulator scenery system.

1. We could make the facade builder in X-Plane smarter (write new rules).
2. We could write a stand-alone tool that converts the DSF polygons (plus a rule file) into OBJs that are then placed directly into the overlay.

This second strategy would turn the facade from a type of scenery element into a tool for making OBJs. We would be "pre-compiling" our facades.

Here are some of the considerations:


Precompiling primitives is a space-vs-speed trade-off. For any given algorithm, it's usually faster to pre-build the entities and load them from disk than to build them in the sim. But pre-building means more files on disk, meaning bigger downloads, more DVDs, etc. Building up buildings from facades inside X-Plane is actually a form of compression.


This is one criteria where I think pre-compiling scenery is a clear win: it's easier to build a stand-alone facade-to-OBJ converter than to implement it inside X-Plane. X-Plane is a relatively unfriendly place to build scenery algorithms because it's busy being a flight sim.


If we make OBJs out of facades using a tool, the objects will look the same even if we create a new version of the tool. This is good in that it means that custom scenery won't change how it looks, but it is also a limitation because improvements to facade technology require rebuilding a lot of objects to take effect.

(Another aspect of this: if the objects made from the tool use a texture, that texture can't have its shape changed even if we make new rules, because some objects will be on users machines that were built with the old rules.)

X-Plane mostly errs on the side of pre-building scenery, and this is the one area where we really take it on the chin for that decision: the inability to easily create a new composite look from changes to some parts of the scenery. (Airports that don't cause grass to appear under them is an example of this.)

Perhaps some good questions for weighing these options are:

1. Would an author care whether the facade looks exactly the same in the future?
2. Are there enhancements coming along in this technological area that we would not want to miss out on for older scenery?


Information loss: when we turn a facade into an object, the original polygon information is lost. Is it important that we ship the actual base polygons that make up buildings, or are the OBJs that represent them good enough?

Contextual Information: often we know more about a given situation when making scenery than when displaying it. Could we do better at building up a facade inside the sim (where we have context from other scenery packages), or when creating the sim (where we have a much larger dataset)?

Where To Get Help

Just a gentle reminder: if you are having problems with X-Plane (especially the installer), please do not post a comment to this blog. Instead email Randy and Jack, or tech support guys, at info at x-plane dot com. This is the official way to get tech support, and they will work hard to make sure you can use X-Plane.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Polygons Part 2 - Real World vs Custom

In a previous post I discussed polygons, how they can be used, and a little bit about how they relate to X-Plane 850 and the new apt.dat system. I have been working on some demo scenery that will make this all clear, but the great is the enemy of the good, so rather than wait I'll post more on this now and get the demos done as soon as I can.

There are essentially two ways to get at the new polygon code: via the apt.dat system or via an overlay DSF. When should you use apt.dat and when should you use an overlay DSF?
  • If you are trying to model something that is directly in the apt.dat spec, use an apt.dat file. For example, use apt.dat if you are making blue taxiway lights.
  • Use a custom overlay DSF if you are modeling outside an airport. (Do not make "fake" airports to use apt.dat features.)
  • If you need a custom look not supported by apt.dat, use an overlay DSF - it's the only way.
  • Use a custom overlay DSF if you are modeling something that isn't found in an airport, even if it looks similar. (For example, if you want blue lights to model some unique architecture in an airport, do not use apt.dat taxiway lights - your lights may look the same, but they are not the same!)
This last point is important: do not "abuse" the definitions of apt.dat files just because they look similar.

There are essentially two kinds of features in the scenery system:
  1. Features that do not change how they look, ever. For example, we do not change the way a textured triangle looks in an OBJ file.
  2. Features that are designed to model the real world. Over time, we change them to look more like the real world. For example, approach lights have changed a lot in 850 to look more like the real world ones.
This second type of feature is the one where I issue caution: if a feature in apt.dat or the sim is meant to emulate how the real world looks, we will change how it looks to improve rendering! This is why it is important not to use apt.dat feature for purposes other than they were intended for. It might be that in X-Plane 8.50 the blue taxi lights look just like some other feature you want to code. But in a future version, we might make them more realistic for an airport and they will look worse for your other application. By using apt.dat features only for their true purpose, you help us ensure that our changes to the base artwork make scenery better, not worse.

(This division of all scenery features between ones that are "stable" and ones that are "based on the real world" can also be seen in most parts of the sim. In particular, the flight model is designed with a "based on the real world" philosophy, a very controversial decision I'll have to blog about some other time.)

Next: fixing airport terrain with polygons.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I'm not dead! (Just coding tools)

I realized when I saw the "view stats" of 0 that I haven't posted in maybe two weeks! Nothing's wrong, I've just been busy coding scenery tools since 860 went into RC. I'll post something useful here soon!

Just a quick random note: the maximum number of vertices in a DSF polygon is 65,535 vertices. If you have a polygon with more sides, you'll need to simplify or subdivide it.

I would also add that the speed with which forests are built up is related ot the polygon complexity (as well as the total trees made). The algorithm is pretty fast, but you may want to consider a simplification algorithm that removes sides, making the polygon smaller, if the total error is less than a few meters (or whatever your tree spacing is), nuke the side!