Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Moving the Blog!

I am moving the X-Plane Scenery blog to: http://www.x-plane.com/blog/. You will be automatically redirected in about 15 seconds; please update your RSS feeds once you are there.

Links to specific articles will be kept in place on this blog, and will not have redirects, so you can still read them.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Various X-Plane 9 Bug Fixes

A quick update on a few X-Plane 9 bug fixes we have in the works. We will hopefully cut a new beta of X-Plane 96x in the next few days.
  • Linux DVD recognition was unreliable and required work-arounds; my attempt to fix this in X-Plane 964 made this work, but we have a real fix.
  • We have a handful of hang-on-startup problems with NVidia cards and Windows 7. I am working directly with a few users to figure out what's going on, but I hope to have a work-around in a patch as soon as we ID it.
  • We have new installers that I need to roll into beta; they will address DVD location issues on Linux and also improve net performance.
The numbering scheme for v9 is a little bit odd at this point. Since we are putting so few changes into each build, Austin has been numbering them as "release candidates" - that is, 962 was final, then he cut a 964 and 965. 964 and 965 were both only available by checking "get betas", and both turned out to have defects. When 966 is ready, it will be available via "get betas", and we will promote it to a "real" release if it turns out our bug fixes actually fix things.

So: egg on my face for being 0 for 2 with 964 (in that both my QuickTime fix and Linux DVD fix actually made things worse).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

ATC Part II - A Dilemma

Here's a thought experiment for you: you have a new version of X-Plane with new global scenery, new rendering engine options, new weather, a whole fleet of new planes, and new ATC. That new ATC is rewritten to support realistic IFR flight, the AI planes participate, the system includes ground ops and it uses audio files to "talk". But the AI planes don't have real-world liveries, and they don't follow real-world schedules for major airports. What do you do?
  1. Release this new version of X-Plane with the ATC as is, and continue to improve it in a patch.
  2. Release this new version of X-Plane, but ship the old ATC from version 9, because while the new ATC is better, it's missing some features that some users have asked for.
  3. Delay the release of the entire sim because ATC is missing some features that some users have asked for.
Clearly options 2 and 3 aren't options at all; you wouldn't ship the old ATC (which is clearly inferior to the new code) just because there are more features you could ship, and you wouldn't withhold the rest of the new version's features for the same reason.

No feature is ever done unless a program is dead. Austin hired me about five years ago to work on the scenery system, and it is no more done now than it was five years ago. It is a lot better than it used to be; more efficient, better looking, more realistic, etc. But the bar for what is possible keeps moving. That's part of what makes working on flight simulation software so interesting.

In yesterday's post I tried to clarify why we are using real physics in the AI ATC planes; a lot of the discussion surrounding Austin's original announcement made some assumptions about where CPU time is spent that aren't correct. This post describes how features are incrementally added to a release - without understanding release planning, Austin's description of 20 AI planes makes no sense.

Stretching the Playdough
Programs aren't just born whole, complete, never to be modified again. If there is one consistent misunderstanding of software, it's this notion that you "build" software the way you might build a bridge or a house. The truth is, software is made out of a building material that is nothing like bricks or steel, and thus the engineering practices have to be quite different.

If you build a house and decide you want a different exterior floor plan, you're pretty much hosed. No one is going to change the outer shape of a house because the materials used to build the house are not particularly pliable to modification. The cost of moving a foundation is about the same as building a new foundation, so modifications are made as minimal as possible.*

By comparison, code is a lot more like playdough than bricks or concrete. You want the master bedroom a little bigger? Great, we'll just streeeeeetch it out. Code is always modifiable after it is "finished" - if treated right, it never hardens and sets, and this is why successful programs are often on version 10. The problems a computer program tries to solve change, but code can change with them.

So my first take-away point is this: if we add a feature to a program later, it is not because the program was "incomplete" or "unfinished" before - perpetual improvement is the expected norm in a healthy computer program. In fact, perpetual improvement is desirable because it lets us match changing technology and because it lets us incorporate feedback we get from our user base.

(There's an old saw in computer software that the reason to put out version 1 is to learn what you did wrong so you can make version 2. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but the truth is that the only way to get really solid user feedback is to put something out there and then listen.)


Given that we expect our software to change perpetually, how do we plan? The answer is that we need a road map for the next several steps that the software will take as it evolves. By knowing where we are going we can be reasonably well-informed on the features we code now.

A road map of features needs to be prioritized for two considerations:
  • What do users want first? The things we code first, we can ship first, so high priority features should go first.
  • What features have to be implemented first? You can't build the roof of a house first, and we couldn't have programmed orthophoto paging of DSFs until we programmed loading DSFs themselves. Sometimes the features "have" to go ina certain order for programming reasons.
ATC AI Airplanes

At this point we finally have enough common vocabulary to sanely discuss the AI airplanes for X-Plane's ATC. So far I have tried to establish that:
  • The AI airplanes are going to get better over time.
  • We will almost certainly ship ATC AI before the AI airplanes are perfect.
  • The order that we implement ATC features will be a mix of what we think is most important and what has to go in first for engineering reasons.
The first stage of the roadmap was to use X-Plane's built-in AI planes as AI traffic. There were a lot of reasons to do this as the first step:
  1. The code's already there, so it let us get some airplanes moving around quickly. Inventing a fully separate system from scratch would have taken time away from the rest of ATC.
  2. Virtually every optimization that has been suggested (and several that haven't been) can be applied to the AI ATC airplanes, so there's plenty of room to get faster. (If we thought we couldn't optimize, we might not have put the flightmodel in for AI at all.)
  3. By sharing the flight model code with AI, the optimizations we do pay twice - to make ATC faster and to make the framerate faster for all users.
  4. Inventing a new way to make airplanes (only for ATC) would mean two sets of editing tools, which would invariably mean worse tools in all cases.
With the AI planes running, we then have a lot of ways we can improve things. We can optimize performance. We can optimize memory use. We can increase the airplane limit. We can virtualize the flights (so far away flights exist only in the ATC DB and don't use a "real" AI plane). We can sever the 1:1 mapping of airplane model to flight. We can recycle airplanes when they get too far away to be adding anything to the user experience.

Which techniques will we do, and what will the airplane limit be? I don't know. Optimization really needs to be driven by testing - that is, we need to improve the system by measuring it to see what the next best step is, not by speculating about what problems we might hit in the future. Over time, we will repeatedly optimize and the capabilities of the system will steadily grow.

If you want to know the final specs and capabilities for the ATC system, I fear you'll have to wait until X-Plane 10 ships. When we are in development, any planning for future features is just that: a plan. As we hit real bugs and learn more about the features, the plan can, and often does change. Thus estimates of what X-Plane 10 will do won't be truly reliable until we ship.

* I should be careful here; I used to have these conversations with Sergio, who is a professional architect among other things, and he would have to correct me on a million different aspects of construction technology.

Monday, January 24, 2011

ATC Part I - Real Physics

This is a repost of a reply I wrote on avsim that sort of grew out of control. In part II I will try to explain what we're doing with the ATC system and how far we will get in X-Plane 10.0. Anyway, post follows.

I will have to write a blog post to go into this in more detail later, but I think a lot of what has been written here is wrong. Y'all started under the assumptions that:
  1. The flight model is going to be too expensive to run on AI planes and
  2. A table based flight model would be faster.
Those are both questionable assumptions at best...pretty much everything you can conclude from that is, IMO, dubious.

(I should mention at this point that I am unaware of any "dumbing down" features in the FM right now. My understanding is that we will pre-process control inputs in a number of ways, and the frequency of the FM can be set to multiples of the framerate, but even at the lowest setting, we do a full physics integration and the plane is the sum of the physics that are applied to it. I mention this now because I am about to speculate on some optimizations that _could_ dumb down the physics model, and I want to make clear that shipping X-Plane 9 does not do this!!)

Here's the short version:

The most expensive part of the flight model is ground interaction - that is, the flight model doing collision checking with the ground and various parts of the airplane. When an airplane is "clearly in the air" (e.g. an initial test shows it has high altitude) the FM isn't very expensive; when it is near the ground, CPU time cranks up as we make sure to get the touch-down characteristics just right; same with taxiing.

So if we want to make the FM faster, there's really only one place to attack: ground interactions - it's the lions share of CPU time. There are a number of simple things we could do to improve ground interaction. For example, we could stop checking for body scrapes - since X-Plane has to handle physics correctly even if the user lands gear up and scrapes an engine, the sim normally tests the full geometry of the plane against the ground (which is not flat, even at an airport) - that adds up. If we are willing to trust that the AI planes don't screw up a landing* we could cut down ground check to only real landing gear, which would improve performance.

Now what if we did some kind of 'lo-fi' AI, whether it's table based or it simply says "move the plane forward by this much" (E.g. a sort of track-based system)? If we want the airplanes to 'sit' properly on the non-flat airport surfaces, we _still_ need to do the most expensive part of the FM - the wheel-ground collision checks. So the total savings of a 'lo-fi' AI flight model would be very small, because at best we might partly improve the performance of code that doesn't have much impact on the sim.

(To understand why you can only boost performance by attacking the biggest pigs, see here.)

However, there would be a pretty huge cost to a lo-fi flight model: we would have to code a SECOND implementation of pretty much everything we already do in the real flight model! We would have to have new flight model files to support this new alternate flight model. The opportunity cost here is in developer time...the time spent building a separate flight model could have been spent performance-tuning the real flight model...even if we had a second flight model, performance tuning time would now be divided between the two flight models, and neither would reach its optimal performance.

Besides my explanation above of why a lo-fi flight model wouldn't really be a win, two more comments:

In software development, it often pays to try the simplest thing first, see how it works, and go from there, rather than speculate how a system may perform and write a ton of code up front before you have real data. This is what we are doing...the simplest thing we can do is to run the real FM on the AI planes, and so far it looks like it's going to work reasonably. IF we hit data that says "no we have to do something radical", then we will...when the data says so, and no sooner. So far indications are that the real FM is going to be fine, and this makes sense from what we know about its performance characteristics. We also know that we have a lot of tricks we could pull to make the real FM faster for AI planes (e.g. removing engine scrape-checks, per above) before we have to go and write a whole new FM.

And finally, dude, the real FM looks good. With the real FM, the AI planes move the way big heavy airplanes should move. They track the ground perfectly. If the ground has a bump and the airplane's suspension is loose, it sways like it should. The control surfaces deploy with their real time. When you're at an airport performing ground ops, you can get really close to the AI planes, and at that point these things matter! I speculate: once you take follow an AI plane running the real FM on the ground, it'll be hard to go back to a 'synthetic' FM.

* This may not be a safe assumption...what if a microburst hits an AI plane?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Light Levels: Don't Panic

One of the comments on the suburban preview screenshots I've heard in a bunch of places is "I hope it's not going to be that dark" or "could you guys add more light"?

At this point, light levels in our previews are not reflective (no pun intended) of how the sim will really look. The reason is simple: the light model is not fully debugged (who am I kidding -- it's not even remotely debugged) and it only takes one light model bug to completely throw off the light levels. So I think light levels are going to be a case where the sim's lighting looks a bit funny right up until the last bug is swatted - it's just the nature of those kinds of bugs.

To give you an idea of how much change there is in lighting from version 9 to 10, here's a short laundry list of sim changes that affect lighting:
  • Dynamic Exposure. X-Plane 10 reduces the effect of emissive (_LIT) textures base on the brightness of the sun. In X-Plane 9, emissive textures have the same impact regardless of time of day; thus a lighting effect that looks good at night will look too strong during the day. (In real life, you eyes would adjust for the sun and the artificial light would seem less bright.)

  • Linear Light Mode. This gets confusing fast, but basically, our eyes perceive light in a non-linear way; we are more sensitive to low light levels than bright light levels. Computer graphics mimick this behavior; the result is that most computer lighting models are physically incorrect in some circumstances. Using the non-linear eye-based behavior has been the norm for while because it was cheaper hardware-wise, but these days it is possible to do physically correct linear lighting. We are adding this wherever we can; the correctness varies with rendering settings since physically correct lighting is more expensive GPU-wise and we don't want to hurt fps for low-end users.

  • Deferred Rendering. X-Plane 10 has two rendering modes: a forward renderer (which is a lot like X-Plane 9) and a deferred renderer that supports global illumination and an HDR rendering space.* This creates a certain amount of chaos because the code for forward and deferred rendering are separate, and they seem to develop separate, unrelated lighting bugs.

  • Global Illumination. X-Plane 10 supports global illumination in deferred rendering mode, which means that thousands of lights can light up any part of the scenery system. Thsi means that (for the first time) an object may be lit by dozens of light sources at once. It turns out that the linear light model is a lot more important when we have more than one light source. (In fact, Alex and I realized that we needed a linear light model when looking at highways lit by streetlamps.)

  • New Light Billboards. X-Plane, like most flight simulators, uses billboards (textured squares that face the camera) to draw the light effects near a light source, like glare and bloom. The shape, textures, and equations for the light billboards are heavily revised in version 10.

  • Clouds. The weather system is being rebuilt, including new shaders for cloud puffs. Since cloud puffs aren't like solid buildings or airplanes, they have their own shaders with their own light characteristics. We are also experimenting with increased ground visibility, which affects fog.

If there's a take-away point, it's this: lighting isn't just one piece of code in X-Plane - it's the sum and interaction of a large number of features, all of which are being heavily worked over. Only when all of the features work correctly and work together in harmony will we have what appears to be sane lighting.

* Some users may confuse HDR, which just means an image with increased dynamic range for light levels, with the more common effects that games ship once they have an HDR render: bloom and tone mapping. Bloom is when bright light sources "blow out" and splat light around nearby areas; tone mapping is a technique to visualize that high dynamic range on a normal monitor - often it is used to simulate your eyes adjusting to variable light levels.

I do not think we will ship bloom in version 10.0; I experimented with it and found it had almost no value. First, there are very few scenes in a flight simulator where bloom is that useful; it seems to be a lot more useful for interior rendering, like you'd see in a first person shooter. Second, X-Plane already has a number of bloom-like effects, including halos around lights via billboards, sun glare, etc. With most of the important cases already covered by ad-hoc effects, my early experiments with bloom weren't very promising. We may revisit bloom later, but I don't think it's as important as other effects for now.

Similarly, I don't think we will have dynamic tone mapping because we will have an overall dynamic exposure control running all of the time. Again, the value of tone mapping is more obvious with first person shooters, where you can go from interior to exterior and you want the world to be 'overpoweringly bright' for a while. By comparison, pilots do their best to preserve their night vision, and the interior of an airplane is designed to match that; instruments auto-calibrate their brightness to the overall light levels, making tone mapping less important.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Next-Gen Cities

A few days ago Tyler posted some pictures of the "auto-gen"* for X-Plane 10's global scenery.

First, a few notes on hardware and performance: Propsman took these pictures on a new iMac, so that's a core i5 and a Radeon HD 5000 series GPU - that is, a pretty decent system. Hardware technology continues to advance rapidly (especially on the GPU front), so there's a big difference between a 'decent' system bought today and even a hard core system from two years ago.

I don't know what your performance will be like. I do know that the system is performing well enough so far in its not-really-all-that-optimized form that we think we can ship it, and more importantly I know that we can turn the level of detail down in a number of ways to lighten the load as needed.

The most expensive feature you see here is the real-time 3-d global shadows. Heavy shadowing combined with heavy 3-d does add up and hit the system hard, but I think we'll be able to have intermediate shadow settings that should be more affordable.

X-Plane 10 will use hardware instancing if your GPU is capable of it, and it makes a big difference in the amount of 3-d you can show.

X-Plane 10 is also quite a bit more fill-rate intensive than X-Plane 9; if your GPU is having fill-rate problems with version 9, some version 10 features will be out of reach. In the past, X-Plane has been light on fill-rate, so we've had users running with cut down cards (like a GeForce 8400) without realizing that their card isn't that fast.

Some users have asked about architecture and localization. I expect we will not ship out of the box with multiple local regions; however, the library system allows us (or any third party) to provide new artwork sets for local, architecturally reasonable buildings.

Finally, it might be a bit difficult to see in these pictures (because they are focused in on the detail), but the 3-d buildings you see here work with the real-world roads. In the past, we've had a clash between the buildings and roads vs. the terrain texture. This is a problem we are solving for X-Plane 10.

* Auto-gen, meaning bulk buildings that populate the world in urban areas...whether it's really auto or gen or anything like autogen in the past is a complex discussion that will have to wait.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Scenery Site Is Wikified

This summer Tyler migrated the X-Plane scenery SDK documentation to X-Plane's main wiki. I just put in a series of redirects, so that the old URLs for the top level pages will point to the various wiki sub-categories. The wiki contains the most recent information now, as well as up-to-date download links, etc.

At some point I will try to replace the individual scenery documents (part of the library.php script) with redirects to the appropriate wiki pages; until then I will leave the old site in place.