Saturday, October 2, 2010

Finding Bogeys and Bandits in the Simulated Unfriendly Skies

Back from the days when I was really into combat flight simulators, I remember the realism-Taliban group explaining to the infidels how the only way fly 100% realistic was to not to allow external views and turn aircraft labels off. The infidels in the more relaxed camp had counter-argued  that so much sensory feedback was missing in the simulation that external views could help to compensate. Also, they said, a computer display could never deliver a picture so clear as real life and . I never saw that debate settled, but I see merit in both views. Simulators can be played in so many ways ... it all depends what you want to simulate.

How far can you see an aircraft in real life anyway?

Below is a graph from data generated by the US Navy. Getting a visual on another aircraft depends on its aspect towards your position, off course. If the other aircraft is flying towards you, the more difficult will be to detect it. It's kind of terrifying that a small aircraft such as the MIG-21 flying towards you can be detected at 2 miles! Anyway, the point of this chart is that if you are flying a combat flight simulator with labels, you may want to ask if the labels' appearance on the virtual skies depends on the aspect of the aircraft.

Using labels in simulated air combat negates the use of an important skill: visual search (link opens a pdf document). Pretty much like the ground warriors are trained to scan systematically the terrain ahead, pilots train to scan the skies.  Alas, our brains and eyes have evolved to hunt preys and evade predators in the plains ... Not aircraft in the skies. It takes training to find something in the vastness of the airspace around you, even when it is located within the ranges specified in the chart above. If labels are activated, a deliberate and systematic visual scanning is not needed.

I found the use of the visual scanning technique described in the paper above mildly useful in LockOn Modern Air Combat. At least is useful to develop some discipline on where to look and how long to look at each field of view. Just for fun, I edited a quick mission where I flew a MIG-29 against a computer-controlled F-14. The reason I chose the MIG-29 is because is a sleek fighter and very forgiving to my piloting skills. The F-14 ... Well is a damn big aircraft and I just wanted to maximize my chances of seeing something.

As everything I do lately, the exercise didn't go as planned. I used a mission template and I forgot to unload the fierce AIM-54C radar-guided missiles from the F-14 before flying the mission.

AIM-54C, the radar-guided air to air missile from hell.
The AIM-54C gives the F-14 a tremendous edge. This missile can be fired from distances bigger than 150 km and the virtual guys in the F-14 used this missile accordingly. I could locate the F-14 with my radar, and I knew it was painting me. I scanned the space in front of me and I was almost shocked how long it took me to see the huge smoke trail of the incoming missile. I really needed to fixate my eyes for a good three seconds on a particular portion of the sky ahead to find the smoke trail.

Hint: draw an imaginary line in the HUD between the radar box and the "ILU" symbol.
Using the zoom feature helps a lot, but the portion of the sky being watched at is very small and a very slight motion with TrackIR will move the view towards other scan area.

Engaged defensive! The AIM-54C has started its dive towards me.
Now the trick is to combine the normal and zoomed views into a systematic visual scan technique.



Vulcan said...

Good article!

This is actually a thing I've been pondering upon lately before going to sleep :). To me the sims feel less like Quake without labels and there is this immersive feeling of uncertainty and a hunt. It also increased the in-cockpit workload in a realistic way.

The study PDF link isn't opening for me now but I'll have to retry it later.

Sean said...

It's slightly easier to see planes in real life.

I feel like slimmed down labels (make them a generic dot) is a good workaround for the limitations of your eyes looking at a monitor trying to find an object in 3d space.

JC said...

Ey guys,

Thanks for your comments. I'm keenly interested in your opinions. There has to be a middle ground between no aid and some aid.

Vulcan, let me know if you can't open the article. I can e-mail it to you. I assure you will like it.


Dimitris said...

Hey JC, what's up.

The value of the AIM-54 against targets smaller and more maneuverable than bombers is sometimes easy to overstate.

Have a look at KP's extensive description here:

(Search for "Buffalo" :-)

JC said...

Ey Dimitris!

LOL. That F-14 haven't read the report, I guess. :)