Voice-control computer applications are great when they work. Trouble is, they have a long history of not doing that very well at all. Some of you may recall how software giant Microsoft suffered an embarrassing press conference disaster a couple of years ago with its voice recognition software for Vista.
A luckless MS presenter tried to demonstrate how to write a nice thank-you letter to his mother with Vista’s voice software in front of numerous press representatives, but instead ended up producing something which read like a death threat from a serial killer, because the software had misheard him so badly. Here it is if you fancy a laugh. Of course when the laughter stops, the problem remains.
If a voice recognition program misidentifies something you’ve said, more often than not it isn’t in the least bit funny and invariably means the application wins a one way trip to your recycle bin. This is has been something of a setback when it comes to adding voice control to games and simulations, and while some attempts for MS Flight Simulator have been reasonably successful – most notably VoxATC - most have been by no means perfect. Which is a bit of a bummer, because perfect is precisely what they need to be if they are not to lead to frustration.
Undaunted by the potential pitfalls, once in a while a developer tries to crack the nut again. And you can understand why. Comprehensive interactive voice control could add tremendous realism. To effortlessly talk to your virtual crew and the air traffic controllers, and have them talk to you, would make operating your virtual aircraft far more like the real thing. The real thing, of course, being operated by two or more people. So who wouldn’t want FS as real as that could get?
Thus it was with no small degree of hope that I installed Multi Crew Experience onto my hard drive; it being the latest stab at this tricky proposition. This time by it's developer FS++ Simulations.
But I’ll be brutally honest here, I wasn’t expecting it to work, at least not very well anyway. I’ve tried so many voice recognition applications that for one reason or another, they just failed to live up to expectations and that I’ve grown to expect them all to be flawed. Would that be the case with Multi Crew Experience, or are we really finally there with voice recognition for FS? Well, let’s find out shall we…
System requirements and pricing…
Multi Crew Experience is offered in a download format from the FS++ Simulations website. It weighs in at 51.2 Mb as a zipped file for the XP version, which I am reviewing here, eventually occupying around 100Mb when installed. If you are running Vista, there is a different version specific to that operating system available, which does all the same stuff, but we’ll be concentrating on the XP variant here.
Whether on XP or Vista, Multi Crew Experience will work in both 32 and 64 Bit flavors, so it certainly has wide appeal and longevity on its side as far as operating system compatibility is concerned. And it has fairly modest system overheads too, when it comes to RAM and processor speed requirements. But ‘your mileage may vary’ as the saying goes. While it almost certainly will run on a modest system, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will run to your satisfaction. Particularly when you consider it will be running alongside the bottomless pit that is Flight Simulator’s RAM demands.
So, rather more focus is placed on the fact that you can demo the software before you buy it. Somewhat refreshingly, the developers actively encourage you to do this before even thinking about handing over any of your money as opposed to quoting optimistic recommended specs in the hope it will garner sales, which is nothing if not a sign of confidence in their product.
The demo is fully functional too, but is time limited. It will run either 20 times or for ten days, whichever happens first. After that, it will still work – after a fashion - but with greatly reduced capabilities.
Cough up 39.99 Euros (which by my reckoning makes it around 50 bucks in the US, or 35 quid in the UK), and you’ll get a single-user license for Multi Crew Experience which is activated via a speedy automatic email process. This turns your demo into a fully-registered version and, should it have expired, back into a fully functional one. Regular updates are also promised for registered users.
I must admit, when I first saw that 39.99 Euro price tag, I thought it was a bit steep - I bet that’s what you are thinking too - but this was before I had checked it all out and understood its many facets. Keep reading and, like me, I reckon you might change your mind. There’s a lot more to Multi Crew Experience than meets the eye, and despite my original pricing misgivings, I think it’s actually quite a bargain now.
Needless to say, you’ll need some sort of microphone with full duplex sound capabilities (i.e. the ability to record and play sounds at the same time), whilst not absolutely vital, are also recommended in order to use Multi Crew Experience. Most modern computers can handle full duplex even with their built-in motherboard capabilities, so it’s not a major concern. But a good quality noise-canceling headset with a boom mike is obviously going to be a plus point for performance.
Like most programs these days, to install it you simply double click on a setup file, but there’s a difference. Because this software requires you to talk into a microphone to operate many of its functions, there is a voice-coaching routine as part of the set up process. Here’s the clever part though; instead of getting you to read ‘Mary had a little lamb’, or something equally irrelevant in order to calibrate your microphone and teach the software to recognize your voice, you read out a tutorial for the product. While you read, your mike calibrates. So you actually kill two birds with one stone when setting things up. It takes about 5-10 minutes to get through it, although you can postpone the setup if you get interrupted in the middle of things and can go back to it later to continue, or fine tune things if you wish.
Incidentally, I do recommend indulging in a bit of fine tuning where your voice recognition is concerned, which you can actually do from within the program’s Control Panel interface whilst reading further tutorials. Each time you do this, things improve considerably because your profile is cumulatively updated.
This is particularly beneficial when talking to air traffic control for things such as reading back long-winded taxi instructions, as it is easy to fluff things a bit on those occasions. Spend the time and you will certainly be rewarded with better performance. The developers reckon on something like upwards of 50 percent recognition from the initial tutorial, rising to near perfect if you do some more training.
It seemed to be better than that right from the start in my experience. Nevertheless, I did repeat the training to ensure I had a good recognition profile. It’s also worth noting that if you do this via the Control Panel, you’ll learn quite a bit more about the wider capabilities of Multi Crew Experience.
The tutorial you read is akin to a crash course on ATC in some respects, which I thought was really rather a novel idea, and it certainly creates a good first impression of how much the developers have thought about stuff even before you get to play with the thing in FS. A nice touch of ironic humor has been injected into this process too, which did not pass me by. Amongst other things, the initial tutorial will teach you the NATO phonetic alphabet, an alphabet which owes its very existence to avoiding the possibility of speech messages being misinterpreted. Bravo Zulu, as they say.
Upon completing this ingenious little calibration-come-tutorial, you can fire up Multi Crew Experience and then fire up FSX or FS9, or there is the option to start either sim beforehand. As it loads, you can have an optional prompt asking if you want to start Multi Crew Experience. So there’s none of that, ‘damn I forgot to fire it up first’ trauma that you might suffer with some utilities.
When cranked up, Multi Crew Experience can either sit on top of Flight Simulator in a small Control Panel window, or be minimized to just a narrow menu bar. Or if you prefer, it can reside completely out of sight in your system tray. It can be easily switched between these different display modes if you so desire and, practicing what it preaches, you can use voice commands to do that.
Also placed onto your system by the install process, is a PDF Installation Guide, plus numerous MS Word files which list all the default commands and offer various tutorials as well as three tools to perform various tasks. These, and indeed the main application, are all accessible from the Program menu on your PC. Pretty extensive, is how I’d choose to describe what you get.
The Installation Guide runs to eight pages and is a fairly detailed, yet an easy to follow guide to getting your sound card and system set up correctly. I suspect most people will probably already be good to go on that score without the need to tweak things, but even so, it’s nice to see this aspect has not been neglected in the documentation.
The three tools you also get include: an activation code utility, which allows you to turn your demo into a full version when you get a serial number; a utility to restore the factory settings; and a wizard which will allow you to re-run the initial voice-training tutorial should you need to fine tune the program to better recognize your voice.
This is not the only place you’ll find access to additional voice training, and its duplicated location is indicative of the value the developers place upon training your voice recognition profile when it comes to having their product perform at its best.
There are 17 MS Word tutorial files included on the Program menu (which will also open in WordPad or NotePad). They provide a complete list of all the commands Multi Crew Experience will recognize, these being divided into subjects such as ‘ATC Commands’, ‘Electrical Commands’ and ‘Radio Commands’ etc.
The division of these into individual subjects makes it easy to find whatever you might be looking for, but in practice wading through these files hardly proves necessary. Despite the fact there are clearly a huge amount of commands which Multi Crew Experience can recognize, I’ve found that the program is intuitive enough that you‘d only need to open these guides if there was a particularly obscure command you were seeking.
That said, it’s worth knowing that there are also some excellent tutorials residing within these documents too, so they are all worth at least a quick once-over.
Do it your way…
From a practical standpoint, where reading all that documentation is concerned and the prospect of it seeming tedious, the program is actually very flexible in how you can speak to it and most commands are pretty obvious in that you simply say what you want without the need to follow rigid phrasing. So you’ll be relieved to learn that you won’t have to laboriously read all of this stuff and memorize grammatical sentence structures to get up and running. For example, to raise the landing gear on your FS aircraft, you can say any of the following things:
Furthermore, if you feel like it, you can add the word ‘please’ at the end of your phrase, or put the words‘would you’ in front of it, or any other colloquialisms you might choose. Just so long as you include the bit that matters in amongst it, you’ll find it has very few problems recognizing your request.
This phrasing flexibility will, of course, be particularly attractive to the many FS users for whom English is not their native tongue, thus adding to the product’s international appeal. Since English is the language of air traffic control around the globe, Multi Crew Experience does follow that linguistic convention, meaning at least some command of the English language is beneficial when using Multi Crew Experience.
It’s also remarkably robust when it comes to filtering extraneous noise, so there’s little danger of coughing into your microphone and accidentally lowering the flaps whilst at Mach .5, which has hitherto been the kind of audio pitfall that has plagued voice-activated games and sims. And that infamous Microsoft demo of course.
An additional Word file explains how to customize checklists for any particular aircraft. Essentially to do this you merely have to type your checklist out and add a few square brackets and hyphens in the right places to ensure it will all work properly. There are some pre-configured files included for you to play around with in the main installation folder too, so you don’t have to start from scratch. Even so, as simple as it is to customize things, the developers are considering adding a small utility to help in creating your own custom checklists even simpler still. More on this later.
Dropping the ball…
There is actually one more PDF manual included during the installation process, but rather bizarrely it’s not accessible from the Program menu, as all the other things are. This is somewhat unfortunate, because it’s the one people will probably be most in need of straight away. It being the MCE How To – which is essentially an explanatory guide to Multi Crew Experience’s various features.
Users who care to explore the main installation folder on their hard drive can find it hidden there, but I would imagine many users don’t know that it is there because they’ll quite understandably assume that all the documentation you can see via the PC’s Program menu is all you get. Its secretive status might actually be behind an oversight I discovered too…
Unfortunately, even if users do find it, they’ll notice that it is out of date and relates to a beta version of the software. So there are one or two features in the current product which receive no explanation in this guide.
What, for example, is the ‘Tweak FS Config’ tick box which appears on the sim tab in the Control Panel? And what do the purser and mechanic do? None of these get a mention - let alone an explanation - in this manual. I can take a guess at what they might do, and I’m sure you can too, but when someone pays Fifty Dollars for a product, they should not have to guess at what things do because a manual is out of date.
In fairness, these features do receive some attention in the Word files you find on the menu, but they really should be in the PDF too. To have missed this is particularly sloppy in a download product, where things of this nature could quite easily be rectified by updating a picture in a PDF and adding a simple paragraph or two followed by recompiling the download zip to include such a newer file.
This omission from the MCE How To PDF slightly lets down what would otherwise be (and still is in most respects) the best and most comprehensive documentation treatment I’ve seen in quite some time. While not disastrous, I would urge FS++ Simulations to update this PDF file and tweak the installation exe, so that it appears on the PC Program menu alongside all the other documentation.
I tend to think they will, of course, but they should do it sooner rather than later as its age and shyness needlessly mar what is an exemplary collection of paperwork. Apart from that one slip up, the documentation and installation process is admirable.
So now we get to the big question: Does it work?
The short answer is yes, it does work. Yup, that’s right, put the flags up, this is voice recognition software that actually works! In fact, it works pretty well even if you don’t bother to do the voice training part, although it’s obviously not a bad idea to complete it and as noted, FS++ Simulations do place great emphasis on you doing so to ensure optimal performance. Anyway, let’s have a closer look at everything it can do, and that’s a whole lot more than simply recognizing your voice…
I imagine that, like me, you’ve probably assumed the name Multi Crew Experience refers to the product attempting to emulate having multiple crew members on board your virtual aircraft that you can talk to. And you’re right, that’s certainly part of it. But the real reason it has the word Multi in the title, is because it offers a multitude of features relating to crew operations. So it is far more than simply a bit of voice recognition software that will lower the flaps for you. Multi Crew Experience can do a vast number of things, and I do mean vast. Look at just a few of them I’ve listed here:
with your co-pilot and issue commands to him
I think even the most mean-spirited potential buyer would concede that is a lot of functions for 35 quid, because ultimately what it does, is make the operation of every aircraft you fly in FS far more realistic in some way or another. So it is effectively an upgrade to ATC, every aircraft you have, and Flight Simulator itself.
Now, unlike most Avsim reviews, there’s not much point in me simply showing you a lot of screenshots when I am reviewing what is primarily an audio application. So what I have done instead, is make a short film giving you a taste of just one of its many features in action. I’ve put that film onto YouTube, so you can see how Multi Crew Experience responds to voice controls. But keep in mind, this is just a small part of what it can do. Nevertheless, being a hard-nosed reviewer, I decided to really push things a bit on my test:
For the demo film, I placed the default FS9 Boeing 737-400 at four thousand feet, approximately ten miles North-North-East from my local airport. The 737 was positioned about sixty degrees off alignment with runway 24 at EGCC, heading North-Westerly and flying straight and level at 240 knots on the autopilot.
I deliberately selected an external view from which I could not see the airport, folded my arms so I was not touching the keyboard or my joystick, and took my feet off the rudder pedals. Suitably out of physical contact with all the controls and instruments, I then tried to get the co-pilot to bring the 737 in for an ILS approach by using voice commands alone.
Because I could not see the runway from the external view I was on, obviously I also had to estimate which way to command the co-pilot to turn in order to intercept the localizer and glideslope. Although I had a good idea of what headings to take in order to do so, his comments to me assisted me in gauging altitude and position. Furthermore, since I could not see the autopilot settings or instruments, it was a good test to make sure the Multi Crew Experience co-pilot was doing everything I asked of him.
The co-pilot’s audio responses are not recorded on the film (FRAPs refused to detect them for some reason), so you’ll have to take my word for it that he was talking to me. Nevertheless, the film ably demonstrates just one of the many things Multi Crew Experience can do. Here’s the film. Come back when you’ve watched it, and don’t forget to tick the option to ‘watch in high quality’.
Pretty impressive huh? No not me, the Multi Crew Experience software’s voice recognition. What is more, that was after only one swing at the voice coaching. It’s a shame the FRAPs footage did not record the co-pilot’s responses, so that is one part you will have to take my word for. Although it’s obvious that I could not see the runway whilst doing that little film, it’s also pretty obvious he must have been calling out altitudes, telling me when the localizer and glideslope were alive, and reporting things such as the decision height. Otherwise I would not have known when to engage approach mode or disengage the autopilot when we got near the runway threshold (did you notice I spelled ‘threshold’ wrong on the film caption by the way? Oops). That is in fact why there is a slight delay between me asking for something and you seeing the aircraft responding, the co-pilot is confirming my requests, by repeating them, before actually doing them.
You’ll have noticed that I didn’t have to say anything twice, or change the way I spoke, or even speak in a stilted robotic tone. I just said what I wanted and the virtual co-pilot made all the adjustments. And that wasn’t a fluke. It always works like that providing you do the ten-minute voice training during set up.
Honestly. To test that, I did that same approach fifteen times, and every time it worked absolutely flawlessly. Once or twice I even left the autopilot on and let it drive all the way in to touchdown, although the landing was a little heavy for my taste on those occasions, but that’s FS at work and not Multi Crew Experience.
It’s worth noting here that, depending on the options which you select in Multi Crew Experience’s Control Panel, you can have the co-pilot behave in a number of ways. If you like, you can have him monitor your actions closely, or you can have him carry out your commands without question and pretty much everywhere in between those two extremes.
So, you’ll find that should you ask him to lower the gear on a 737, he can perform a speed check to ensure you are below the recommended 235 knot gear movement speed for that aircraft, and you will hear him make that check and either confirm the action and do it, or perhaps question things if you are exceeding the recommended parameters. You can, of course, choose to override his caution too, if you like to live dangerously. But if you do, don’t expect him to sit in silence while you risk his virtual life and that of your passengers. I even heard him swear once! Yes, really.
The rock steady crew…
Incidentally, you get a choice of voices for the co-pilot and other characters. By default, most operating systems offer the choice of ‘Microsoft Mary’, ‘Microsoft Sam’, ‘Microsoft Mike’ and, if you have Vista, ‘Microsoft Anna’ (personally I’m hoping for a ‘Microsoft Christopher Walken’ voice pack in their next OS, but I reckon it’s a slim chance).
If you have other SAPI 5-compliant voice packs available on your system, such as AT&T’s Natural Voices, Multi Crew Experience can use those with a simple preference change. So if you would like to hear what the co-pilot sounds like by default, simply open up the ‘speech’ Control Panel on your computer, choose the ‘text to speech’ tab and click on the ‘preview voice’ button, or better still, download the demo of Multi Crew Experience and try it for yourself.
Needless to say, better voice packs sound more natural than the default MS voices, but in practice the defaults are good enough to get the job done and sound reasonably okay, and you do get used to them. But I still want Christopher Walken to be my co-pilot’s voice, if he was working the radio, ATC wouldn’t dare put me in a holding pattern.
You have more than simply a loyal co-pilot at your command with Multi Crew Experience. You can talk to the cabin crew and the ground personnel too if you like. The cabin crew can be asked to do the sort of things you might expect, such as securing the doors. Whereas the ground personnel can be asked to stop and start pushback, turn your aircraft a particular way when pushing back, and that sort of thing. They receive no mention in the MCE How To PDF guide, but if you look in the individual Word files for ‘Ground Commands’ and ‘Cabin Commands’, all is revealed as to what they can help you with.
There is one thing to be aware of here if you are on Vista, apparently you will need an additional SAPI 5-compliant voice, other than ‘Microsoft Anna’, installed in order to hear the ground personnel and talk to them. I didn’t try Multi Crew Experience with Vista for this review, so I’ve not personally had to tweak this aspect.
Check it out…
As impressive as being able to chat to your co-pilot and give him commands is, you’ll find it is by no means Multi Crew Experience’s only party trick, more like an overture to a huge repertoire. If you’re a fan of going for ultimate realism, then there’s a good chance you will be equally impressed by the custom checklists you can create and run via Multi Crew Experience.
The co-pilot reads through them for you, and you respond to the checks via voice, but you can also have the co-pilot respond to cross checks and have him set switches as you go. What's more, regardless of what aircraft you use, be it an Airbus A380 behemoth, or a diminutive Cessna twin, your checklist can be as accurate as you like, because you create it how you want it all from a simple text file.
So you’ll have no excuse for not setting up the cabin pressure properly, or forgetting to put the doors to automatic and arm the escape slides, or any other realistic feature you care to mention. You can add literally anything you like to a checklist accompanied by an appropriate response, and it will work.
The program includes quite a few checklists for aircraft by default too, including: Boeing 717, 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777 (with several variants of most of them), generic Boeing, generic Airbus, ERJ, generic turboprop, Beech King Air, generic jet, LearJet 45, plus a specific one for the PMDG Boeing 747. You can use any of these as is, and any of them on any aircraft, or they can be used as the basis for your own customizing efforts and saved as new files which you can import into your FS aircraft via the Multi Crew Experience Control Panel.
I decided to have a go at creating a checklist myself to see just how well it worked, and whether it was in any way tricky. Once again I attempted to push things too far, in order to see just how capable the feature is. I used a real Boeing 737’s manual to find a genuine checklist, and opened up the default Multi Crew Experience 737-400 checklist file in NotePad as a baseline from which to start. The default checklists are relatively comprehensive, but I decided to replicate a section of the checklist as it appeared in the real Boeing airliner’s manual.
This was simply a case of copying and pasting a few of the lines which were already there in the default file, to give me some extra lines of text to play with, then I overtyped these with the additional checklist items I found in the Boeing manual, whilst being careful to maintain the structure of how those extra lines I had created were laid out. I hit save, and that was it, done. So if you can type, and you know how to copy and paste, you can create your own checklist for use by the co-pilot in FS. It really is that simple.
Once you have created a custom checklist, you open up the Multi Crew Experience Control Panel while in FS (which, naturally, you can do by voice command if you like), go to the checklist tab and choose the path to your new or edited checklist. Doing this also offers the option to assign that as the default checklist for that aircraft in the future. Hit okay, and it’s ready for use on your flight.
Because you can edit and re-import things as much as you like, it’s relatively easy to fine tune things should you need to. The program updates things on the fly, so there’s no need to restart FS or Multi Crew Experience if you do that. There are some occasions where you do need to fine tune things though. I found that one or two responses did not work as smoothly as they could have, and I had to modify my responses a little in order to get these to work.
For example, Multi Crew Experience wouldn’t recognize the word ‘extinguished’ in response to a check on whether a reverser warning light was on when I said it, so I simply changed the response to ‘off’, which is close enough, whereupon it worked fine. There were one or two other similar occurrences, but generally speaking, you can put pretty much have anything you like in there and it’ll work okay. A full list of the commands you can use is to be found in those Word files on the Program menu.
The developers have also stated that they will happily consider suggestions from users for additional words to be added to the program’s recognition capabilities. So even though it is pretty comprehensive as is, you can expect it to expand its already extensive vocabulary as time goes by. I’ll bet you ten quid they read this review and tweak it so that it easily recognizes the word ‘extinguished’.
Save the trees… and your printer cartridge
There’s rarely the need to print your checklist because Multi Crew Experience will display it on-screen for you if you like via its Control Panel. The whole system is a very intuitive and flexible way to make your FS aircraft a lot more realistic in terms of crew interaction, and of course it has the same advantages as real checklists do in that it will ensure your aircraft is set up properly so you don’t get any surprises.
For example, if you always forget to alter the default fuel contents of your aircraft in FS, you could add a line to the pushback checklist reminding you to check the fuel gauges.
I did find that it was occasionally useful if I typed the odd word out phonetically on a checklist, to assist the virtual co-pilot on pronouncing things properly. For example, to get him to say APU Bus correctly rather than trying to read it as ‘Apoobus’. But it’s surprisingly good with most things, so you can usually type stuff in verbatim.
I have to say that the simple way in which you can create such a powerful addition to the realism of your aircraft operations is to be applauded. It’s a great feature. But the great features don’t stop there…
What are you doing?!
As noted, the co-pilot in Multi Crew Experience can also be configured to monitor your flying. There are several useful presets for this including four default levels ranging from inexperienced Trainee, right up to qualified ATPL veteran. But within these levels is the capability to pick and choose just how flexible you can be and what exactly the co-pilot will and will not comment on.
So, you can have him bitch about the fact that you are going 1 knot too quickly on approach, or you can have him only chip in when you get really sloppy with stuff and are at risk of drilling a hole in the virtual landscape.
This is great, especially since there is a good deal of humor injected into his comments and the fact that he calls you by name. So you do occasionally find yourself shouting at him in a manner similar to the way people do at sat nav's in their cars when things start getting busy! Prepare for some odd looks from your wife/husband/girlfriend etc, although in my case, my wife has long since abandoned all pretensions toward regarding me as sane when I’m using flight simulators.
I’ve simply got to tell you this one with regard to the co-pilot’s monitoring comments. Among the aircraft I tried the Multi Crew Experience co-pilot with, was the BAC/Aerospatiale Concorde SST. You should hear the language he comes out with when you fly that thing. I nearly fell off my chair laughing when he yelled: ‘Al, Jesus! Watch your speed!’ It was priceless.
Everybody’s talking at me…
One of the best and most useful features is that you can control and respond to the default FS air traffic control via voice with Multi Crew Experience, but perhaps more importantly, there is the option to allow the co-pilot to handle ATC communications if you get too busy.
This feature in particular, is especially useful if you are not great on correct nomenclature and phraseology for talking to ATC, because Multi Crew Experience can effectively teach you how to do all that. Simply have your co-pilot respond to ATC for you until you get used to how he says things, and learn by listening! Or, to speed things along a bit, you can read the excellent tutorial which is included in the ‘ATC Commands’ Word file which is part of the documentation.
The tutorial uses an American Airlines flight from the UK to the USA as an example and has a transcript of all the ATC you would use on such a trip, complete with explanatory notes on phraseology and eventualities.
If you want to emulate the real airline procedures that most flight crews use, you can. The fact that your co-pilot can effectively fly the plane with a few directions from yourself, and can work ATC, means that you could alternate between these two duties with each taking a turn at the wheel whilst the other handles communications. This ability to take turns and fly ‘sections’ on long haul flights is exactly how it is often done in the real world.
Like all features in the program, you can have these ATC options on or off depending on your preference, and change them on the fly, too. It should be apparent that this level of flexibility and personal control – which is something of a hallmark for all aspects of Multi Crew Experience - is where things can get very realistic if you want them to. And remember that this is with the default FS ATC - not some isolated incarnation of it, as has often been the case with other attempts to add this kind of functionality to FS - so your interaction and that of your co-pilot is part of the AI traffic around you.
If you combine this capability with a realistic traffic add-on, you’ll be pretty much emulating the real world exactly, and it, of course, means that you could easily use Multi Crew Experience with things such as Vatsim too, although it stops short of your virtual buddy being able to talk to real people online – Multi Crew Experience is good, not supernatural!
You might have noticed on the little demo film I made that I did not choose to complicate matters for the demonstration with the inclusion of ATC, but I certainly could have added a whole variety of ATC functionality to the proceedings had I wanted to. Conversely, this also means that if you want to use another application for ATC, such as Radar Contact or Pro Flight, you can certainly do so by turning off all the ATC functions in Multi Crew Experience. Personally I think that under normal circumstances you’d be mad to not make use of such flexible and realistic CRM to its fullest extent.
In tune with the action…
To give you an idea of how much more involved this flexibility can make you feel, here’s a small example. When most people use the default FS ATC, they tend to let it auto-tune the radio if they get a frequency hand-off, and while this is convenient, it removes a lot of the realism when flying your simulated aircraft.
Because of this, one of the features I really liked in Multi Crew Experience was the ability to get the co-pilot to tune the radios via your instructions. In this way you are involving yourself with the tuning of the radios, but eschewing all the fiddly mouse-clicking stuff. So you can simply say: ‘VHF one, one-one-eight point seven five’ and the co-pilot will tune your com 1 radio to 118.75, whereupon you can take over talking to ATC for yourself.
ATC chat being differentiated from normal chat to your co-pilot has you needing a transmit button to be assigned to your joystick and pressed in the same manner as a transceiver key, thus avoiding confusion over whom you are directing your comments at, not to mention it being a good emulation of how things are done on a real twin-crew aircraft. Or, if you like, leave the communication entirely up to your virtual co-pilot if you are busy taking a sip of coffee.
There’s a lot of leeway in how you say things too. ‘Radio one, one hundred and eighteen decimal seventy five’ would work just as well to tune the radio to 118.75, and the fact that there are many ways to issue commands means that when things get busy, you will not get tongue-tied in trying to remember the ‘correct way’ to say stuff because most common sense ways of saying things are fine as far as Multi Crew Experience is concerned.
This means there really isn’t much of a learning curve at all. You could be using it with confidence just moments after you had installed it. Naturally, you can control all the radios in this manner, so setting up the navigation radios and transponders etc, is also a breeze. And just to pick up on one advantage this confers, your IFR clearance read backs should be a much smoother experience as a result of this.
Where conversations with ATC themselves are concerned, you can choose the level of accuracy needed too. Everything from the requirement to be spot-on with aircraft call signs etc, down to simply having the FS ATC window open automatically and implementing one of the options from it by nothing more complicated than saying what number option you want from the list. Either can be your choice via the Multi Crew Experience options, and in common with all the other options (with the exception of one or two obscure items), these can be changed without the need to restart either FS or Multi Crew Experience.
As you can probably guess, the voice recognition for all these ATC aspects is of an equally precise standard to what was shown in the demo film I made when talking to the co-pilot. There’s no other way to describe it all, other than to say it is hugely impressive. This is the kind of control we have been waiting for in a flight sim.
If you feel all this cockpit assistance and general grooviness is making life too easy for you, Multi Crew Experience offers the option for you to make life a bit tougher by switching random failures on or off at will. Of course you can do that via the FS menus, but if you would like to have it happen fairly rapidly, the Control Panel is more than willing to oblige you.
Make sure you really want a challenge though, as it will come up with some tricky ones for you. Although you’ll find that the co-pilot will often draw your attention to something being awry, courtesy of his comments. For example, I had the ASI fail on the take off roll in a big jetliner, resulting in some weird comments from him and no ‘Eighty knots’ airspeed call out, which quickly alerted me to the problem, enabling me to apply a timely, not to mention tire-screeching, rejected take off.
Peel me a grape…
Despite the large number of features I’ve looked at here, I still haven’t even touched on some aspects of what Multi Crew Experience is capable of. But rather than wade through everything, I’ll encourage you to download the demo and discover these for yourself instead. Suffice to say that there are many more pleasant surprises in store when you try it. And if you use Microsoft Flight Simulator, you really owe it to yourself to do that.
With so many features and functions available, at one point I was beginning to wonder if this software could go and get me a nice cup of tea, or perhaps fix the head gasket on my car, but regrettably, there are some things even IT cannot do. So let’s take a look at some of those limitations…
Deploy the RAM turbine…
Multi Crew Experience generally runs better with FS9 than it does with FSX. This is largely unavoidable and due solely to the nature of their respective hardware requirements. The newer sim has more features and simply will use more RAM and processing power, which leaves less computing muscle for Multi Crew Experience to exploit.
I found that I had to drop the display quality in FSX a bit in order to free up enough RAM to stop it lagging on response time to my verbal requests. Although there is some capability to fine tune even that aspect in Multi Crew Experience’s Control Panel tabs, but obviously there’s a limit to what that can achieve. Having said that, I was on a computer with only two GHz of memory (albeit it pretty fast memory). If you have more RAM than that available, I suspect you’d fair better with it in FSX.
But either way, if you value realism over eye candy, this will be a sacrifice you’ll be happy to make should you need to. Since there is little to choose from when flying the big iron in either FS9 or FSX, despite the fact that I usually favor FSX, I actually found myself preferring to use Multi Crew Experience in FS9 because of the performance benefits. Although this was partially because I was invariably also running FRAPs, in order to gather screenshots for this review.
This incidentally is why FS++ Simulations recommend you try out Multi Crew Experience first before buying it. They make no secret of the fact that because Multi Crew Experience has to run with Flight Simulator, you’ll need a pretty decent computer set up if you want your graphics up on high settings whilst running it.
However, if you watch the movie I placed on YouTube of it in action, you’ll see that you can have most of the detail sliders up on maximum - including displaying autogen scenery - and still have things run perfectly well. Don’t forget I was also making a RAM-hogging FRAPs recording at the time. So like the developers suggest, I think your best course of action is to try it for yourself and see how it runs on your own system in this regard.
Vista users will doubtless enjoy better performance with FSX since the simulator tends to run a lot better on the newer MS operating system, and Vista itself is also slightly better equipped in terms of speech recognition, notwithstanding the embarrassing incident I quoted at the start of this review. But as you can see from my demo, XP is no slouch either. I did not try Multi Crew Experience on my own Vista PC, preferring to concentrate my efforts on one machine, so I can’t confirm the performance differences for sure, but it seems a reasonable assumption.
You should be aware that there are a few limits on the aircraft you can use with all the functions Multi Crew Experience offers. Some of this is by design, and some by virtue of things beyond the developer’s control.
By design, most small general aviation aircraft will not load the Multi Crew Experience co-pilot. This definitely is a deliberate decision and makes sense too, since it is extremely unlikely that you’d have a first officer with you onboard a Cessna 172, unless you were a billionaire or something like that.
Multi Crew Experience reflects that reality by not loading up a co-pilot when you fly those types. However, you do get the option to load up an ‘instructor’ into your small aircraft instead, which is essentially the co-pilot running in a kind of ‘advisory mode’. So you’ll get him (or her if you use a female voice) offering comments and suggestions on your performance, and predictably, you can fine tune that to your heart’s content as well. Most of the instructor’s comments are somewhat dry in their wit too, so depending on your disposition, you might like that or you might not, but it does offer the opportunity to brush up on your flying skills should you feel the need. In reality this isn’t a limitation, more of a feature. Naturally, you can still use Multi Crew Experience’s excellent ATC voice capabilities in these circumstances.
A similar design decision, although not as drastic, has been taken with turboprops. According to the manual, they supposedly do not feature extensive support, although I suspect this might be an artifact of the manual’s age, which I previously noted was a little out of date. It states that turboprops are scheduled for some attention in a later revision of Multi Crew Experience, but the ones I tried seemed okay. So maybe that’s already happened and the manual needs to reflect it having been accomplished.
Whatever the truth of the status quo, there certainly are one or two turboprops which do in fact work very well with Multi Crew Experience; notably the FSX/FS9 Flight 1 Cessna 441, the FS9 Aeroworx Beechcraft B200 King Air, and indeed the default FSX King Air too. All of which I tried. The Beechcraft even has a suitable checklist included. Although I must admit I did not try absolutely every single switch on the Aeroworx version.
Even so, most of the sophisticated avionics which it features did seem to operate, including the Collins APS-65. I could not get the co-pilot to stick the engines in beta mode on the King Air via Multi Crew Experience, and on jets he most definitely will engage reverse thrust for you as my demo film quite clearly shows. He’ll set any other turboprop throttle setting for you though, that I do know.
Choppers get the chop…
Although the developers have stated that Multi Crew Experience is not really designed with helicopters in mind, you can still use rotary-winged craft with it to a lesser extent. A fair few of its functions, with the exception of the co-pilot, are available so you can still enjoy its ATC capabilities in your whirlybirds.
In addition to the default FS choppers that I tried out, which seemed to run without problems, out of curiosity I tried it with one of my favorite payware add-on helicopters too. Namely the First Class Simulations UH-1H Iroquois ‘Huey’. This it did not like at all, with the Control Panel flashing back and forth between the system tray and FS overlay. And although that is not exactly a comprehensive test, if you have in mind the idea to use Multi Crew Experience with your own favorite helicopter, I’d recommend trying the demo with it first to ensure that you can.
In fairness to the developers, it is understandable that they have chosen to limit capabilities with helicopters, especially as far as the co-pilot is concerned, since their operation is so very different from fixed wing aircraft.
I am purely a fixed wing pilot as far as real world flying experience goes, I have never piloted a real helicopter - although I’ve been up in the things many times and have a fair bit of interest in them – so I’m certainly not an authority on them. But, I think I’m right in saying they tend to really only be a two-pilot operation when employed in combat or SAR roles. Both of which are a bit beyond the scope of Flight Simulator, unless via a specialized mission in FSX.
Certainly I’ve flown in many choppers in the front seat when a passenger, and combining that experience with what I know about them, which admittedly is mostly from books such as Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk, I’d say that giving them a believable co-pilot role would be outside the civilian focus at the heart of Multi Crew Experience. So if choppers are your thing, don’t expect a seamless marriage, and try before you buy.
We seem to have a technical glitch ladies and gentlemen. However, there’s no reason for alarm…
The only notable fly in the ointment to be found as far as Multi Crew Experience is concerned, is that some complex add-on aircraft do not always gel completely with it. Now before alarm bells start ringing, bear in mind the effect is fairly minimal and that this is not actually a fault on the part of the developers. Nor does it mean that such aircraft are unusable with Multi Crew Experience.
As can quite clearly be seen from the screenshots in this review, and the fact that a specific checklist is included, I was happily using the PMDG 747 with Multi Crew Experience and that is nothing if not a complex add-on aircraft. In fact, it’s one of the most complex aircraft you can buy for FS. But even that comes across like a poorly-equipped Sopwith Camel when compared to the ultra-complex Concorde, which also works with Multi Crew Experience.
Nevertheless, the functions you can get the co-pilot to operate when flying such aircraft can be partially limited. But don’t get disheartened, it’s important to understand that such limitations will not preclude you from making use of the very best features which Multi Crew Experience has to offer when driving these birds of a fancier plumage, and I’m simply mentioning this minor issue because to not do so would make this review incomplete.
To get a handle on what is behind this behavior, it’s necessary to delve a little deeper into how a good number of complex add-on aircraft are made…
Fasten your seatbelts, severe techno babble coming up…
Complex add-on aircraft often have to be created by ‘bending the rules’ a bit, as far as the Flight Simulator’s Software Development Kit (SDK) guidelines are concerned. They invariably run custom-built gauges, often have tailored .dll files, and can be busily performing all kinds of unseen XML data transfer wizardry behind the scenes in order to portray the complexities of the real thing they are trying to emulate.
Normally all this ‘boffin stuff’ stays under the hood, where most FS users are happy to leave it. But even so, such chicanery is necessary if we want complexity, because the complexity we desire is generally beyond the default capabilities of FS. The huge amount of work behind creating these custom routines is, of course, what you are paying for when you hand over 40 quid for the latest payware 737, or some other such airborne wonder.
The PMDG MD-11, for example, took five years to develop and you can be sure that those five years were not spent deciding what color box to put the DVD in. That and other flashy FS birds can even be running separate sub-routine applications to allow them to circumvent many FS constraints, including, in the case of that PMDG MD-11, the gauges, switchs, sounds and lighting limitations of FS.
When FS aircraft such as these are running by themselves, this is fine, but when running in concert with other add-ons - ones which stay within the parameters of the recommended guidelines for creating FS add-ons, such as Multi Crew Experience - things can go awry. With Multi Crew Experience, this manifests itself most typically in the ability of your virtual co-pilot to adjust the autopilot functions. Specifically, you can ask the co-pilot to adjust something like the autopilot heading setting, and he will respond positively that he is doing so, and make the setting changes.
You might even hear the click of the dial being turned, but the change will not be reflected on the Mode Control Panel display, thus the heading will remain unchanged. Clearly in cases where this happens, it is because the autopilot of a fancy add-on aircraft is using something more sophisticated than simply a redesigned panel which is running the default FS autopilot behind that façade. Possibly a non-standard tweak to the aircraft’s .CFG file is occuring, or even a sub-routine outside of FS proper.
In circumstances such as these, Multi Crew Experience has no way to detect the custom routine which a fancy add-on aircraft is running for its functions, instead adjusting the default controls because it is designed to access the standard stuff in FS, which is, of course, being overridden. Thus it can hardly be blamed for being unable to operate everything on an aircraft which bypasses the normal procedures. More on this and a possible fix later.
As noted, this does not mean that such aircraft are unusable with Multi Crew Experience by any means. The aircraft will still work just fine, but the upshot is that you might have to operate some things yourself rather than having the Multi Crew Experience co-pilot do it all for you.
Typically, you can still have your virtual co-pilot raise and lower the gear, operate the lights, raise and lower the flaps, tune the radios, handle communications and things of that nature, and you can still talk to ATC yourself (i.e. you can still use all the best bits of Multi Crew Experience). Although, you might find your virtual cockpit buddy gets a bit confused on aircraft with lots of flap stages or very fancy lights.
This again is due to the FS SDK recommendations having been circumvented rather than any error with Multi Crew Experience. In the case of lights for example, FS places a limit on how many lights you can have on an aircraft (I seem to recall that limit might be nine in total, but I may be wrong on that). If you go beyond that limit when developing an aircraft for FS, weird display behaviors can ensue unless you use custom routines to work around it (as developers often do), which of course throws add-ons such as Multi Crew Experience (which adhere to standard SDK guidelines) off the scent.
Fear not however, these slight compatibility issues will probably not be a permanent state of affairs. FS++ Simulations are apparently talking to a number of developers with a view to perhaps creating some kind of plug-in remedy which will allow Multi Crew Experience to work to its fullest extent with these fancier aircraft incarnations.
They have not put any deadline or indeed offered any concrete promises that it will definitely happen, but I don’t really see any reason why it could not. Technically, all it requires is to tell Multi Crew Experience where to find the parameter it needs to adjust for a particular aircraft via something such as XML, or even to simply override things temporarily. So matters may, and probably will, improve for many such aircraft.
Given the likelihood that Multi Crew Experience will probably have huge appeal to FS airliner fans in particular, it would clearly be in the interests of developers such as PMDG and feelThere etc, to have their aircraft work well with it, so one would assume they’d try and work in concert with the developers of Multi Crew Experience if they could. As far as overall timing goes for changes of this nature, the FS++ Simulations developers currently plan to offer updated versions of Multi Crew Experience every two months or so. Which means that whatever happens, we can expect support to be good in many regards, and almost certainly in this arena if other developers have the desire to co-operate.
Motley crew experience…
I tested an esoteric mix of add-on FS aircraft with Multi Crew Experience, and whilst it’s fair to say that a good number exhibited the aforementioned behavior and occasional limited compatibility with the MCP, more than a few were fine with it. Among the aircraft I tried were: the CLS FSX Airbus A340; the PMDG FS9 Boeing 737 NG; the PMDG FS9 Boeing 747-400; the Captain Sim FS9 Boeing 727; the Flight 1 FS9/FSX ATR-72; the Flight 1 FS9/FSX Cessna 441, the Just Flight/Phoenix Simulations Concorde and the Aeroworx FS9 Beechcraft King Air.
Notable exceptions, in that they ran pretty much flawlessly with Multi Crew Experience despite being quite ‘fancy’, were the Flight 1 FS9/FSX Cessna 441, the Aeroworx FS9 Beechcraft King Air, the Captain Sim Boeing 727 and the CLS FSX Airbus A340. Obviously I do not possess every add-on aircraft ever made for FS, so this is by no means a comprehensive test, nor an exhaustive one for that matter. But with a free demo available, there is nothing to prevent you from conducting a test on your own favorite add-on aircraft if its ability to work flawlessly with Multi Crew Experience is of a big concern.
Broadly speaking and as a general guide, this behavior means one of two things where the aircraft that gelled with Multi Crew Experience are concerned. One, either they are using a lot of default FS systems dressed up as more complex stuff, which is likely in the case of the CLS A340, since even though it is great fun to fly and certainly recommended, it is a ‘lite’ simulation at heart. Or two, they have some very clever developers who can squeeze miracles out of the FS SDK.
I certainly suspect the second one is true in the case of the Aeroworx King Air, because it has a fairly convincing simulation of some very fancy avionics indeed, not to mention it is probably one of the hardest things you can find to fly in FS. As far as the Flight 1 Cessna 441 is concerned, it’s not that surprising, since there are very few differences between the FSX and FS9 versions, mainly just the feathering props on the FSX incarnation which would indicate that, as good as it is (one of my favorites in fact), it isn’t hugely complex under the hood. But it’s worth noting that it does have the virtue of being probably one of the smallest aircraft you can get away with having the co-pilot in.
The Captain Sim Boeing 727, despite its faithfulness to the older steam-driven avionics featured in the real 727, coped admirably with Multi Crew Experience, which is probably just as well since you actually need three crewmembers to fly a 727 for real, as you do with the Just Flight Concorde, which also worked pretty well in most respects.
I found one unusual exception to all of this, and that was the FeelThere/Wilco Publishing Pilot in Command 737. It works with the above mentioned slightly limited compatibility in FS9, but Multi Crew Experience completely failed to recognize that it had loaded into FSX. So there’s definitely some fancy developer footwork going on as far as that’s concerned. Again, not too surprising in view of its extremely realistic aspects, but I’ll certainly be hoping for some tweak with regard to this one as it is another of my personal favorites.
Diverting to an alternative…
The occasional limitations you find with more complex aircraft of course brings up a point worth bearing in mind with regard to the vanilla FS aircraft. Since all the default FS aircraft have absolutely no problems with Multi Crew Experience, it’s worth noting that the default FS aircraft can be considerably enhanced beyond their original capabilities by the addition of products such as Friendly Panels and Integrated Simavionics. Which, as I’m sure you are aware, can add FMC's and other fancy avionics to the default offerings. This is a guaranteed route to compatibility and complexity.
Back on course…
Nothing will prevent you from using Multi Crew Experience to run custom checklists on pretty much any FS aircraft, fancy or otherwise, since these work entirely within the program’s own parameters. Nor would any compatibility issues prevent you from enjoying its remarkable ATC capabilities with the full range of aircraft that FS can use either, for similar reasons.
What all that adds up to is, that in practice the limitations I have (of necessity in a review) focused on here, are not as limiting as they at first might appear, and in most cases just mean that you’ll have to adjust the Mode Control Panel settings for yourself. In reality, this is no hardship. After all, you will want to work at least some of the controls for yourself, otherwise you’d simply be a passenger. And if you leave everything up to the co-pilot, virtual though he may be, it would be a little unkind on the poor chap.
In short, there’s nothing of any real consequence that should prevent you from enjoying most, if not all, of Multi Crew Experience’s best functions.
Brace for impact…
Every once in a while a product shows up which is pretty much a ‘must have’ for the serious flight simmer. One which you know will have a massive impact on the way many people use FS. It’s not often I would go anywhere near the suggestion that a new product for FS could make a big change to the way you do things and ramp up your immersion so much. But this is one of those occasions. And that’s quite a turnaround for me. I started off expecting Multi Crew Experience to fail miserably, but instead, I just got more and more impressed by what it could do.
It is right up there with things like TrackIR, and the BUO836 circuit board beloved of cockpit builders, as something which pushes flight simulation possibilities to another level and something which you really should try. The fact that FS++ Simulations offer a full demo for you to do just that, speaks volumes about their confidence in Multi Crew Experience. Annd if you try it, you’ll see that their confidence is not misplaced.
Only a fool would deny that Multi Crew Experience clearly owes a lot to the trail which products such as Vox ATC and FSHotseat have blazed before it, and, of course, the pioneering work which Microsoft have done as far as voice recognition goes. But inasmuch as those have illuminated the way forward, Multi Crew Experience has picked up the torch and run with it.
With all the depressing talk of the demise of MSFS which has permeated flight simulator forums of late, you have to take heart at the arrival of a product such as this. It makes you feel the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.
I won’t lie and say it never misheard anything I said, because it did on one or two occasions when I was running checklists. But these were rare occurrences, and in the air when being used for directing commands toward the co-pilot and dealing with ATC, it really did work flawlessly and added massively to the feeling of being involved on a much greater level with your flight and your crew.
It would be easy to imagine that something of this ilk would be difficult to get to grips with, but it is nothing like that at all, it being very intuitive indeed and with excellent support documentation to boot. The worth of being able to customize the checklists it uses with absolute ease, even for those not familiar with what would normally be a complex computing task, simply cannot be overstated and serves to highlight how easy it is to get familiar with all its other aspects. There are hardly any aircraft for FS which this product cannot make more fun and more realistic to use in at least some way.
It’s a shame some of its functions won’t work with some add-on aircraft, even though these are generally only a few in number, but it’s hard to grumble about that when it can do so many other things, and as noted, this is something the developers are willing (and are attempting) to address anyway.
The modular approach it takes, whereby you can pick and choose what functions to make use of, is really excellent. It lends huge flexibility to how much you can integrate into your current set up and personal preferences, and will, in fact, let you work around any compatibility issues you might find to take advantage of its vast array of other features. On top of all this, since it does not need FSUIPC instead relying on its own custom gizmos to do the business, there’s not much chance of it clashing with any of your other favorite FS utilities.
A word of warning though. If you go to the FS++ Simulations website to try this product out, don’t go there out of idle curiosity. Because you will want to buy it when you’ve tried it, that I can promise you.
Recommended? Damn straight it is.
What I Like About Multi Crew Experience
What I Don't Like About Multi Crew Experience
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