Browsing through the Avsim forums for the past few weeks you cannot help but notice the debate regarding weather depiction and the offerings from the different third party weather engines.
Personally, I see it as a difficult argument to satisfy. It is akin to having someone who enjoys flying a cessna tell me it is way better than flying a DC-3...who is right? If I read a metar and it says SCT030 I have in my mind a picture of what that is, yet the person writing the metar will have a totally different picture...the metar will not say where, in that great big sky, the group of clouds wil be found...are they in relation to the met observer's house (LOL)? to the airport? to the weather station? the variables are massive. And seemingly, so are the challenges to enable weather depiction due to some of the (Microsoft) code's limitations.
So I decided to ask the developers themselves, how it all started, how they do it and what is in store for the future.
Damian Clark offers us a very candid view of life at HiFi Technologies.
Q - Damian, thanks for taking the time to talk to the Avsim team. You are fairly active in the HiFi forums as well as the Avsim forums, could you tell us a little bit about yourself? What is your background? How and when did you start with HiFi?
A - Sure… I’m 37 years old, living and working in Southern California as President and Lead Developer at HiFi Technologies. I am married and blessed with two children ages 2 and 7 and in my off time I love spending time with the family especially outdoors including fishing, hiking, and kayaking. I’ve also enjoyed aviation from a very young age. My background is in IT and my various positions in the past included Networking Specialist, Director of IT and Technology Consultant. I also spent a couple years as a developer for PMDG (Fly! Airliner Series products) in the late 90s. I founded HiFi in 2002, about a year after I started working on the very first version of Active Sky.
Q - The company itself, HiFi, when and how did it start? Was the weather engine its sole focus? Were there any other products projected? Can you tell us about the HiFi team?
A - In 2001 I was training for instrument, multi-engine ratings and my commercial pilot certificate, and using MSFS (2002) to help practice instrument approaches and general IFR navigation. I wasn’t satisfied with the weather solutions that were available, so I endeavored to create something new that could give me realistic weather simulation for effective IFR practice. So Active Sky was conceived, and when complete, it worked so well that I wanted to share it. So I released it as freeware. It became popular very fast and the demand for further development inspired me to create HiFi and work on Active Sky full time as a commercial product. For many years the focus was strictly on the weather engine aspect, but we did eventually branch into graphics enhancements and also passenger simulation. Today we focus exclusively on weather engine and integrated environment graphics. HiFi’s team currently includes: Chris Willis (Graphics Designer), Joshua Jones (Support Specialist), David Opper (Community Manager), Kostas Terzides (Programmer/Developer), Amy Clark (General Manager), and myself (President and Lead Developer). In addition to the development team and internal staff, we have in my opinion the best private testing team on the planet, comprised of 30 passionate simmers, most who have exhaustive real aviation experience and/or meteorological backgrounds. This team is responsible for not only helping us fine-tune our products, but also helping us focus in on the right directions and truly shaping the product to be the best that it can be.
Q - What resources did HiFi have at its disposal to decide on a weather engine as its flag product?
A - Originally it was just myself, my time, and my motivation to create a better weather simulation solution.
Q - Your very first product, which no doubt set the foundation for later expansions, what was the development cycle? how long did it take? what kind of research was involved?
A - The first commercial product, Active Sky wxRE, took about 1.5 years of total development time from start to finish and built upon the foundation of the original freeware Active Sky add-on. Research was focused on the finding the ideal development platform and tools available at the time as well as collecting community feedback to help prioritize the feature list. From there I just used my aviation experience and passion for weather to create the best product I could.
Q - Can you give us a snapshot of the differences and enhancements between Active Sky 4 to Active Sky Evolution?
A - The gap from Active Sky 2004 to Active Sky Evolution includes several major product generations (AS2004.5, ASV, ASv6, ASv6.5, ASX, ASA). The differences from beginning to end are vast, including total re-writes and re-designs in new development environments, different interfaces and of course many new features. Some of those include advanced wake turbulence simulation, a private server network, historical weather, advanced interpolation, DWC, integrated flight planning, visual mapping, weather gauge, new depiction modes, virtual station capability, station database editing capability, hurricane simulation, comprehensive manual weather editing and Sigmets/Airmets/Pireps, to name a few.
Q - Active Sky Evolution is a popular weather engine, works in both FS9 and FSX. What are the internal differences between the two platforms? Is the injection of weather handled in a different way? What challenges did you have when providing support for both platforms?
A - FS9 mode uses FSUIPC (v3) to interface with FS9, while FSX mode uses SimConnect. The injection of weather is indeed handled much differently based on the capabilities, considerations and certain issues with each interface. The main challenge in this dual-interface system is keeping consistency and intuitiveness for the user regardless of mode, and synchronizing the various configurations so they operate similarly.
Q - Will the ASE program be updated or expanded further, for either FS9 or FSX? P3D?
A - Active Sky Evolution’s latest update, SP4, is in public beta right now and will be released officially very soon. We do not have any further updates officially planned for ASE, but we will provide them as needed. Further significant development in all simulator platforms will be reserved for new product generations.
Q - Active Sky 2012 saw a further expansion in your repertoire, for the first time you packaged textures with your weather engine. Aside from the textures, what improvements did you seek over the ASE engine? Does AS2012 use the same base processing code or is it entirely new? What was the goal of As2012?
A - Actually we included graphics back in ASv6 (ASG) for FS9, so this is the second time we’ve done this. While graphics integration was the main focus of AS2012, we also improved several things on the weather-engine side including interpolation, performance, thunderstorm depiction, visibility depiction, and very-high-altitude ambient conditions (above 54,000ft). AS2012 also includes enhanced flight planning features such as auto-routing, integrated planning/mapping with waypoint editing, TOC/TOD waypoints and more.
Q - Going back to the textures packaged in AS2012, this was obviously your first release of a texture package, how long did the project take? What was involved in creating the texture package? Who was the artistic guidance behind this?
A - Third release actually. We had ASG (included with ASv6), XGraphics (for FSX) and now AS2012 integrated graphics. AS2012 graphics content took approximately 3 years to develop which was done predominantly by Chris Willis and involved research, photography, collecting source imagery and experimenting with various techniques and testing, to find the ideal result, then using all this to develop the final content. The related code behind AS2012’s graphics was programmed myself, which in part was borrowed from the previous graphics products, but the new high-definition resolutions required new imagery processes, and the UI was completely redesigned.
Q - You have had a few issues with server outages in the past, leading to some frustration for users. We understand this things happen, are you able to elaborate on what the issues were? Have they been fixed and if so, how? Were you pleased with the response to the outages by the HiFi team (ie, do you think your processes worked to fixed the outage? improvements obviously were made, what are they?)
A - Over the years we’ve encountered a few problems but we are very satisfied with the total level of availability and up-time. The downtime we’ve had was a result of network outages, hardware malfunction, internet attacks or required maintenance. Each time we’ve encountered a problem we have worked to improve the system and infrastructure to avoid problems in the future as much as possible. This is an ongoing process and we are constantly adding new features, security and redundancy to further improve the stability of the network.
Q - Your products were among the first to tackle the issues of winds aloft in FSX/FS9 and your DWC feature needs a direct mention here. Can you explain to us what challenges are found by HiFi when attempting to represent winds aloft in Flight Simulator? What sort of improvements can we expect in the future in this regard?
A - FS9 and FSX have well-known interpolation/layer issues which cause wind shifts and improper wind directions, as well as completely erroneous aloft data that worsens over the course of a session. In FS9 we were able to solve this by utilizing the FSUIPC interface features to control ambient wind conditions. In FSX/SimConnect there is no native control of ambient conditions so we had to really think outside the box to accomplish this with DWC. It took us about 5 years and several thousand man-hours in research and testing to develop DWC. Moving forward, we have new discoveries and techniques which work even better than DWC and will offer a better overall weather depiction environment while providing accurate and smooth winds at all times.
Q - The latest and also the upcoming aircraft add-ons for flight simulator are more complex than before, and some seem to be ever more susceptible to weather conditions, deeply affected by sudden wind changes, temperature changes, etc. What sort of research does HiFi perform on existing or upcoming products for Flight Simulation? Are you aware of the effects your program may have on other add-ons?
A - Absolutely. Our customers let us know the moment there is a problem! We of course also are constantly testing various add-on products, by the development team as well as our internal testing team. Many of the problems we’ve seen recently such as potential s-turns in some high-fidelity aircraft have been isolated to issues which are native to FS itself, namely turbulence, which can be solved by adjusting certain FS and/or FSUIPC parameters. Regarding temperature issues, we have been working hard in that area to eliminate potential issues in all depiction modes and with SP4 for ASE, and SP2 for AS2012, there should be a large improvement. We are always fixing and improving, and any future problems found will be addressed. We aim to maintain compatibility with all other add-ons.
Q - Recent forum posts indicate the bar is being set higher for your field, with weather depiction (cloud and visibility representation) as well as proper wind control at all levels currently under scrutiny. What is HiFi doing regarding this feedback? What improvements are possible in the different platforms and how do they differ?
A - Competition is nothing new for us, and we welcome it. It’s good for everybody and in the end results in further innovation and better products. We’re doing what we always do, constantly improving, innovating and developing new things based on user feedback. The possible improvements are endless, and we’re very excited to have the opportunity to work on them.
Q - Xpax, what can we expect here? is there a current roadmap? more service packs? a whole new program?
A - A new XPax version is in the works but delayed a bit, while we focus on bringing out the next big thing we’ve been working on in the weather department.
Q - Looking back over time, all the way to present, what is your favourite feature in any of your products and why? What feature do you see not used enough or to its best capability? How can we get the most out of Active Sky?
A - I would say my favorite feature is probably the advanced Wake Turbulence simulation. Early in my PPL training, during a solo cross-country, I experienced a wake turbulence event that turned my little Piper Warrior II on its back for a moment while on short final and that experience was one of my motivations to create Active Sky in the first place. With ASE/AS2012 this feature is now what I had hoped for. You can realistically experience wake turbulence and the associated effects, and realistically operate in “caution: wake turbulence” environments. The wake trails drift, sink and decay realistically based on aircraft weight and configuration. You can also use wake to fine-tune your steep turn practice, as I used to do in real aircraft, by initiating a steep 360degree turn and rolling out on the same heading, getting that little “pop” of wake from your own aircraft, signifying a perfect turn.
A close second would be the planning, briefing and mapping, and I would say that this is not used as much as it probably should be. From the beginning of Active Sky, we’ve attempted to bring the realistic aspect of planning, action, decision-making and consequence to the weather environment and in each update/upgrade we get closer to reality here. But to experience this you must use go through the ordeal of planning, visualizing the weather environment, deciding on the safest/most efficient route, and then you must actively compare your planning to your actual flight performance, keeping an eye on the weather, and make appropriate decisions based on that. If you get it wrong, you pay the price. Perhaps it’s just a few gallons less in your tank at the end of the flight than you planned on, but on the other end of the spectrum, it could be a disaster.
Q - The future...where to for HiFi? What is in the pipepline? Where do you see the future of our hobby? FSX? XPlane? P3D?
A - We’re working on the next major version of Active Sky, which I can’t reveal too much on now, but it will be the best weather and environment engine yet, totally re-coded and re-designed, and will raise the bar significantly. As to the future of the hobby, we’ve all been through a lot in the recent years and there is a bit of uncertainty in how things will play out, but one thing is certain: There is and always will be a demand for realism-based flight and associated weather simulation. Regardless of the platform(s) that are available to us, we will follow the demand and do our absolute best to give our customers what they ask for.
Many thanks for your time Damian, and for the variables you have brought to our virtual skies, look forward to HiFi Technologies' future enhancements.
There you have it folks, I guess it is safe to say we can expect "turbulent times" ahead, and I believe we are extremely lucky developers are still in fierce competition to make our hobby as real as it gets.