by Will Reynolds
It is hard to ignore the other sim in the mainstream market. Sim loyalty is a strange thing...people can go about it as if their virtual lives depended on it.
So having a juggernaut from Microsoft, developed over so many years and with such a large budget, why would you need a new, different sim? Well, why not? Truly, if everyone thought we needed no change, no option, no competition, there would be no innovation, and innovation appears to be Austin Meyer’s middle name, as well as maybe “resilience”? I will let him pick.
Here we have the man behind X-Plane, the man who started it all and produced a civilian mainstream Flight Simulator in 64bit before anyone else, and a man passionate enough to stand by his product day by day.
Avsim is extremely excited to have this opportunity to meet Austin Meyer, and learn what we can expect in the upcoming X-Plane 11 as well as the future beyond that.
1 – Could you please tell us a bit about Austin Meyer? Where were you born/grew up, general background?
Austin - Born in California grew up in South Carolina went to St Pauls School in New Hampshire (Google Meyer Scholar to see a scholarship I have set up for that school) then went to Carnegie Mellon and Iowa State.
This combination of schools and colleges plus a pilots’ license got me the training in flying, computer programming, and aerospace engineering that you need to write a flight simulator.
2 – When would you say the love of aviation started?
Austin - Around high school.
3 – Did you ever imagine you would be juggling so many things at once? Ie Flying, Laminar Research, plus all your other activities?
Austin - No. Right now I am:
-Writing X-Plane, a flight simulator that predicts how real airplanes will fly, so that you can enter the design of any aircraft you can imagine and then fly it in the simulator
-Writing Xavion, an iPad App that will guide a (real) aircraft safely down to landing after an engine failure, as well as back up most cockpit flight instruments in a real airplane, on your iPad,
-Writing Stradale, a very simple little car-racing simulator for iPad and iPhone that has the most realistic physics of any driving sim that I know of,
-Being sued by a Patent Troll called Uniloc for using the Google Play store to distribute X-Plane for Android,
-Making a documentary called “The Patent Scam” that explains what Patent Trolling is, and tells the story of about a dozen or so victims of that common practice.
4 –You are on record stating you did not like the feel of the flight sims and started your own, can you expand a little on this? What sims exactly failed to live to your expectations and why?
Also, what was the original premise of Laminar Research? Was it only to create and support a flight simulator? What was the original plan and has it changed?
Austin - I started with MSFS back in the mid-90’s and very quickly saw that MSFS did not let me rapidly customize the flight dynamics and instrument panel to suit the Piper Archer II that I was flying at the time, so I wrote my own sim, called Archer-II IFR, to practice IFR flying. I soon expanded it to cover many different types of aircraft, so re-named it to X-Plane. Plane-Maker was just as critical as X-Plane itself, right from the start, since that is what let users (then and now!) design their own aircraft and instrument panels.
I wrote X-Plane in my dorm while at Iowa State and when I graduated in 1995 very very rapidly put X-Plane on the market on the World Wide Web, as we called it then, at a price of $599, as I recall, selling to a small number of pilots that wanted a sim that was completely different from MSFS: Much more easy customizability for each customer, much more accurate flight model, and much better frame-rate than MSFS for a really smooth and accurate feeling of flight.
5 – Can you tell us about the first few years of Laminar Research? How many people were involved? How has it evolved into what it is today?
Austin - Oh it was all just me in a tiny little ugly old rented apartment out by the airport.
For the first three or four years of Laminar Research, I think I answered EVERY SINGLE EMAIL that I got!
That was before trolling and spam became things, and my customer-base was narrow enough then that each email I got was from a customer with a thoughtful question, not a panicked accusation!
Different times, eh?
6 – Your product suite at the moment lists apps for mobile devices, as well as “Giant Fighting Robots”…can you tell us how LR moved into those fields?
Austin - It may sound silly to say that I was not thrilled with the physics of MechWarrior, but I jus had an uneasy feeling that maybe the physics of the Mechs were not as good as they could be, so I had a really good time writing Giant Fighting Robots, getting all the walking physics and weapons dynamics just perfect. It is surprising how hard it is to program a robot to walk up a steep hill: As you foot comes forward for the next step, it is so easy to stub your toe on the rising terrain, simply pushing you back again!
Ditto that for Stradale. There are racing sims out there with amazing graphics but in at least many cases that I know of the physics just aren’t there, so I addressed that with Stradale… if you try it you will really see how good a physics model it is possible to code. WHY ON EARTH IS STRADALE THE ONLY IPHONE AND IPAD DRIVING SIM WHERE YOU TILT THE PHONE FORE AND AFT FOR FINE CONTROL OF THE THROTTLE AND BRAKES???!?!? Do other driving sims even understand the sliding bond between the tire and road, which is a vector aimed along the motion of the tire contact patch with respect to the pavement? They don’t FEEL like they do, anyway…
And why on Earth don’t the other iPad Apps for pilots plot engine-out paths down to the best runway to land on in the event of engine failure? Nobody else does, which is why I wrote Xavion.
And why on Earth, when people are sued by Patent Trolls for doing NOTHING WRONG, do they shut their mouths and hope nobody will notice, rather than expose the corruption?
I made the documentary “The Patent Scam” to expose this which we just finished and are about to show to potential distributors at the moment that I write this.
So, in each case, I saw some obvious lack of anyone ELSE doing the job right, and decided to do the job right myself.
(None of the other missions have been financially successful though… in the group above only X-Plane has made good money)
7 – Let’s concentrate on X-Plane…has the direction of the SIM changed from the first iteration to X-Plane 11? Ie aside from technical enhancements, has the actual output of what you want the sim to be about changed at all? If so, how?
Austin - The fundamentals of the sim have NOT changed!
Up to v11, the user interface is radically overhauled, the sound has the option to be radically overhauled by each aircraft author (using FMOD), and the scenery is surely in a whole different world, with an increasingly dynamic worked of ATC, other aircraft, ground trucks swarming about the airplane, etc.
So the world of X-Plane is exploding in complexity and accuracy and completeness (now up to about FOUR THOUSAND realistic 3-D airports!), but the fundamental of quickly entering your own aircraft and instrument panel to quickly go flying with realistic physics and good frame-rate is unchanged from literally version 1.00.
8 – How are the changes/enhancements of X-Plane decided? Is it a strategic decision? Is it market based? Community feedback? Do you assign a priority timetable to these changes?
Austin - Mostly it is me just saying “I want that”, but to some degree it is my subcontractors, deciding what they want behind my back, and just putting it in there themselves, with my not finding out about it until it is done. (And then, when I see it, I fly off the handle if it is not what I had in mind, and if the new thing does not work right yet, I am piiiiiiissssssed! So my team tries to be careful to hide their contributions to the sim from me until they are dialed in perfectly, but that is obviously difficult for them to do since we are all working on the same sim, same source code).
9 – Do you set a list of features for each version of X-Plane? For example, X-Plane 10 saw migration to 64bit as well as several enhancements, or is this a “dynamic” list?
Austin - Me and my sub-contractors meet every 6 months at a different place in the USA, at one of our houses or a hotel in a fun city. We grab a white board from Staples or the hotel concierge, and argue and yell and fight and whine and try to convince the others until we have our next 6 months of work on the board. Then we snap a photo of the board and those are supposed to be our slave-orders to each other for the next 6 months or so. There is no leader. I am only the leader in name. I am the leader like Geoffery was the leader in Game Of Thrones. Only a leader in name while the real work is done by many, in a continuously-debated ebb and flow of ideology, with the true power coming from whoever writes the code. So we all argue about our plans, come up with what we agree on, distribute the work of our to-do list that we agreed to, run home and get to work, each promising to knock out the part of the job that was assigned to him, with a flurry of emails over who has to do what to get their part of the job done… each so the others can do THEIR part. You see the screw-up happens when it is MY job to make the ground trucks service the airplanes, but the ARTIST has not yet given me the ground trucks to drive, and BEN has not yet given me airport editing tools to define the ground truck parking spots and roads, and JULIAN has not done a bunch of airports with ground-truck parking data, which of course USES the editing tools made by BEN, so JULIAN is waiting on BEN! And then there is a panicked flurry of emails between all of us to see who needs to do what to maximize efficiency to get it all done.
10 – Do you have a set list of time before a new version of X-Plane comes out?
Austin - No. X-Plane 10 was out for SIX YEARS!
With about 50 free upgrades or so over that time period.
But there are those that still email me, saying that they want to get X-Plane 11 for free since they purchased version 10, and they will destroy my reputation on social media if I do not give it to them for free.
11 – Looking back at X-Plane 10, what dictated the need to migrate to 64bit? How do you see users benefiting from this?
Austin - Oh with 32 bits of RAM, the sim runs out of memory and crashes if there is too much detail and variety and distance in the world, no matter how efficient and careful the App.
So you have to go to 64 bits of address definition to be able to have the variety and distance of world to fly in that we are now able to create.
So that is really a rather black-and-white thing. You gotta have it, period.
12 – We are approaching the end of the X-Plane 10 run, what are the features that please you the most in the current platform?
Austin - I like my old interface because it is FAST!
I find I need more CLICKS to do the same thing in the new interface, in SOME cases.
The new UI looks way better, and explains what is going on more clearly, and guides you through the steps much better, but to me it seems SLOWER.
So I will miss my fast UI in X-Plane 11, BUT, over time, we will get the best of both worlds. We will get the new UI to be as fast as the old one, and soon after that, I have some ideas to make it even FASTER.
At THAT point, going back to X-Plane 10 will be a joke, like driving a Model-T.
13 – What are the features you wish had been introduced in X-Plane 10 but did not make it and why?
Austin - Oh, after 6 years and maybe 50 free updates or so, there is nothing else that I wish we had put into v10!
It’s time for v11!
14 – We have noticed a shift in the user base of X-Plane, partially thanks to the introduction of some very attractive third party products. The introduction of this new user base has been very vocal about some of the features they would like to see in X-Plane. How does your market research address this? What have you seen yourself in this regard?
Austin - See question 9 on this: We meet as a team and the people in the room, who MAKE X-Plane, throw ideas out that WE want.
THOSE ideas are, of course, driven by what each of us has heard… FROM THE USERS.
We have no formal market research. Instead we just go based on what customers have told us.
15 – With more and more high fidelity products appearing in X-Plane, the user base likes to push for reality, and weather is an integral part of this. Real time weather as well as third party weather engines are currently restricted to three layers of wind and cloud, and two layers of turbulence, which means no vertical depiction of towering CBs etc. We find it is possibly the biggest single gripe people have with X-Plane and stops users from migrating totally and comparisons with the MS and LM products is inevitable. Is this something that is likely to be addressed? If so, how and when?
Austin - Interesting.
But here is the thing: Adding more cloud layers is NOT the right way to make towering CBs.
We need a more 3-D model, THAT CHANGES OVER TIME, to really get that right.
A few more cloud layers is like a few more band-aids on top of each other, not a real solution.
We need a more 3-D, ever-changing model.
The good news is that the underlying system is indeed 3-D right now.. we just need to do a better job of POPULATING IT with data.
Data that changes over time as well.
16 – In X-Plane 10 we saw changes to flight dynamics thanks to community feedback, and they were very well received. Can we expect further changes/refinements to flight dynamics in the future? For example, engine performance at different altitudes, further refinements to torque, wind effects, etc?
Austin - For XP11, thanks to a few hundred hours of flight experience in my Lancair Evolution so far:
PT-6 engine modeling:
Thanks to LOTS OF FLIGHT-test IN N844X, which has a PT6, I am getting that engine just right in the sim!
I got the RECIP engine performance dialed in when flying recip engine airplanes, and am now dialing in the TURBOPROP performance now that i am flying a turboprop!
The fuel flow and efficiency are not just right.. the engine FEELS right.
But how does an engine FEEL right in a simulator?
Well, the PT-6 makes it easy:
That engine is all about having enough AIRFLOW moving through it to balance the FUEL FLOW to keep the temperatures under control.
Temperatures spike as you add fuel at low turbine rpm, and cool as the turbine spins up.
The turbine is slow to respond at low power settings, since not enough air is racing through to rapidly change the turbine speed.
But as the speed picks up and the airflow with it, the turbine seems comparatively lighter compared to the airflow moving through it and responds much more quickly!
The turbine sound is one sound and feel, the prop completely another since there is no connection between the turbine and prop!
So a PT-6 engine has a real feel and response in turbine RPM, torque, fuel flow and temperature over time as you adjust the throttle and other settings,
always spinning up or down at varying speeds and temperatures as the fuel and air moving through it change.. it is very very Steam-Punk.
Now, TECHNICALLY described:
Much better engine ITT modelling for those turboprops, including response speeds on power, prop, or condition lever changes.
Better torque and fuel flow modelling as well, especially for turboprops.
The dynamic pressure through the power turbine across varying rpm ranges controls you can exchanging torque and rpm to get the same power,
for accurate cruise perf as you dial back the prop rpm but hold constant fuel flow, and glide with the prop feathered or not as well
The new turbine model includes, by the way, compressor stalls, which I have gone through first-hand!
As well, engine failure tuning for hot start, ITT runway, compressor stalls and the like.
As well, the turbine idle is now floating point like everything in a real PT-6.
Move red knob to move smoothly from low to idle, or hold it partway if you want to keep the engine temps where you want, as you would in reality.
Just remember to tweak those idle speed in plane-maker now to get your idles just right!
For turbines, you will want to enter a higher high idle than low idle now… X-Plane does not do this for you any more,
since you can now tune those fuel flows at idle as you like for yourself!
Fun to do, and you can get that idle Ng just right for YOUR PT-6 setup!
(Yep, each real PT-6 is set up differently based on the preferences of the pilot! Steam-Punk!)
Also thanks to my experience in the Evolution N844X, which has has several pressurization failures in reality, in X-Plane I now have a whole new physics-based pressurization model!
In reality as well as now in X-Plane, you have to carry enough Ng (gas generator RPM) to hold up that pressure, and now we have fractional pressure available to hold SOME pressure, but maybe not ALL pressure, as in the real airplane!
We look at the ratio of bleed air available and what part of the engine it comes from to see if we have adequate bleed air inflow to the cabin based on the current engine RPM, and local atmospheric pressure!
The higher you are, the more power you better carry to keep cabin pressure, as in the real airplane!
The cabin altitude will climb if you don’t.. and how much it climbs will depend on the air density outside the plane and the gas generator speed on a turbine!
How much power you need to hold pressurization depends on the altitude and even baro pressure setting, since this is hooked to air density! cool!
This gets kind of cool because when running bleed air off the APU, the APU, for example, the N1 actually controls how MUCH bleed air is available for start… all that stuff just kind of works out!
And if you are starting one engine off the bleed air of another already running, and the running engine has a hung start or slow start or lo idle set, then the bleed air will be reduced and the engine you are starting with the reduced bleed air will be slower to spin up!
Pretty cool when the sim sets the bleed air strength as needed to match the cabin press differential!
Also a more efficient inlet pressure recovery and more speed gives more pressurization.. because the INLET pressurizes the air before handing it to the engine to pressurize further, as in reality! NICE!
Hydraulic system modeling:
Hydraulic systems have a bit more oomph, delivering at or near full actuation power at idle when engine-driven, as they should.
So really dialling in these physical systems models here for 11.00.
Going over the Pilots Operating Handbook and my old notes from my Columbia-400:
New manifold pressure model!
This seems to be better than the previous one!!
Other reciprocating engine improvements:
We track the fuel in the cylinders or carb from the prime or simply running the fuel pump when the engine is not running!
So the engine starts with a bang if you primed it enough, or just barely rumbles to life if not.
And, yes, in an emergency, you can fly the thing on the primer if the engine driven pump fails!
That was not custom-coded.. it works out because I coded the dynamics of the system!
(Can you REALLY do that? Well, yes, on at least some planes, like my Columbia, which had only 1 pump to act as both backup and primer!)
Based on information from a TBM-850 pilot that has done some stalls in his airplane when iced (by ACCIDENT!):
Ice is QUITE a different experience now.
A customer sent me a video of him stalling a TBM-850 with ice on its’ wings… it stalled WAY earlier than he planned.
So now, rather than just adding weight and drag and reducing lift, which is what they teach you and what X-Plane used to do, we NOW lower the stall angle of attack as the ice builds as well.
This can lead you to think that everything is mostly ok with only a bit of ice, and then WHAM! That stall bites fast and hard, sooner than expected! A nasty stall at a much lower AOA than you expected!
Then you have to recover without exceeding a much lower-than-expected AOA, with limited lift and extra weight and drag… which means you need to re-evaluate your new stall AOA from that first stall
and not let yourself get up to that AOA level again to hit a SECONDARY stall!
This is where the skill requirement shoots up through the roof.
So the ice is much more realistic.. which results in it being more terrifying, by far.
Jet engine modeling:
Low/high jet engine bypass types: GONE!
Now we ONLY go off the bypass RATIO that you entered!
This lets cool things like exhaust smokiness and engine mass for mass distribution all be floating point with bypass ratio for infinite variation, which is nice.
Now we have more realism in the LAG of the airspeed indicator, which is really noticeable in a Columbia-400 doing a short-field take-off,
and also the correct reactions when the pitot tube, static port, both, and neither are iced over to infinetly-variable fractions as well.
Other systems modeling:
For roll with elevator, yaw with rudder, aileron with pitch, the TRIMS now apply there as well!
So if you use the control X-Plane now gives you the TRIM as well.. (did not before)
Updated electric motor dynamics as well!
Now more accurate with battery depletion.
I have a sense of how electric motors and re-generative braking work now from (wait for it) our family car is now a Tesla!
Now with cowl-flap drag!
Set it in Plane-Maker!
Drag scales with cowl flap deployment! Cool!
I’m told it makes 15 knot difference on the Mooney Encore (!)
Set the drag as need for your plane!
Now with cowl flaps can be a joystick axis as well.
OK you have to be at idle now to toggle rev thrust as in the real plane
Other flight-model improvements:
Control effectiveness at high AOA reduced according to wind tunnel results.. you lose it all by around 45 deg AOA… and a good solid 30% of it around 20 deg AOA
(this is in addition to losses due to dynamic pressure and local flight path no longer being aligned with the airplane, of course!)
So, this makes the stalls a good bit scarier… that control deflection comes down for the recovery!
And, if the stall is ICE-induced, where the ice lowers the stalling angle of attack, well, that plus reduced control effectiveness in the stall makes for some pretty scary stalls!
There is now a BUTTON for boost, so in the engines page where you enter water injection or NOX or other boost, you gotta turn it on with the button to get it at max throttle.
The nosewheel steering model is a hair refined: We go from max to min nosewheel steering as the speed picks up as always,
but if we have a tiller axis assigned, then we add the tiller and nosewheel steer, like real airliners. Cool!
Engine specific fuel consumption now scales with density not altitude, which is more accurate.
And much more....
17 – Specifically with X-Plane 11, when did you settle on a list of features for it?
Austin - July 2016.
Taj Boston hotel.
18 – For any new user of X-Plane, what is your selling point on X-Plane 11? Why should people buy it?
Austin - They should try the fee demo.. and then decide the answer to that question for themselves!
19 – Can you share with us a roadmap of the features and enhancements you wish to see in the life of X-Plane 11?
Austin - Sure!
-Faster UI… FEWER mouse-clicks per-operation than the v10 UI.
-Faster load. Faster than v10.
-Faster frame-rate. Faster than v10 FOR THE SAME LEVEL OF DETAIL (though we may already have this, I still want more)
-More updated aircraft and ground vehicles and 3-D airports and the like to really have a detailed, high-quality world that goes on and on and on.
-More perfect refinement for the PRO model: Fast load and good frame-rate with no hiccups or pauses, and a UI that lets PRO users quickly use the sim for flight training.
-More internal re-organization to support unlimited future growth (we already have 64-bit RAM and 3-D weather internally, but more expansion like that inside the code)
-Occulus / Vive to really dive in and experience all of the above in VR.
20 – What can we expect regarding integration with third party developers like PMDG, FSGlobal Real Weather, IXEG, etc in X-Plane 11? Has there been contact or feedback?
Austin - Tons of contact. Tons of feedback. Tons to expect.
Plane-Maker lets ANYONE get to work right away.
FMOD, as we will have for sound, will let anyone add sounds of exquisite detail to their add-ons.
And all the new per-pixel rendering can make an craft just look great.
21 – Are we likely to see seasonal textures in X-Plane 11? Is it a consideration?
Austin - NO!
We have decided to NOT just ‘jam in some winter textures’.
That’s a hack.
Here’s what we gotta do: Build trees that understand that their leaves come off in the cold, and a real 3-D model for accumulating SNOW.
22 – Can you expand on the versions available of X-Plane 11? Ie the Pro version, the Mobile version? What can we expect in them?
Austin - So here is the fascinating thing on that:
Just recently, we moved THE FLIGHT MODEL FROM X-PLANE DESKTOP ONTO THE IPHONE / IPAD / ANDROID VERSION!
X-Plane mobile now shares the SAME flight model as X-Plane desktop!
Mobile and desktop hardware is obviously converging, and we are AHEAD of the curve on this one, with flight model code that runs on both desktop and mobile platforms.
And it gets better.
The underlying engine to RENDERS the aircraft is the same on mobile and desktop as well, so any airplane that our artists build for X-Plane desktop CAN GO STRAIGHT TO THE MOBILE VERSION WITH NO ADDITIONAL WORK FROM US. This convergence lets us build a flight model, and an airplane and then have them available EVERYWHERE.
This sets us up for a future where ONE sim adapts itself (with only the slightest adaption required!) to desktop and mobile devices.
One sim. Everywhere.
23 – Finally, how many more versions of X-Plane are we likely to see? What drives you or LR to continue the expansion and development? What would you like to see one day in your simulator?
Autin - No plans to stop current trajectory.
What we are doing now is perfect, and with our team and underlying technology we are poised to explode with the VR, massively-multiplayer online, and the mobile/desktop convergence that are coming.
Someone offered to buy Laminar Research from me yesterday.
Pretty short reply from me… it only takes two letters to write the answer to that one.
Editor - Austin, on behalf of Avsim, a heartfelt “Thank You” for your time, openness and candid approach, it has been an absolute pleasure.
There you have it folks, we welcome Austin to the world of Avsim, and truly, what an asset he is to this wonderful hobby of ours, and long may he continue to share his product with us.