Simulator open for development

After more than 25 years, Microsoft is moving its Flight Simulator program to the enterprise in the form of the Microsoft ESP simulation platform. Ed McCahill, marketing manager of Microsoft ESP, said delivering Flight Simulator as a development platform has long been requested by customers.

'For at least 10 years, customers have been asking if they could take advantage of the capabilities of Flight Simulator for various aviation-related training and experiential mission rehearsal purposes,' McCahill said. 'But we had a couple of problems there.'

Specifically, the user license was limited to entertainment-only purposes because much of the content in the program came from third parties ' Microsoft's licenses only allowed resale for entertainment. Working through the contractual issues alone took about 16 months, McCahill said.

'We changed the end-user license, we removed the game [user interface], we significantly beefed up a software development kit, and we made a few other content changes,' he said.

The result is a commercial simulation engine that developers can use to create their own simulation applications.

The package includes geographical, cultural, environmental and scenery data along with tools for placing objects, customizing scenery and terrain, activating objects, and creating special effects. Developers can even control the weather. ESP offers built-in support for as many as five seasons, including hard winter, and continuous time-of-day and time-of-night textures.

Customers can plug in their own data, including cockpit interfaces and airport configurations. And, as with the Flight Simulator program, ESP supports preflight and post-flight mission analyses. Applications based on ESP can also support as many as 30 users.

ESP has at least one edge over other simulation platforms: price. The ESP software development kit costs only $125, and client licenses go for $940.

Microsoft doesn't expect ESP to take over the market from full-fledged flight simulators, which can cost $15 million to $20 million, McCahill said. But he said he expects that ESP applications will offer a less expensive way to handle a lot of roles, such as mission rehearsals.

Microsoft is already planning to expand ESP's simulation capabilities, so we might see a host of other affordable simulation products reach market soon. In 2009, the company plans to release ESP 2.0, which will include ground capabilities for missions by trucks, tanks and other vehicles. In 2011, ESP 3.0 is projected to introduce support for maritime scenarios and building interiors.

Another promising avenue being explored is integration with Microsoft Virtual Earth. 'Virtual Earth has real data, but they don't have the experiential side of it,' said McCahill, whose team has already done some work with Virtual Earth and developed demonstrations he described as impressive.

'We have done the work to prove it can be done,' he said. We are 'taking the real data and making it very interactive.'

McCahill said he hopes integration with Virtual Earth might be possible in the next version, though 'I don't want to commit to that because it takes two teams.'

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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