Interview With Wesley Bard of Lockheed Martin
P3Dv2. There have been many rumours and much speculation about the features and improvements that Prepar3D v2 will have to offer. Following Lockheed Martin's official announcement that this highly anticipated release is now only days away, ADX Editor Jerome Zimmermann has had the opportunity to interview Wesley L. Bard, the Software Manager of the Prepar3D Program.
[Note: For format purposes, images are cropped. Click each image for full size resolution preview.]
Prepar3Dv2 images provided courtesy of FlightBeam Studios.
Jerome: Hi Wes, thanks so much for your time and agreeing to do this interview with me on the upcoming Prepar3D v2. For the sake of clarity and to avoid jumping back and forth between discussion topics, I've tried to group questions by the overall subject matter they would fall under.
Wesley: Hey Jerome, first off, thanks for the opportunity to answer some questions from the ADX team and speak with your readers. We are very excited about v2, we've been at it for quite awhile, and in addition to the amazing new rendering engine you all are excited about, v2 brings an entire host of new features I hope you ask me about down the road, because I'd love to take this opportunity to highlight them all. In addition to myself, I have a few of my rendering engineers helping me out here, Beau Hollis our rendering engine lead, and Zach Heylmun, Rob McCarthy and Kevin Cartrette who are a few of our rendering engineers working on the core engine.
Jerome: Hello Beau, Zach, Rob and Kevin, thanks for joining Wes and me, and with so many engineers present, I'd suggest we start with technology.
Jerome: There have been many rumours and much speculation about 64-bit support. I read an official forum post on your website that mentioned that the initial Prepar3D v2 release would be 32-bit, with a 64-bit one to follow. Could you kindly elaborate where the 32- and 64-bit versions are on the Prepar3D v2 roadmap?
Wesley: The 64-bit question is a great one, and it's kind of tied directly into backwards compatibility. When we do go 64-bit, most of the currently compiled add-ons won't work. Similarly to how we see people requesting advanced flight dynamics to the core, etc. - that is hard to do and to move forward and still keep backwards compatibility. Customers already have a host of add-ons they are invested in, and we are invested in our developer network members who build content for Prepar3D as well. So what we've done there for v2, is create an all new iSimObject interface. This is an entirely new interface directly to the core of the simulation that let's developers develop and use their own flight-models and dynamics and variables. Literally anything is on the table with this new interface. We really hope developers begin to leverage it.
So, with all that said, v2 is 32-bit. We've put a lot of thought into a 64-bit v2, and will continue to do so, but I can't promise you when it will be done or ready, or what all the hiccups with existing add-ons would be.
Jerome: The developer notes posted on your website have given a fairly in-depth insight into the graphics engine upgrade, especially as far as the move from DX9 to DX11 is concerned. Is it fair to think of this move to DX11 as a graphics upgrade, or would you consider it to be much more than that? Please elaborate.
Wesley: It's a lot more than a graphics upgrade! By moving heritage work to the graphics card that used to be done on the CPU, not only do we free up the CPU, but certain jobs like terrain paging can happen so much faster on the GPU than they could have been done previously on the CPU. Freeing up the CPU leads to opportunities for more AI traffic, more dynamic simulations, etc.
Jerome: AMD recently announced Mantle, a Low-Level-API that is said to work closer with hardware than DirectX and OpenGL, which promises a more efficient use of all GPU-related functions. Since Mantle is compatible with the shader-language HLSL, which I believe Prepar3D also makes use of, are there any future plans to adopt Mantle on the Prepar3D v2 roadmap?
Wesley: We partner with AMD and NVIDIA and will continue to do so in the future on leveraging all their products to bring the best experiences we can to our customers.
Jerome: Gaming and technology magazines have been raving for months about the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Has the Prepar3D v2 development team had a chance to look at this technology and are there any plans to support this hardware in Prepar3D v2?
Wesley: We were some of the first in line for the Oculus DevKits, and this question is a great lead in to something else I was hoping to mention. In v2 we have opened up a brand new interface that allows developers to create their own custom post processes. Post processes are an effect applied to the final rendered image. Examples of these can be night vision, custom effects like motion blur, and also screen distortion, just like what is needed to output to the Oculus screens. We ship with a ton of examples of custom post processes, but this is something that is really amazing for developers as well.
Our new render to texture plugin (which allows developers to render custom graphics at little to no perf impact into the scene) combined with custom post processes opens up some exciting possibilities. Imagine rear view mirrors in your favourite aircraft. Developers can do that now with custom cameras rendered into the mirrors (with the new options we've provided to disable what is rendered in a per view basis so they don't impact performance) and then provide custom post processes to fisheye and blue the mirrors a bit. That's just one small example. Developers can also use custom render to textures in scenery too. Imagine the possibilities of new, more animated and lively airports, custom billboards, etc.
That being said, if another developer doesn't beat us to it and publish Oculus integration with our new tools and interfaces, we can in the future when they are more widely available.
Jerome: One of the most annoying aspects of cloud and weather depiction in Prepar3D is the quivering low altitude cloud problem, which has long been identified as a Z-buffer clipping issue. There has never been a fix for this and to my knowledge this particular problem is due to limitations of the 3D-engine. Will the move to DX11 eliminate this through your inclusion of volumetric fog?
Wesley: We've added volumetric fog and have increased the realism of flying in and out of clouds. They don't screendoor or swivel when you get close, they don't instantly disappear when you get through them, they fade out and part for a much more realistic effect. There are still some legacy cloud issues, but it is much quicker and easier for us to fix these issues in the new rendering engine.
Jerome: Could you tell me about changes that have been made to the cloud and weather system in general, have these been updated or upgraded in any way to include severe icing, dense fog, downdrafts and microburst for example, or will outside add-ons still deliver the best quality weather?
Wesley: We are committed to supporting our developer network developers and community. We primarily are focused on providing core updates that can't be done by the developer network. In addition to two of the new interfaces I've mentioned above, we've created another interface called the PDK that allows another interface into Prepar3D for developers. This allows for much faster calls into the simulation than SimConnect. When weather or other add-on developers request to us the information they need to build great add-ons, and they can't get it through SimConnect, we can now provide them that data now through the PDK. Weather is a great example of this.
Jerome: Although Prepar3D has the ability the show aircraft and building shadows, I have only ever seen cloud reflections, but never actually seen cloud shadows. Is this something that will be included?
Wesley: We didn't quite get cloud shadows in for this release, but will try to get them in for 2.1. Let me show you a screenshot of our lighting page, which shows all our different shadow options for v2:
Shadows are an amazing way to bring new vibrancy and life to the simulation, and really add a great dimension of depth. They are also super customizable in Prepar3D v2. In the previous engine, shadows were baked into the textures based on the time of day. The new rendering engine eliminates that redundancy and we've implemented a new Time Preview UI window that lets you dynamically control the time of day in the simulation, seeing the shadows and lighting and sun and moon and stars pass by dynamically. It really helps to setup those approaches and landings at just the right conditions when you are training. We've even added a play button so you can set yourself up in your favourite scene and pick your time change and press play and watch an entire day night cycle, it's a very nice effect.
Jerome: Speaking of shadows, when I park any aircraft at any airport directly underneath a huge spotlight at night, there are currently no shadows generated around the aircraft, nor do those spotlights illuminate any part of the aircraft. Is this a feature we will see in Prepar3D v2, will night lighting generate shadows and illuminate object surfaces realistically?
Wesley: The moon at night generates shadows; lightning generates shadows. Multiple lighting sources would be a great thing we could work on in the future, but that also comes at a performance cost. We think our customers will be very pleased and impressed with the fidelity and scalability of our new dynamic shadow systems.
Jerome: As far as realism is concerned, there are many features that I can think of that would add to Prepar3D being more realistic, such as aircraft lights illuminating surrounding clouds at night, aircraft landing lights lighting up a runway much sooner, and runway lighting being more exact and realistic (at some airports they seem too large, overly bright and blocky). Can you tell me about any such features and improvements that have been added to Prepar3D v2?
Wesley: I mentioned a lot of the new interface changes above, as well as the differences to the volumetric fog and the cloud rendering. We've also added an ultra water detail setting that with the help of your graphics card will animate the waves of the water surface according to the wind speed. Our goal is to bring increased fidelity and immersion to the sim, and the shadows, new HDR lighting system, and 3D water are great examples of this.
Jerome: This brings me to Pilot Activated Lighting (PAL), also known as PCL (Pilot Controlled lighting) or ARCAL (Aircraft Radio Control of Aerodrome Lighting). This seems to be an often-overlooked feature of small airports and I've seen this included in some scenery add-ons, but very rarely. Is there a way to include this in the Prepar3D v2 airport database to match real-world airport data or does this need to be implemented at an individual airport add-on level?
Wesley: We're going to defer to the addon development community there. We've partnered with many of them for v2, and as they continue to request differentiating features, we will evaluate and continue to work to implement them.
Jerome: Prepar3D scenery has the ability to depict and support sloped runways, but these have been seldom implemented, as AI aircraft apparently cannot use a sloped runway. Has this restriction been fixed?
Wesley: We're going to look at that in a future release.
Jerome: The entire AI Traffic system seems deprecated and most users rely on add-ons such as Traffic X or Ultimate Traffic for simulating real-world aerial traffic. Will Prepar3D v2 feature anything new here?
Wesley: Again, since we ship a limited number of aircraft out of the box, we recommend our customers who require additional AI aircraft and vehicles to either develop their own for their training and solutions, or partner with add-on companies in our developer network.
Jerome: Over the past 12 months we've seen more and more complex add-ons being released, and this appears to be a trend coupled to modern graphics cards allowing users to run Prepar3D at higher settings without the usual penalty on performance levels. Unfortunately these higher settings do have a downside of making Autogen popup a lot more noticeably. It's a known fact that alpha fade was removed early on in FSX by Aces for performance reasons, but sadly never re-enabled, resulting in Prepar3D scenery being plagued with trees and buildings very noticeably popping in and out of view. What has the development team undertaken to remedy this and provide users with a more smooth visual experience in Prepar3D v2?
Wesley: We have a pretty innovative solution to autogen popping. We got a lot of great feedback about it from our beta team, and are excited to reduce the popping effect to add to the immersion and realism training with Prepar3D v2.
Jerome: Replaying a landing or takeoff can be a very useful training tool, since it facilitates a quick and easy way to review these from outside of the cockpit or other different viewpoints. Prepar3D already improved this by allowing different camera angles to be set up, but the animation and playability has room for further enhancement. Will there be any new features that would offer what FS Recorder does for FSX and more?
Wesley: The core Flight Recording system was unchanged from Prepar3D v1.4, but it is on our roadmap for v2 to enhance it.
eCommerce and Software
Jerome: Lockheed Martin currently sells Prepar3D through its online store only. Are there any plans to expand the availability of your products to other online merchants that currently sell Prepar3D related products?
Wesley: We will continue to provide Prepar3D for sale and digital distribution through our website and eCommerce store at Prepar3D.com.
Jerome: Lockheed Martin does not currently offer online payments for Prepar3D to be made through PayPal. As PayPal is considered a much safer online payment method by some of your customers, are there any plans to accept and support PayPal payments in the future?
Wesley: We are unable to accept PayPal. We apologize for any inconvenience this causes.
Jerome: Lockheed Martin has allowed many FSX add-ons to be migrated to Prepar3D without too much of a headache. Will such add-ons that function flawlessly in Prepar3D v1.4 be fully compatible with Prepar3D v2?
Wesley: We worked very hard in v2 to achieve a very high level of backwards compatibility. We wouldn't want users to start with v2 with no legacy content or training material fielded for solutions built with previous versions of Prepar3D. With previous rendering engines being fairly static, developers could find dozens of different ways to use materials and other objects in many different ways which made backwards compatibility challenging. That being said, we are very happy with where we got for v2. While I would say most add-ons will work flawlessly in v2 with the new features, it is best to contact the developer of your favourite add-on to be sure that 1) it is licensed for use in Prepar3D, and 2) if they need to do any updates to it to work with v2.
Jerome: Once Prepar3D v2 becomes a 64-bit application, will add-ons have to be modified to be 64-bit compliant or will they still retain their compatibility as they are?
Wesley: If they have compiled code, they will need to be recompiled.
Jerome: And lastly, is Prepar3D v2 still on track for a November 2013 release, and if so, do you have any more precise release and pricing details?
Wesley: Yes, Prepar3D v2 will be out this coming Monday, and pricing details are available on our website.
Jerome: This concludes our interview. Thanks again for your time Wes, Beau, Zach, Rob and Kevin! D'André and I would also like to express our gratitude to you all for your hard work in getting v2 to us so soon, we didn't really anticipate the release to be so close. We look forward to following the development and post-release updates on the Prepar3D v2.0 site at:
Wesley: Thanks again for the opportunity Jerome. We are very excited about v2 and the opportunities it presents, and we look forward to hearing your and your readers' feedback on v2.