X Marks The Spot: Fun With Microsoft Flight Simulator

By Duncan Harris on December 4th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.


This is the latest in a series of articles about the art technology of games, in collaboration with the particularly handsome Dead End Thrills.

I promised myself I wouldn’t do how-to guides because there’s seldom much to say, but this one doesn’t count: I don’t actually suggest you do this at all. It’s a how-not-to, then. A how-ton’t. See? Even the jokes are a mistake.

You get used to this kind of logic when playing with Flight Simulator X mods, where the mods aren’t quite mods and the playing isn’t quite playing. Not in the case of Tileproxy, anyway, which is so special and problematic a thing that I just had to remind you it exists.

Invented by Christian Buchner in 2007, Tileproxy streams satellite imagery into Flight Simulators X and 2009 and wraps it over whatever terrain mesh you have installed, creating a world that is literally photorealistic. What I like about it is that there’s a certain stagecraft involved in using it, as I’ll explain. What I love about it is this:

Flying over the Mesa just out from Escalante airfield in Utah. Not pictured: the mesh issue that sits the runway on a plateau some 50ft high.

Tileproxy is great in an ‘I learned more from Civilization than I did from university’ kind of way. (Granted, this is more a question of attendance than syllabus.) In principle it’s the same as GEFS and Google Earth’s own ‘flight simulator’ but having FSX as a vehicle sets it a world apart. The ‘live’ weather and 4K cloud textures (courtesy of payware ‘mod’ Real Environment Xtreme), together with a high fidelity landscape mesh (in this case FS Global) complete the optical illusion. I’m also using the old (and most compatible) San Andreas version of the ENB series mod, and a labyrinthine ‘tone mod’ for FSX called Shade.

So yes, Tileproxy is an interactive postcard from, if you want it to look ‘right’, about 8,000 feet. Anything lower and the 2D buildings look conspicuous and increasingly ridiculous; too much higher and you’re asking too much of the streamed textures, if not the online map service itself. Being a violation of terms of service, Tileproxy has long been blocked by Google Earth but still supports Bing Maps and Yahoo. You heard that right: there is a reason to use Bing.

Cache rules everything around me

There are caveats galore when using Tileproxy. The amount of high-res imagery it has to download, store and display is crazy. I’ve ended up giving it an SSD to itself which it’s happily on its way to filling up. I did this not just for the speed, but because it takes so long for Windows to count and delete the hundreds of thousands images afterwards that it’s better to just wipe the drive.

Getting the images to display at a high enough resolution at a wide enough radius is a game in itself. It means balancing the storage of FSX’s files – game install, meshes, mods, Tileproxy – across your system. It means finding the right ‘LOD radius’ setting in the game for the LOD rings you have to manually set in the Tileproxy config. It means finding out what the hell the LOD radius setting does, because it ain’t what the name suggests.

Do this and the game can take anything up to 45 minutes to load the textures in. Hell, that’s just for my setup that spreads FSX across two SSDs and one HDD. You may as well pick a number out of a hat and then treble it, or better just leave the house for a bit. The resolution you’ve chosen for the textures will then determine how quickly you ‘out run’ the ability to stream them, which again involves both Tileproxy (as in your broadband connection) and the game engine.

The Italian Alps. Not, it must be said, the best example of accurate colouring in Bing’s satellite imagery.

Like I said, a how-not-to. This is such a ridiculous way to ‘play’ FSX that I have to manually refresh the textures every time I fly a few miles through a cloud, over a mountain, or out of sight of Swindon. I’m guessing that more ‘modest settings’ would mitigate much of this – whatever these ‘modest settings’ are. I am unfamiliar with the term. Apparently it helps make games run properly or something. Sounds awful.

Seek and deploy

Why use Tileproxy then? Because it’s there, I suppose. A mountain to climb, with spectacular views at the summit, and I reckon I’m about halfway up. The biggest problem with decorating FSX with satellite imagery is that the quality is so unpredictable: even when the resolution is high enough to read car number plates, the colour can be borderline monochrome. Finding the right spot means exploring and discovering via Bing or Yahoo’s website, which is kind of a reward in itself.

On which note, I’ll leave you with a few of the places I never much thought about before stumbling upon Ed Truthan’s website, an essential guide to Tileproxy and its settings.

I believe they call this ‘Essex’. Not a place I really cared about the existence of during the 17 years I lived there.

Italy’s South Tyrol province, as seen when flying from Bolzano airport. This actually uses Opus to calculate the weather, which seems to do a better job than REX, the textures of which I’ve kept.

The Namib desert, which I’d hoped would look more golden but again suffers from lukewarm colouring on both Bing and Yahoo Maps.

Aloha! Hawaii is one of the highlights of Yahoo’s service, offering terrific inland views when combined with a good terrain mesh, REX sky textures and Opus weather simulation.

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23 Comments »

  1. redd says:

    I know what I won’t be doing this weekend.
    And this!

  2. Llewyn says:

    I’m really enjoying these articles, contrary to my expectations – I hated ‘Level With Me’, for example, and generally have less interest than most in shininess. You’re hitting a real sweet spot in terms of both quality of writing and enlightening content, to the extent that this might even have replaced the Flare Path as the highlight – despite my disinterest in sims – of my RPS week.

    • Geebs says:

      Level With Me was pretty good before it turned into the story of one man sharing his feelings of inadequacy with hipsters :-(

    • Person of Interest says:

      I must be easy to please, because I really enjoy both Duncan Harris’ and Robert Yang’s articles.

      I like the unfiltered dialogs in the Level With Me series. Call it honesty, call it emotion, call it hipster inadequacy; I think it’s nice to read the occasional RPS interview that rambles, side-tracks, and doesn’t get PR-managed.

  3. hery8us says:

    Abby. although Denise`s story is flabbergasting… on wednesday I got themselves a Land Rover Defender from bringing in $9333 this last month an would you believe ten-grand this past month. it’s by-far the most-comfortable job I’ve ever had. I started this 9-months ago and pretty much straight away startad earning over $87… p/h. try here http://goo.gl/f6e95V

  4. StartRunning says:

    I probably won’t go back to it, but I like it that Flight Simulator is still kind of relevant.

  5. vatara says:

    I can’t say I want to put in the effort to make this work on my own, but that is amazing nonetheless.

  6. utzel says:

    That’s pretty much the setup I used (FSX+Addon+FS Global+REX+Tileproxy). Google Maps still worked and I bought a Velociraptor drive mostly for this back then when SSDs were unheard of. It took me weeks to have all the textures of the cities around where I lived downloaded with a 1Mbit/s connection.
    It was awesome to be able to fly and load almost everything the first time when the plane wasn’t too fast, years later after I moved and had a 25Mbit/s line available.

    Now it’s a hassle when I just think about how long it would take to set it all up again (including cleaning up a few drives). Instead I can fire up Aerofly and be in the air in less than 30 seconds. That one is running silky smooth and with a great mesh and textures, but I miss everything that isn’t Switzerland :-/

  7. captain nemo says:

    Awesome

  8. DigitalSignalX says:

    2nd reason to use Bing, the first being stalking models and porn stars. It’s (quite accidentally to be sure) simply the best there is.

  9. Sidewinder says:

    The fact that’s it’s not Google isn’t enough reason to use Bing?

    • malkav11 says:

      Are you from some sort of alternate universe where Microsoft produces better software and is more benign, reliable and trustworthy? Because that’s sure not this one.

      • sleepisthebrotherofdeath says:

        Are you suggesting those new ads from Microsoft where they claim Google is Evil and Microsoft is saintly isn’t true?

    • Lemming says:

      I use startpage, although sometimes google is required for more results.

  10. Squirly says:

    The Namib Desert! Home! :D

    Well, sort of. I don’t live IN the desert, that would be uncomfortable. And the color isn’t actually too bad – especially the fog that seems to be coming in from the ocean.

  11. Muzman says:

    I saw a video not too long ago that featured Microsoft Flight. It was mainly about the insecurity of airliner telemetry systems. But to illustrate this a clever hacker got (or built, I forget) a reporting system used in airport control towers. Then he hooked up a radio telemetry thingy for a plane to his computer. Then wrote a little program to transfer the vitals of a little Cessna in the game straight to the reporting device thingy. The plane in the game then duly showed up on the control tower thing. If it wasn’t a very low powered system only for testing, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t make his non existent plane show up on a real control tower (or make it a 747 instead).
    Flight’s geography was pretty much bang on.

    • JustAPigeon says:

      Yeah, we’re going to need a link here.

      What I’d imagine he did was fake the aircraft as an ADS-B transmission. Anyone can buy an ADS-B receiver and hook it up to the internet to allow certain websites (www.flightradar24.com for example) to display the local traffic in their area (providing the aircraft are equipped with an ADS-B transponder). ATC doesn’t use ADS-B to for controlling, of course. I might be wrong but that makes the most sense to me right now.

  12. mikmanner says:

    I wonder if the satellite image mapping is in anyway similar to Aerofly FS – which I think holds the crown for photo-real ground textures (at a certain height)?

    Aerofly only maps one country as opposed to the entire world, also it’s a world frozen in time so they are ‘cheating’ a bit

  13. RedNick says:

    There’s also Prepar3D which is effectively an updated/fixed up version of MS Flight Sim X. Plenty of FS addons work with it, not sure if this will though.

    • peterako1989 says:

      nah If they could fix the original FSX I would be sooo glad. Prepar3D is just a barebone simulator. I would prefer the missions and all the convinience of FSX