Head Tracking and Virtual Reality

If you've looked at our Hardware Guide, you know that simmers are big on physical hardware. From flight controls to GPS devices to panels, it’s very possible to replicate real aircraft cockpits at home. However, as technology advances, Virtual Reality (VR) is becoming more popular. Instead of focusing exclusively on the physical hardware, some simmers are creating VR setups. With VR, your aircraft "comes to life" in a simulated three-dimensional view.

Attendees at FlightSimExpo 2019 in Orlando try Virtual Reality at the Thrustmaster booth. VR was featured at several exhibitor displays at that show.

Head Tracking

23% of flight simmers reported that they use head tracking software.

Source: Navigraph 2020 Community Survey

Before exploring true VR, we’ll look at head tracking. A much less expensive option than a full VR setup, head tracking software allows you to look around the simulator just by moving your head. This is a much more immersive and realistic experience than using the "hat switch" on your joystick to pan your view.

Blu Games discusses his favorite solutions for head tracking.

Some of the more popular head tracking options are discussed below. Each of these options works with the main desktop simulators, including DCS World, MSFS, Prepar3D, X-Plane.

TrackIR works using a TrackClip connected to your headset or hat and a sensor mounted above your monitor. Easy to use and taking only one USB slot, TrackIR offers excellent head tracking, even in a dark room. However, the TrackClip must be connected to your headset, adding additional wires that often tangle. It’s also easily breakable, especially if you are prone to dropping your headset. You’ll also want to set a button to “re-center” your view, which you’ll be using quite a bit!

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TrackHat considers themselves an alternative to TrackIR. In addition to a competing clip (which is also compatible with TrackIR’s head tracker), TrackHat also offers a complete head tracker integrated into a cap. This eliminates the need for tangling wires; everything is integrated into the cap, with a wireless/rechargeable battery.

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This mobile app doesn’t require any additional hardware, making it very easy to set up and get flying. Although some users have indicated it may not have the same tracking accuracy or responsiveness as the hardware-based options, the simple setup and low cost makes it a great choice. There is also a USB connection mode that can improve latency, as does the use of a fast 5 GHz WiFi network. You’ll want to keep your device plugged in, as running the app is very battery-intensive. You’ll also need to be in a lit room to use the tracking, as the app can only track your face if it can see you.

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Similar to SmoothTrack (it runs on the same platform), AI Track is a free, open-source head tracker that can be used with a webcam or your phone’s camera. You’ll need to be in a room that’s at least bright enough for your webcam to see you, and the installation requires a few more steps than the paid options.

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The Eyeware Beam iOS app turns a smartphone into the first and only all-in-one eye tracker and head tracker app. The free in beta app’s head tracker lets sim pilots control the in-game camera using only their head movements. Its eye tracker offers an eye gaze bubble overlay that reflects wherever the pilot is looking. Using patent-pending computer vision algorithms and machine perception AI technology, the app generates an accurate six degrees of freedom (6DOF) head pose and eye tracking signal comparable to Tobii or TrackIR proprietary hardware devices. You can start flying with it via Wi-Fi or USB connection using only your PC and iOS device. Android support is planned for a future release.

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Virtual Reality

Want individual help with Virtual Reality? We can connect you to an expert to help you decide on the best headset and get it working in the simulator of your choice. Become to Captain to get started.

VR uses a wearable on the head—normally a set of "goggles" called a Head-Mounted Display (HMD)—that creates a three-dimensional world you can see. Taking head tracking well beyond the next level, VR allows users to become immersed and able to interact with a three-dimensional world instead of viewing a screen in front of them. These HMDs are often paired with handheld controllers (similar to what you might use with a gaming console), which allows the user to interact with in-game items as they would with their hands.

Using a Head-Mounted Device (HMD), users are fully immersed into the simulation, looking at a cockpit that appears in three dimensions around them.

Simmers who have made the switch to VR have said there is no comparison—and it’s hard to go back to two-dimensional flying. The feel of being "really inside the aircraft" is impossible to replicate with head tracking. However, it’s still relatively new technology; the hardware is getting better, and simulators are still being improved to offer better support for VR.

As of 2020, 12% of simmers are using VR in their setups (a further 7% own a headset, but use it for other games, while 82% don’t use VR).

Source: Navigraph 2020 Community Survey

To learn more about virtual reality, continue reading this guide or watch our Virtual Reality in Home Flight Simulation Webinar from July 2021. In the webinar, Ben Myburgh from Sim Your Plane presents an overview of VR in home simulation, including how VR changes the simulation experience, common issues with VR, headset and hardware options in 2021, and tips for integrating VR into simulators.

How You Use It

VR is still developing technology, and not everything works perfectly. For example, some of the high-end, study-level airliners that are already resource-intensive may not perform as well in VR as a 2D simulation. It’s not always easy to program an FMS or GPS in VR; some choose to take their headsets off during the “pre-flight” to do this. Of course, for GA flying, there’s no comparison to being able to turn and move your head to get closer to the window or find the runway.

In VR, it’s possible to only use a mouse and keyboard to interact with the sim. You can also “fly” using the VR controllers, which are also used to select and move switches and throttles. However, you’ll get the best experience with the same traditional hardware we recommend for 2D flying: a yoke or joystick and set of rudder pedals.

Although menu options and settings can be selected in VR, there may be scenarios where the easiest thing to do is to briefly take off the headset/HMD, use the mouse/keyboard as necessary, and then put it back on.

Performance

As relatively new technology for the sim world, you’ll find the VR experience to be a little less seamless than just installing a simulator and flying. Searching “virtual reality for X-Plane” on YouTube or Google brings up a series of videos and articles on hardware and software tweaking suggestions for the simulator to try to get smooth performance. Based on our reading, even simmers with high-end computers will want to spend a few hours tweaking and setting up their simulator before being able to launch in. VR is not a “plug and play” experience in flight sim—yet.

Across various websites, guides, and flight simulator help materials, the recommended computer specs vary. Generally, you’ll want a relatively new PC with Windows 10 and a high-performance CPU and GPU, along with at least 16 GB of RAM. HMD manufacturers each provide minimum specs for their devices. MSFS also publishes a minimum and recommended configuration for VR.

Instead of looking at various sites, an option to test your performance is the SteamVR Performance Test. Using a 2-minute demo, the software will collect data and offer recommendations for VR performance. Of course, this is generic to all games, and may not necessarily reflect the specs needed for flight simulation, which tends to require more CPU and GPU processing than many popular games. Windows also produces a Mixed Reality Portal app you can run to test your system’s compatibility with VR.

VR Headset Options

For a true VR setup, you’ll need:

  • A flight simulator compatible with VR (all of the desktop simulators now offer native VR support).
  • A VR headset, including any other hardware it comes with: some include a "base station" and handheld controllers.
  • Recommended: physical (non-VR) flight controls, like a yoke and/or joystick and rudder pedals.

VR has become one of the fastest-growing at-home hardware add-ons for flight simulation. As technology improves—and prices decrease—the HMD options are increasing from just a few choices to a wide variety of options. Searching for "the best VR headsets" will give you a series of gaming and computing websites’ recommendations on options.

Most desktop simulators are compatible with either Windows Mixed Reality (WMR) as well as other individual headset manufacturers. WMR is a Windows-designed "architecture" for VR headsets, something like how they produce Windows that is used by various PC hardware creators. Headsets that work in the WMR environment tend to be less expensive because they don’t require a base station (and instead use a built-in camera). Options include the HP Reverb, Samsung HMD Odyssey+, and more.

In 2020, the Oculus Rift / Rift S headset was the most popular, being used by 58% of simmers using VR.

Source: Navigraph 2020 Community Survey

The most popular currently-available VR headset for simmers, according to a 2020 community survey by Navigraph, was the Oculus Rift S. Owned by Facebook, the Oculus devices (including the Rift S and Quest 2) require you to login to your Facebook account to use the device. In the survey, simmers also mentioned the HP Reverb G1/G2 (11%) and HTC Vive (7%).

Because your eyes are under an HMD, using a keyboard or mouse isn’t as easy—and any other hardware you use will have to be easy to find on your desk. Most simmers opt for a relatively simple hardware setup with a yoke or joystick and pedals. Something with several programmable keys is a good idea—when you need to lower the gear, it’s easier to find and push a button on your yoke than to use a VR controller or mouse interface to access the button.

Often recommended by VR simmers, voice control software like VoiceAttack can help avoid the need to leave the HMD/VR environment. For $10, the software will convert your spoken command into mouse and keyboard inputs. So if your command to lower the gear is “Gear Down”, the app can send “CTRL+G” to the simulator, alleviating the need for you to use the keyboard or mouse. The app is designed to work alongside other voice inputs, meaning it won’t interfere with Discord, TeamSpeak, or online ATC.

Simmers who try VR for the first time often experience some form of VR motion sickness—it’s real and you need to keep it in mind. People have reported feeling sick for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours after their first time using VR! Like anything else new, the key is to train yourself for the experience. Start with just a few minutes in VR, taxiing slowly. Exercise and build yourself to where you feel comfortable under the HMD for as long as you want to fly.

Of experienced simmers, 49% report getting motion sickness at least "sometimes".

Source: Navigraph 2020 Community Survey

Using VR in Your Desktop Simulator

VR is supported natively in DCS World, Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS), Prepar3D, and X-Plane. However, this is new technology for all simulators—and experienced simmers who have spent hours tweaking their sim performance for VR might question our use of the word "natively"!

  • X-Plane
    %
  • Prepar3D
    %
  • DCS World
    %
More X-Plane users (31%) use VR than P3D (11%) or DCS World (20%)

Source: Navigraph 2020 Community Survey

According to the 2020 Navigraph FlightSim Community Survey, more X-Plane users (31%) are flying VR than pilots of P3D (11%) or DCS World (20%).

Source: Navigraph 2020 Community Survey

The magic number for frames in most simulators seems to be 45. When setting up VR, particularly for DCS World, Prepar3D, or X-Plane, getting to a stable 45 FPS (while in VR) provides the smoothest experience.

Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS)

MSFS’ VR support was enabled on December 22, 2020 with support for Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus, Valve, and HTC devices included. The surfaces of the aircraft are effectively mapped to a VR mouse interface, allowing you to use the mouse to interact with the cockpit in VR, just as you would in a 2D view.

Like the initial launch of the simulator in August, initial reactions are mixed. Some articles report users have experienced visual artefacts, difficulty getting set up, and unclear menu options. We expect MSFS’ VR support to continue to improve as the sim itself matures in the coming months.

Prepar3D

Prepar3D v5 (and earlier versions) supports VR with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Varjo VR-1, Windows Mixed Reality headsets, and other headsets supporting SteamVR. P3D’s v5 SDK includes a specific Virtual Reality Tuning Guide with settings for users to consider.

X-Plane

As the most popular simulator used in VR (31% of flight simmers), it’s not surprising to find much more information for X-Plane VR users than the other simulators.

According to the 2020 Navigraph FlightSim Community Survey, 20% of simmers primarily use DCS World for VR, with Prepar3D in third place at 11%. The survey was conducted before Microsoft Flight Simulator released VR compatibility.

Source: Navigraph 2020 Community Survey

Several VR tuning videos for X-Plane recommend the free 3jFPS plugin. A great option even for people who don’t want to fly VR, 3jFPS helps users reach stable performance in X-Plane by dynamically adjusting view distance, cloud quality, and other settings. You’ll find installation instructions on the page. This plugin also requires the FlyWithLua plugin, one of the top 5 community-recommended software add-ons for X-Plane.

With X-Plane VR (and also the normal 2D mode), a free plugin called AviTab allows you to view charts, moving maps, and more from right within the simulator. You can even link the virtual tablet with your Navigraph to see charts from within the VR environment. This plugin is very popular amongst VR users, with 37% of Navigraph FlightSim Community Survey respondents indicating they use it to improve the VR experience.

Aerofly

Aerofly’s website claims that simulator has one of the best virtual reality flight simulation experiences available: “the performance and realism that you will see with Aerofly FS 2 in VR far surpasses anything out there to date.” The simulator has a VR-specific settings menu. Aerofly also supports flying with your virtual hands with the Oculus Touch and HTC Vive controllers. The “virtual hands” are available for universal use in the simulator; the motions made with the controllers are replicated onto your virtual hands in real time. These VR controllers can be used in combination with any other controller you wish for virtually any combination of control.

For more information about VR in Aerofly, visit their website.

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