Uh-oh, somebody told the Microsoft Flight Sim 2024 devs about LIDAR

Uh-oh, somebody told the Microsoft Flight Sim 2024 devs about LIDAR

The developers of Microsoft Flight Simulator have a lot to be proud of. Last month, at the FlightSimExpo 2024 in Las Vegas, representatives crowed about their 15 million users and one billion flight sessions logged — numbers Asobo Studio claims put them at the top of the heap as the most-played flight simulation ever published. Now the studio is back on that grind cranking out Microsoft Flight Simulator 2024, due out this fall. Asobo calls it “the most ambitious sim ever undertaken,” and given its track record, I’m inclined to believe them.

The lengthy talk, delivered by head of Microsoft Flight Simulator Jörg Neumann and Asobo Studio co-founder and CEO Sebastian Wloch, stretches over an hour and a half. But those 90 minutes include lots of delicious morsels for dedicated virtual pilots — enhancements such as app-based offline flight planning, increased density of ground traffic at major airports, and the ability to actually step out of the cockpit to perform pre-flight checks in first-person.

But the tidbit that should turn PC and console player’s heads the most is the invocation of a new partner, a company that Microsoft recently acquired called Vexcel Imaging.

Vexcel is a groundbreaking imaging company known for its UltraCam line of aerial survey cameras. These multi-spectrum arrays include more traditional RGB color sensors alongside near-infrared sensors. Combined with their software, the result is a dramatic increase in the resolution of image data being shared with the team of designers at Asobo — as evidenced by MSFS 2024’s recent teaser trailer, shown at the Xbox Games Showcase.

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Neumann used a bit of his time on stage at FlightSimExpo to let fans peek behind the curtain, so to speak, at what was actually being shown in that trailer — specifically in its opening moments as a single-engine airplane flies over Monument Valley in Arizona.

“The natural environments are something that people have never seen before,” Neumann said. “Not on this scale, certainly not in this level of detail.” Then he handed the reins to Wloch to go a little bit deeper. You can watch the full segment around the 14-minute mark.

What’s important to understand is that previously, Microsoft Flight Simulator had been applying three-dimensional assets — things like houses and trees — automagically on top of two-dimensional data. But there’s only so far you can take that kind of automation, which is why the first time I flew over the Great Pyramid at Giza, the complex of pyramids was surrounded by a forest of oddly brown deciduous trees instead of sand dunes. Using UltraCam data to do photogrammetry — that is, 3D reconstruction of real-world elements from nothing but image data — gives Asobo’s terrain-rendering software a lot more to work with.

“We now have the ground, which is all 3D, instead of […] 2D with a texture,” Wloch said. “There’s a lot of different 3D materials [including] the grass, the rocks, and the trees. Everything is now 3D […] and everything is procedurally generated on top of the world data.”

But Vexcel’s camera technology isn’t standing still. This summer, the Austrian company is adding LIDAR to its arrays as well. That will likely add altitude and relative distance to the data being shared with Asobo in addition to graphical data. And that, my friends, could enable procedurally generated environments the likes of which no one has ever seen in a commercial flight simulator.

Expect more on Microsoft Flight Simulator 2024 ahead of its Nov. 19 launch date, when it will become available for purchase and as part of Xbox Game Pass.