• Interview With Peter Dowson

    Interview With Peter Dowson

    Conducted by Dominic Smith

    Development

    Peter Dowson

    When did you start developing for flight simulators and what got you interested in it?

    I was interested in flight simulation mainly as an alternative to real flying, after I was sorely disappointed in the 1980's by being refused a medical certificate for flying in reality. I took lessons up to the point where I should have gone solo, but you need a medical certificate for that so I was unable to take my flying any further. It turned out that I had a hereditary sight defect known as Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) which progressively destroys vision - in my case, peripheral vision first, working inwards.

    Developing software for FS started around the time of FS4, a DOS program. Don't ask me what year that would be - something like 1992-ish, maybe a bit later?

    At that time there was a lot of scenery about, which made flying in areas I didn't know well (like the USA), more interesting. I liked using charts and maps when I flew, to see what was around, and the scenery helped me identify key points-of-interest and areas. However, the way FS worked in those days was that each scenery file could be no larger than 64 kb, and only one was loaded at a time. This caused real hesitations at scenery borders whilst the next file was loaded, and if there was no overlap you faced scant areas of scenery.

    To get around these problems I wrote some programs. The first was a TSR ("Terminate and Stay Resident") program which read the headers of every scenery file first, and kept a table. The headers contained the area definition - latitude/longitude values defining the area covered. FS4 read ALL of these each time it was about to leave an area to see which was next. The TSR program I wrote intercepted its file access for these calls and supplied the data from its tables. This speeded up the access enormously, as you can imagine. RC Simulations in Bristol realised its usefulness and sold it as "QuickScene." A bit of pocket money for further tools and so on!

    The second was a program to handle the overlap problem. 64 kb is not a lot for dense areas, but far too much for sparse areas - and the USA is a mixture of both, to an extreme degree. My program took all the scenery files - terrain, objects, polygons (no textures back then) and pooled them all together. It then created a completely new set of scenery files, each of 64 kb, which covered an area of whatever size the 64 kb needed, but with overlaps to neighbouring areas. Remember, the same objects etc. could occur in more than one area, as each file was discarded when the next was loaded.

    Tell us about the nature of your designs and what you do?

    I tend to write programs which aren't so visible, at least most of the time. FSUIPC is the most visible of these now, simply because it has a lot of added user facilities, which got added mainly as it seems a very suitable place for them to be. But it didn't start like that, and for many installations it isn't really "visible" at all, but simply acting as the interface between FS and some other program, maybe another of mine (like WideFS) but more often another program entirely. That's how it originated, as freeware and a derivative (with permission) of FS6IPC. Of course it is still freeware for that original purpose.

    Most of my other FS-related software modules or programs are drivers for hardware additions involved in building cockpits or using ready-built ones, such as those by PFC. I've also written my own drivers for a subset of Cockpitsonic, SISMO and FlightIllusion hardware, but these are specific to my own 737-800 cockpit and not distributed. I like to have my own control over the hardware I use!

    What software packages and tools do you use to develop?

    Microsoft Visual C (not C++ incidentally) is my main tool, including its debugger of course. In order to get inside FS to implement many of the functions in FSUIPC I use a disassembler - I've been through many over the years.

    My background, that of a hardware test programmer (since Leo III days, back in 1963) conditions me to bottom-up programming and I always need to feel I know what the hardware or operating system is doing under my code. Even C++ is a step away too far. C is as far as I like to get away from machine code, but I'm quite happy with Assembly Code (ASM) and use it in places for better access or little hacks where needed to accomplish something.

    Do you develop payware/freeware or both and why?

    The "QuickScene" scenery program I mentioned above was turned into 'payware,' but really I was only interested in FS as a hobby and so I was very reluctant to try to make any money out of it. Money means commitment and I had enough of those already. FSUIPC was purely freeware from FS98 days until FS2004. It was in that year (2003 in fact, when FS2004 was actually in beta, and then released) that my income from my company dried up.

    For those interested, the company was Wordcraft International, which is still going, and named after the word processor I originally developed for the Commodore Pet. From the Pet, it moved to the IBM PC and then to the numerous PC clones.

    It was a matter of either stopping development on FSUIPC and WideFS and finding contract programming work, or making a payware version, with extra user facilities added to make it worthwhile.

    First though, I tried asking for voluntary contributions from users. That lasted less than six months and was a pretty dismal failure I'm afraid.

    Encouragement from others persuaded me to take the payware course, and so the payware FSUIPC and WideFS were born.


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