• Interview: Ben Supnik - Future Of X-Plane

    Future Of X-Plane

    An Interview with Ben Supnik

    Ben Supnik is the lead graphics programmer at Laminar Research; he has worked with Austin Meyer on X-Plane for the last 10 years, coding the scenery engine for X-Plane 8, 9 and 10.

    What would you say is the one stand-out feature you personally would like to see working in X-Plane? What feature would you most like to see improved in X-Plane?

    Everyone in the company has their own favorite feature, but I am a scenery guy, so what I most want to see is the realization of our vision for autogen.

    X-Plane 10's autogen is not only a complete rewrite of the autogen renderer and all of its art assets, it is also a change in what autogen is. Previously autogen was a way to get 3-D scenery in locations where not much about the real-world was known; the autogen would sit on top of a land class texture, and you would get a nice grid of houses or buildings.

    X-Plane 10's autogen adds something totally new: it is adaptive. X-Plane 10's autogen is capable of bending and conforming itself to real world vector data about the city you are flying over. So not only do you get a nice picture of streets and houses, but you get the streets where they actually should be, with the houses moved around to conform to those streets.

    We shipped X-Plane 10.0 with some incredible 3-D detail, curved road grids based on real-world data, and an engine fast enough to run the autogen maxed out on a decent machine, thanks to hardware instancing.

    With 10.20 we shipped 64-bit (which gives the autogen system more memory to work without crowding out third party add-ons) and in 10.25 we shipped better default urban terrain textures (which work well with the 3-D to create an immersive city environment.)

    But there is still more to do. Alex is still working to build out a more complete set of autogen buildings; he has had to rebuild the entire autogen art library from scratch, because the new autogen must be adaptive to vector data.

    You can max out the autogen, but you can't max it out with shadows; I want to further optimize rendering engine performance so you can have full autogen and shadows.

    We created a series of early tests and simulations of the new autogen system to determine whether it could work; for this reason I believe that the complete realization of the new autogen system isn't a question of "if", but "when". I think that once we have more 3-D variety, more performance, and some of the bugs fixed, then we will finally have what we have been planning.

    In the future, will X-Plane have region-dependent auto generated scenery? For example, in Europe you would see European housing, and in Asia, Asian housing. What are the medium term plans for worldwide autogen, e.g. creating more variety between regions?

    We definitely want to build a complete set of basic autogen before we start regionalization. Unfortunately we're just not going to have European-style autogen that soon; we are still working on the first set of autogen and it's a very labor-intensive process.

    I think there is a big third party opportunity here; the simulator can handle regional autogen now if someone were to make such an add-on. We definitely hear the strong demand for it - it's one of the most requested features we get. (Unfortunately we are just limited by development time.)

    Is X-Plane still developed on OSX first and then ported over to other platforms, and if so do you see this changing?

    We definitely do a lot of our development on OS X; personally, I really like the combination of a unix shell and a high quality graphical user interface. But there are some tasks that we do on other platforms. For example, I do my GPU performance analysis on Windows, where there are specific tools to view GPU activity in detail.

    I think we will continue to use the best tools for the job; by the time the code is ready to ship, it works well on all platforms, regardless of which one it was coded to first.

    If desktop PC's were to move over to ARM processors, would the desktop version of X-Plane be adapted to this change?

    I think this is an unlikely scenario, but if we had to port to ARM, I believe we could do it. For quite a long time, X-Plane ran on PPC (for Macintosh) and x86 (for Windows) at the same time. Our code base runs on enough CPUs and operating systems that I think we could make the switch.

    In practice I don't see the desktop market moving to ARM. ARM solves "low power" incredibly well, which is why the architecture dominates mobile devices. But on the desktop, x86 chips provide a lot more processing power and these days have quite good power consumption too.

    How do you see the ATC changing in the future?

    One of our goals with the new ATC system for X-Plane 10 was to create a strong foundation for future feature development. (In this way the new ATC system is a little bit like the new scenery system was in X-Plane 8 - the beginning of a journey.) Both Chris Serio and myself (the co-designers of the ATC engine) are long-time VATSIM controllers with considerable knowledge about real-world ATC operations; our goal was to make a system that could be extended to model all real-world ATC operations.

    Our first priority is bug fixes and usability. The goal of the initial ATC system was to be able to complete a realistic IFR flight with ATC; unfortunately a small number of nasty bugs cause a lot of problems with this.

    Once we get the bugs fixed, then we can move on to more features (e.g. VFR flight, pattern work, instrument approaches and departures, better ATC performance) and perhaps more third party access to the system.

    Does video memory eat into the 32 bit memory address space of the 32 bit version of X-Plane?

    That depends on the operating system; for Windows it mostly does not (the OpenGL drivers go to incredible lengths to avoid this); for OS X it does. This is one reason why 64-bit became important for Mac before Windows users.

    To be honest it's not something we think about much anymore; we've seen incredible adoption of 64-bit since we made the jump. In particular, third party developers really like 64-bit because they know that their add-on will be able to coexisting with other add-ons without running out of memory.

    In the future I think we will start to see "64-bit only" features. Basically if we have a feature that requires more memory than we reasonably have in 32-bit, we'll simply have it be available in the 64-bit executable only.

    So if you have a computer with more than 4 GB of memory, it makes sense to run the 64-bit version of X-Plane - that way you can have a version of X-Plane that can take full advantage of the computer you already own and all of its RAM.

    Do you have plans to add AI flight plans to X-Plane? For example, AI flying actual routes.

    The AI aircraft actually already have flight plans _ they have since X-Plane 10.00! They're just not visible to you as a user; an engine automatically generates them (and they're not very realistic - just flights from VOR to VOR to VOR).

    So it is possible that we could someday allow them to be programmed; we need to expose more of the ATC/AI system to third parties, but our immediate priority is the ATC system itself.

    1. Renair's Avatar
      Renair -
      Great Interview.
    1. DominicS's Avatar
      DominicS -
      Great interview Ben. It's always interesting to read about future development plans and ideas!!

      Many thanks.

    1. anaismith's Avatar
      anaismith -
      He doesn't give much away.
    1. 5050's Avatar
      5050 -
      Ben told (Unfortunately we are just limited by development time).

      Does Laminar intends to recruit some other developer(s) in order to increase its dev capabilities ? (So many things are waiting for so long time !)

      BTW, thanks for this interview and happy new year !
    1. flightplanes's Avatar
      flightplanes -
      Would be great to see UK2000 get on board with Xplane 10. They make great UK airports for FSX and as there aren't many doing good UK airports for xp at the moment I think the partnership of xp's 64bit and UK2000's brilliant detailed airports.. that would be a winner!
    1. swaters99's Avatar
      swaters99 -
      Great interview and really looking forward to 10.30 and future improvements now! Come on developers, move on over! And regional experts, come make us some decent regions.
    1. Woogey's Avatar
      Woogey -
      I am an FSX Die Hard Simmer. I have been intrigued by X-plane for a while now. The aspect that shy's me away from it, are actually two different reasons. 1) The Scenery or lack there of. 2) The "Cartoony" looking aircraft. Both of these factors are beginning to change. I wish Laminar would start a crusade to rally scenery developers, specifically to start creating cities, the way Lime-sim, and Drzewiecki-Designs do it. The difference being......proper lighting for the buildings. Quality aircraft are finally starting to appear, I am crossing my fingers, that some thing like an Aerosoft OV-10, or F-16 will make the "port over." With all this said, I think I will make the plunge in the next couple of weeks. I credit FrooglePete, and this interview for making my mind up. -Preston
    1. RocLobster's Avatar
      RocLobster -
      Having stepped away from X-Plane (XP) for several years and returning, I can say that I am impressed by the changes that have occurred. But, I do get the same feeling about the rate of progress from its developers as I did before.

      Then, as now, I pick up the vibe that LR devotes its attention primary to their big customer's (government & commercial) desires. The paid staff and volunteers that devote time to the "graphical icing" are tolerated, but their demands are recognized only when the coding challenge tickles their fancy.

      And that's understandable. XP is a sophisticated flight simulator and terrain details are typically only important in and near the airports. But for me, then and now, flying heavy metal way up high with ATC telling me what to do gets old fast. It's the low-to-the-ground stuff and the sometimes magical way that XP can present the clunky topology/overlays, weather and sunlight in a combination that is beautiful to behold.

      Never forget that LR is a commercial enterprise and thus subject to the whims of its masters. I'm amazed that its still around, and XP managed to outlive Microsoft's longest-running product. XP will never be perfect, but I'm thankful for what it is so far. And, as MSFS demonstrates, it could go away and the slow-paced improvements would too.

      It's up to us imagineers to leverage XP's open-ness to suite our needs and demonstrate to the simviation public the joys and challenges of taking the low-altitude country roads versus the miles-high Interstate. Praise and support LR and co-developers when they make you happy. Grumble half as much to give them some slack when they muck something up.

      As I demonstrated to myself during my 3-year XP hiatus, software development is hard, but not half as hard as pleasing your customers. For a small studio to make money at it is near impossible.
    1. alpilotx's Avatar
      alpilotx -
      Quote Originally Posted by RocLobster View Post
      And that's understandable. XP is a sophisticated flight simulator and terrain details are typically only important in and near the airports. But for me, then and now, flying heavy metal way up high with ATC telling me what to do gets old fast. It's the low-to-the-ground stuff and the sometimes magical way that XP can present the clunky topology/overlays, weather and sunlight in a combination that is beautiful to behold.
      There is already a lot of eye candy which you can get for low and slow flying too .... Even for free (or donation ware ... so to say)! You might be surprised how much it has to offer.

      For example via my HD mesh Scenery v2 offering, which improves Europe and North America in a substantial way:

      Or the special New Zealand Pro Scenery:

      Or all the HD Mesh with phototextures (mostly based on google maps) instead of generic ones:
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