Stimulating Simulating

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're into computer flight-simulation games, you know it's not only what's on the screen that contributes to a kick-butt experience. Pumping up the realism in flight simulators requires a hot computer, a top-end graphics card, a great sound system, a console that gives you full control of your aircraft and an environment that mimics an aircraft cockpit and reduces awareness of the outside world.

In the flight-simulator business, this is called immersion, says John Callan of Torrance, who created of the Stimbox fighter cockpit.

If this all sounds like overkill for playing a game, think again. How do you think they train real pilots these days? Some years back, I took a ride in an F-18 flight simulator at El Toro. The fully tricked-out F-18 cockpit sat in a huge dome.

When you were flying, you could look forward, above, below and behind you--a complete view of your surroundings. Enemy aircraft raced by with a roar, shaking the simulator. Pads in the seat simulated the feelings of acceleration and turning.

It got my heart pumping in a big way when I was on the approach to a carrier landing.

You may not be able to create the total environment of a high-end government-financed flight simulator in your garage, but you can do a lot better than a computer screen and a cheap joystick.

If you want to use your discretionary income to punch up your flight simulations, here are some effective ways to spend your loot.

First, if you have a regular old monitor, say 14 or 15 inches, get a bigger one. Lots bigger. A 21-inch monitor qualifies as furniture, given that these monitors are typically deeper than a television and weigh about 80 pounds. In the last year, the price has come down drastically. You can pick up a good monitor for $1,300.

Invest another $200 to $300 into a high-quality video card designed for gaming and you'll feel like you're seeing the world from an F-15.

Next, speakers. Make that speaker systems, with two small speakers and a larger subwoofer. Though the visual images you see on the computer screen are the main element for an exciting flight simulation, sound makes a large contribution to the sense of realism.

A subwoofer booming only an inch or so from your jockeys will give you the tactile feel of racing around the sky in 20 tons of vibrating metal and roaring engines, firing away with guns and missiles.

Popular speaker systems from Advent, Boston Acoustics, Cambridge Soundworks, Yamaha and others run $100 to $350.

Advanced flight-simulation systems are designed to accommodate good sound systems.

After you have the basics related to the computer, you can add more hardware. For flight simulation, this means a high-quality joystick and rudder pedals. Top-end joysticks such as the Thrustmaster F-22 Pro ($220, [503] 615-3200; http://www.thrustmaster.com) are equipped with multiple programmable buttons and switches that permit the gamer to customize joystick operation for different games.

Flight-sim connoisseurs can also opt for rudder pedals such as Thrustmaster's Elite Rudder System ($90), which can be used to slue the aircraft from side to side in a strafing attack or to help in dogfights.

Thrustmaster also offers the F-16 Throttle Quadrant System ($200), which controls the throttle, afterburners and other flight functions.

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For a realistic aircraft environment, the Stimbox is one way to go. At $2,995 it will make a significant dent in your hardware budget, but you get a convincing fighter cockpit, complete with gauges, toggle switches and knobs.

The Stimbox is designed to hold your computer, monitor, keyboard and joystick, There's room for side-mounted speakers and a subwoofer under the ejection seat so the simulation penetrates to your very core. You get your name, rank and call sign emblazoned on the fuselage.

"My interest was to make it look real. Even subliminally," manufacturer Callan says.

Stimbox takes up a fair amount of room. It's about 6 1/2 feet long and 4 1/4 feet wide (about the size of a sofa), though it comes in two halves to ease it through doors. When assembled, it stands on four wheels so it can be easily moved out of the way.

The standard version of the Stimbox accepts 14- and 15-inch monitors. A model designed for monitors as big as 21 inches is available for $100 more.

Stimbox's instrument panel is flanked by consoles to the left and right. An interior/map light and 21 indicator lights finish out the cockpit ambience. Shut off the lights in the room and you're cruising through the skies.

An alternative to the Stimbox is the Virtual Cockpit (the Cockpit Group, [800] 861-7055; http://www.vcockpit.com). This $230 cockpit enhances the feeling of being inside an aircraft. Add the optional door/lid kit ($60) and you eliminate outside distractions.

The Virtual Cockpit is 5 feet long, 2 feet wide and 4 feet high. It comes with a monitor mount, an adjustable joystick console and places to mount speaker systems, pedals and other accessories. A seat is included; a padded seat back is $40 more.

If you're handy with tools, you can modify the Virtual Cockpit to handle flight sim to your taste. One reviewer for PC Media & Entertainment magazine (http://www.pcme.com/hardware/vcockpit/vcockpit.htm) took a saw and some imagination to the melamine panels of the cockpit and tailored the box to fit his personal requirements.

A different approach to the cockpit is the $800 Rock 'n' Ride Motion Simulator (http://www.rocknride.com/). It's a chair suspended from a metal frame and driven by a pneumatic pump that rotates the chair side to side and up and down--as much as 55 degrees in response to joystick input. This enhances the feeling of climbing, diving and banking.

A subwoofer mounts beneath the seat, and there are pedal and throttle mounts, says John Kinsella of Victorville-based Rock 'n' Ride. It will hold monitors as big as 17 inches, but the weight of the monitor affects the balance of the machine--just as weight affects the balance in a real plane.

"The best place to have it is a walk-in closet; all you see is the monitor," Kinsella says.

Rock 'n' Ride lets you feel as if you're swooping around the skies.

"The thing that really stands in the way of mass sales [of Rock 'n' Ride] is wives," Kinsella says.

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All this hardware will boost your enjoyment, but your flight sim sessions might annoy the whole family with roaring engines and barking guns. If so, the Localizer from Brown Innovations ([312] 491-8400; http://www.purestereo.com) may help. It's a 32-inch sound dome that focuses and isolates sound. Sound levels are reduced by 80% beyond the dome's edge ($799).

New equipment for games is being introduced all the time. You can find out what's new using the Internet. ZDNet's GameSpot at http://www.gamespot.com is a comprehensive site for gamers, and it will keep you informed about the latest hardware and software.

Another good site is CNet's Gamecenter at http://www.gamecenter.com.

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