Parachute simulator relies on COTS video game graphics

HAWTHORNE, Calif. - While designing their parachute flight training simulators for the U.S. Navy, engineers at Systems Technology Inc. of Hawthorne, Calif., needed a low-cost graphics compatible with PC-based systems.

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By John McHale

HAWTHORNE, Calif. - While designing their parachute flight training simulators for the U.S. Navy, engineers at Systems Technology Inc. of Hawthorne, Calif., needed a low-cost graphics compatible with PC-based systems.

The idea was to replace proprietary image generator and workstation solutions that typically are 10 times the cost of PC components, so they chose the Voodoo Graphics-based Obsidian Graphics board from 3Dfx Interactive, Inc. of San Jose, Calif.

"At 30 frames per second, the system is three times faster than anything we`ve used before," says Jeffrey R. Hogue, principal specialist for Systems Technology. It allows a parachutist to whip his head around when using the simulator and see what he would see if he were in actual freefall.

"The system presents a photo-realistic world, both night and day with actual terrain," he adds.

After U.S. Navy officials reviewed the previous simulator, which was developed for forest fire-fighting parachutists, they approved it but asked for better graphics and more complete training capabilities, Hogue says.

"We took advantage of a multiple-systems order by the U.S. Marine Corps to adapt the recent low-cost but high-quality PC and arcade game developments to these serious but more limited quantity applications," Hogue says. "Improvements included 3D photomapped scenes based on real terrain data generated by 3Dfx display adapters, virtual reality (VR) head-mounted tracking and display devices, and networked multi-participant operations."

The systems are in use with four U.S. Marine Corps reconnaissance units to teach, plan, and practice dangerous parachute missions. The delivery of the systems marks the first actual in-service training application of this technology. Installations have been made at Quantico, Va., Camp Lejune, N.C., Camp Pendelton, Calif., and Panama City, Fla.

"Parachute missions are difficult, expensive, and hazardous to train, plan, and practice in actual flight," Hogue says. "Now that the systems are enhanced with 3Dfx Interactive`s Obsidian graphics board, that allows operational personnel to plan and practice group missions at specific sights, allows trainees to deal with a variety of potential emergencies, and allows aircrew personnel to practice emergency procedures over scenes based on their anticipated actual operations."

The combination of a VR head-mounted display and tracker with the 3D texture-mapping graphics produces an immersive environment that allows for obstacle tracking and avoidance, a view of malfunctions overhead, as well as the field-of-view and display rate to avoid common simulator sickness. The system can create specific mission scenes from digital map data and work together with other recorded or networked jumpers.

Based on advanced configurations of 3Dfx Interactive`s Voodoo Graphics 3D graphics chipset, the Obsidian graphics board family is optimized to deliver interactive 3D applications with photo-realistic quality at real-time frame rates to address a range of different commercial and professional 3D applications.

Voodoo Graphics was originally developed for video games, says Ross Smith vice president of sales for 3Dfx Interactive. "We`re providing the new market [government and military], enhanced graphics for one-tenth the price of what they`ve been paying,"

The Obsidian graphics board uses the Voodoo Graphics chipset`s texture streaming architecture to deliver up to 2.4 gigabytes per second of dedicated graphics memory bandwidth to real-time 3D applications.

This dedicated memory bandwidth coupled with the technology`s on-chip triangle setup engine enables the various Obsidian graphics boards to render more than one million texture mapped triangles per second and to sustain tri-linear filtered texture map fill rates at up to 100 Megapixels per second, which is typically available only on high-end 3D workstations and dedicated image generators.

The Obsidian graphics boards are available in Voodoo Graphics chipset configurations with either 2 or 4 MB of effective frame buffer memory and 2,4 or 8 MB of effective texture memory.

"Classroom lectures cannot offer the practice necessary to develop skills needed in parachuting," Hogue says. Soldiers who have never made an actual jump can use the new simulator and perform flawlessly. The majority of injuries are due to a lack of proper training, he adds. Fighter pilots barely spend any time at all training with a parachute.

"The Parachute Training Simulators provide immediate assessment and solution of any canopy deployment problems and allows the user to set up and fly a no-power landing while scanning in all directions for team members, obstacles, and hostile forces," says Marine Staff Sgt. Edward Walsh of Camp Lejeune`s 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company.

The new systems were also developed in response to the results of a U.S. Navy aircrew emergency training evaluation conducted at Cecil Field Naval Air Station, Fla. The U.S. Air Force averages more than 25 aircraft ejections per year and the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps more than 50, of which more than 90 percent are survivable. Of these emergencies, more than half result in injuries and a significant number are related to parachute flight skills.

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A virtual reality parachute simulator from Systems Technology is using PC technology to give aircraft pilots and special-forces parchutists realistic training with graphics that are fast enough to keep pace with the user`s rapid head movements.

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