Sunday, 27 February 2011

Scenery improvements

Even with GenX photoscenery installed, the base imagery looks pretty uninspiring and low resolution.  GenX's resolution is 1.2m per pixel, which looks great from several thousand feet but not so great from a few hundred!  I was looking at Google maps this morning and it was obvious that the level of detail in the imagery was over and above that shown in GenX.  So, I decided to look into whether I could find some similar imagery and include it into my scenery areas as a basemap.

My approach was to try and place it on a flat plane in Sketchup, then include it just as I have my other models.  This worked fine in principle until it came into conflict with the land mesh.  Chunks of my higher resolution image disappeared.

Clearly, if this approach was to work I needed to flatten some areas so that my image could be displayed properly.  After a bit of research I settled on SBuilderX as a tool and worked out how to use it.  I can create flattening bgls now, the only catch being that the lowres mapping used in SBuilderX to define the polygon is out of alignment to GenX, so to get the right area flattened I need to map it across accurately and then apply a displacement so it shows in the right place on GenX in FSX.

This approach works, in that the flattening bgl sits underneath the scenery.  It took me a lot of playing about with sketchup because on a single plane the applied texture was somehow mirrored, and when imported through IS2 into FSX just didn't show at all.  The solution was to take the texture file and mirror that, then apply it onto a flat rectangular plane in Sketchup, then cut away the excess unwanted areas to leave an uneven polygon with the ground texture on, then take that into FSX.

When imported into IS2, this reversed image miraculously was displayed correctly (don't ask me how I have no idea, but it works so I'm not complaining.)   When placed in the correct geographical position though it still didn't work, which foxed me until I hit on the idea of increasing its elevation ever so slightly to bring it above the flattening polygon.  Giving it an elevation of 0.0001m made everything ok and displayed it perfectly.

So, I can now make a higher res basemap for my scenery areas, and flatten them so all the additional scenery displays properly on top of it.  If anyone knows of a better way let me know!

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Review of progress so far

So, I've managed to complete the first phase of my project, but it has thrown up a range of problems I've had to overcome and some more questions for the future.

I got myself into a bit of a muddle with the first two models and ended up with textures, sketchup files and exported information in many different folders.  Add to that different versions of the files as I played around with them and tweaked them and I forgot which was which.  In future I intend to be a bit more disciplined about keeping notes and saving files in a logical file structure!

A lot of the time involved was editing the photo images for the textures.  I managed to close files in photoshop without saving them a few times (duh!) and had to got back and redo everything again.  Towards the end I found the easiest way was to save each file repeatedly as I edited it so as not to lose any work.  This was just plain stupidity on my part I have to admit, so I learned the hard way.

I've also used several other libraries that I found - I downloaded a RWY12 library which Instant Scenery 2 can use happily, so in order for anyone else to use my scenery straight off I need to make sure all the necessary files are included in the final .zip - again I could have made life easier for myself here by making a note of exactly what I used and where it came from but in my enthusiasm for putting it together I didn't.

The only minor problem I stil have left is that the parked cars don't show up straight away in FSX.  When I load the scenery bgl into IS2 they appear, and stay when IS2 is turned off....   Maybe it's something to do with the settings relating to which scenery items are displayed at what density setting, but my FSX is on maximum so I wouldn't have thought that would have affected it - it _should_ show everything.  I'll play around with it tomorrow, and if all else fails I'll delete the vehicles and re-add them to see if that fixes it.  Failing that, I'll need to source some vehicle libraries somewhere else.

I made this area pretty much as detailed as I could, given its proximity to the airfield.  Other areas in my plan that are further away may have slightly less detail as they most probably will be seen from further away and I don't want to impact on performance levels so much that the sim becomes unflyable.  As it is, I've circled my scenery and EGGP with REX2 on and all scenery settings to max and still been getting 30+ fps.

Skypark (Owen Drive) completed

Here are 3 screenshots of the small industrial unit on Owen Drive which was my first target area to complete.  This works perfectly, but could probably use some tweaking to make it more frame friendly.
All comments, criticism, flames etc gratefully accepted.....what do you think?

Friday, 25 February 2011

Thursday, 24 February 2011

High res model in FSX

Here's a screenshot showing the high res model placed into FSX.

More work on Owen Drive - adding quality textures

I've now been to get some high res local shots of one of the units in Owen Drive, and played around with them.  Technically it's not difficult to manipulate them to get what I need, but it is fairly time consuming.  I took several images and extracted the building face in the right perspective using Photoshop, then merged the different parts of the building face together.  Then I reduced the resulting image size to the maximum allowed by my texture map (512x512) and edited the smaller image to get rid of artifacts like the car roofs that were plaguing the building sides.

The resulting model is below, compared side by side with the original test model I mapped with low res textures ripped from Bing maps.

The difference is quite clear, but is it worth the extra time taken?  On balance I think it is, because most of the buildings won't have as many artifacts to remove and I could have taken better pics from different angles to reduce the amount of image joining I had to do. 

The only possible problem apart from time then, will be if I can't get into a site to take the necessary high res images.  I may have to resort to using some low res textures and beefing them up in photoshop, but again that could be time consuming.

I'm definitely going to finish the Owen Drive area with high res and see how that looks in FSX when it's completed, then I'll make a final decision.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Thoughts on Speke village

I've had a think this evening about how to do Speke village itself.  It would be far too time-consuming a job to model every last individual building in Speke, there are probably well over 1,000 houses.

I've had a quick go using generic autogen houses to see what kind of look that gave, placing them with Instant Scenery 2.  It's better than flat GenX photoscenery, but they don't look at all real and they shimmer badly.

It's some kind of realism I'm after, not just a slapdash autogen mixture, so I've come up with a compromise solution.  Looking at the buildings in Speke, there are several different types of houses, along with some schools, shops and other things.  I'm thinking I can do the 10-12 different types of house with a realistic texture, then just use the same ones over and over again.  It won't be truly realistic, but it will look a lot better than autogen, and how many people are going to notice that no3 acacia avenue doesn't have uPVC windows and the roof tiles may be not the right colour exactly when they're more concerned with staying in the circuit or climbing out from 09?

Even if I had won the lottery and had all the time in the world it just wouldn't be a good use of time to try and do everything individually.  With the housing made up of the 10-12 different models Speke will look more realistic than it does currently.  I may even do several variations of each different type, with the same model structure but different roof tile textures, so it looks like there are more different types than there really are.

The other decision  is how detailed I should make all the individual models.  The industrial parks were easy, but houses have chimneys etc.  My test model above has chimneys and overlapping eaves as well (obviously the textures aren't perfect but again this was a proof of concept model), but I'm wondering whether to keep them in or not.  The perfectionist in me says keep them, because it wil look more realistic, but the realist says with 100's of these populating Speke, there will be a performance hit with more complex models, and even more so for people with lesser specced kit.

I'd appreciate anyone else with any modelling experience giving me some advice here, because I just don't know which way to go?  Should I stick with detailed or just go with a simpler design?

Next >> More work on Owen Drive - adding quality textures

First scenery with detailed home-made textures

Haven't been able to get the imagery for the Owen Drive industrial estate today - it was too late after work and the light was fading, so that will have to wait until tomorrow.  I did however do the 3d models for the other 4 units in this patch, which are correctly sized from Google maps.  These types of industrial buildings can be knocked up in literally seconds, so maybe there's hope I can get on quicker than I thought with this.  However, I know the image manipulation for the textures is what's going to take the time as I want them as good as can reasonably get them.

I've also looked and realised there will be a couple of areas I'll need to add to the plan.  There are 4 buildings comprising Estuary Science Park that are being built and also a new garden centre next to the Holiday Inn Express.  Neither of those are included in my list so far.

Next >> Thoughts on Speke Village

Monday, 21 February 2011

Machine specs I'm working with...

Just in case of interest, here's what I'm working with including FSX add-ons....

Asus P7P55D-E
Intel i5 760 @ 2.8GHz oc'ed and water cooled to 4GHz
Ati Radeon 5870

FSX Gold

Gen X
UK2000 VFR Airfields part 3
Treescapes UK
FSX Power Projects (for fiddlers ferry)
UK Refineries (for Stanlow)
UK Fuel Storage Depots
UK Ports (for Garston Docks)
EGGP VFR Landmarks, including old airfield, factories & hale lighthouse
Traffic X
EZ Scenery 2
VrInsight Hat-Track
& Vox ATC-UK on order

If anyone can direct me to additional scenery libraries that I can use in EZ Scenery 2 I'd be really grateful!

Next >> First scenery with detailed home-made textures

A test model - proving I can actually do this....

I've set to work and looked at the first area on my list, a small industrial estate off Speke Hall Avenue.  This is an attempt at one of the 5 units there.  It's a fairly basic box rectangle with slightly angled roof elements, so a good place to start.

The roof was taken from Google Maps and the sides from a birds eye image from Bing maps.  I used these images as they were easily obtainable with out moving and they prove the concept, although for the real thing I want to use better quality imagery taken myself on site wherever possible.  The textures were all laid out on one image file to reduce drawcalls.

I then used Arno's ModelConverterX to export this model as a .mdl to use in FSX before making it into a library object using EZ Scenery 2.  I don't know whether it was my install but it took a little bit of trial and error to get that to work - the install didn't seem to pick up on many of the paths of files it needed from the FSX SDK (scenery developers kit?).

After that was fixed it was a doddle, ModelConverterX did all the hard work! (Thanks Arno!)

I managed to place the model into the sim, and it fitted perfectly into Gen X, the dimensions of the building having been taken from Google too to make it as accurate as possible :)

The only problem I've had has been FSX crashing repeatedly when it's been trying to rebuild the scenery .cfg files as I tried to work with EZ Scenery 2.  Maybe that's me overloading my system but I did try to shut down every program I didn't need first and turn off all traffic, weather etc on FSX to reduce the system load.

Maybe it will work better after a reboot, sometimes things like that happen, but I've successfully managed to create a 3D model, texture it, and get it into FSX.   Only 8 bazillion buildings left to go! :p

Next >> Machine specs I'm working with...

Sketchup, up and away!

As it proved, yes it could be that simple.  Sketchup is a great little tool and quite powerful, although not in the same league as GMAX.  I tried both though, to make sure I was on the right lines.

GMAX is the superior of the two, but is clearly overkill for the kind of detail I need to do, so Sketchup was my 3D tool of choice.  I played around with it for the best part of a day to get the hang of various tools, and once I'd got my head round the way it worked it proved to be both powerful and relatively easy to use. 

At this point I started to feel very positive about the possibility of getting the scenery project off the ground.  Looking over Google and Bing maps I began to plot out where I would start and how much ground I wanted to cover.  Quickly it dawned that what I was attempting was no small project!  Every time I looked at an area it seemed that the next natural adjacent feature would need to be included as well, for fear of losing the realism.  I decided to be ambitious in terms of the total area to design, but to break it down into manageable chunks, as follows:

Aerial shot of EGGP and the surrounding area marked with the areas I intend to cover
Owen Drive
Factory Units
Blenheim Way
Factory Units
Premier Inn Hotel –
Speke Hall Avenue
Spindus Road
Industrial Estate Part 1
Spindus Road
Industrial Estate Part 2
Spindus Road
Industrial Estate Part 3
Fire Station Ambulance Station and Factory
Holiday Inn Express
Speke Business Park Showcase Unit Leeward Drive
Estuary Banks Part 1
Estuary Banks Part 2
Estuary Banks Part 3
Hurricane Drive Business Units
Dakota Drive
Prinovis Factory
Estuary Boulevard Units
Speke Hall Road Car dealer + units
Speke Boulevard
Part 1
Speke Boulevard
Part 2
Woodend Avenue
Industrial Estate
Speke Morrisons + units
Parklands School
Central Speke
Garston Gasworks
Speke Village
Hale Village

Even now looking back over this list I get a sense of trepidation and wonder if I'm not biting off far more than I can chew...  Most chunks only have 3 or 4 buildings in each one, but I'll need to take some detailed photography to get the textures right, and I'll place geographically correct additional scenery for outbuildings, vehicles and vegitation to make them seem even more realistic.  Even if I worked on nothing else, it would take some time to accomplish my goals with this, but as I have a full time job, not to mention a wedding to plan, I am realistically not going to get more than one building a week completed.  So, this project is going to take over a year to complete if I do it properly.

Next >> A test model - proving I can actually do this....


I've flown from Liverpool John Lennon Airport many times, both in reality as a passenger and also a pilot myself when doing my PPL.  At that time years ago I ran FS9 on a rig that was, well, a little on the slow side.  I dreamed of a setup where I could have great almost photorealistic detail and still get smooth enough flight characteristics to make the sim imersive.  I downloaded and found Paul Derbyshire's EGGP VFR landmark scenery which made a massive difference, but even this left gaps.  Since I couldn't get the experience I wanted, I sadly lost interest.

I left FS9 for years, until only recently acquiring FSX and building a new rig that would be capable enough to running it at a decent level - my interest was reborn.  Quickly, I installed Horizon Gen X photo-imagery.  That was followed by Gary Summon's VFR airfields 3 and REX2.  All the old FS9 scenery addons were next, including UK Ports, UK Refineries, UK Power project and Paul Derbyshire's landmark sceneries.

Still I was to be a little disappointed though.  Not all of the scenery matched up with the GenX and plenty of it looked tired.  Textures left a lot to be desired, especially running at 1600x1200x32 framerate locked to 30fps and all scenery settings maxed out and it all just looked too fake sitting on top of the aerial imagery.

'If only I could make my own scenery', I mused, 'then all this could look so improved.'

And so events were set in motion.

A day of research and investigation followed and I stumbled on Arno Gerretson's blog about using Google Sketchup to design FS scenery.  One pdf file download and installs of Sketchup and ModelConverterX later the plan began to solidify - I would design scenery using Sketchup, map my homemade textures onto it, create FSX models using MDLCX and then import it into FSX using EZ Scenery 2.  Could it really be as easy as that???