On a recent cloudy morning in Wolverhampton, England, Wesley Appiah was in his bedroom, reviewing a flight plan to the Canary Islands, cueing up an R&B playlist and greeting his “passengers.”
Appiah, 20, is an accounting and finance student at the University of Warwick, but he’s also an aspiring pilot who streams virtual flights on Twitch, the internet’s most popular destination for video game streaming.
His software of choice is the new Microsoft Flight Simulator, released in August.
“You can go anywhere around the world,” Appiah said, “as long as there’s an airport to fly to.”
Appiah is not exaggerating. In addition to a wide variety of airplanes to pilot, the 2020 simulator offers what is generally agreed to be the most realistic and complete digital representation of the world that has ever been made available to the public. It includes 1.5 billion rendered buildings and enough data to fill 1.7 million DVDs. For digital tourists, a trip to the Grand Canyon or Mount Fuji is now a flight away.
Like the real world, it’s dynamic. The virtual planet continuously updates, complete with weather. When Hurricane Laura hit the U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico, people playing Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 chased the storm. Smoke from recent wildfires was also in the virtual world. There’s even wildlife, spurring something of a digital safari niche on YouTube. Other people have re-created famous flights from movies.
That means flights around the globe can be a long haul. Two streamers even sat down for about 16 hours to re-create the journey from Los Angeles to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, which is one of the longest commercial flights available.
“I can go from Birmingham to Dubai, real flight time. So it’s seven hours. I’m sitting down for seven hours,” Appiah said.
Mandy, another Twitch streamer who goes by TeaWithMandy, said the simulator has offered a crucial respite during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve been literally doing sightseeing tours on my stream,” said Mandy, who asked to omit her last name as many video game streamers do to maintain privacy. “It’s been the perfect thing to do during a pandemic when no one can travel.”
Microsoft has been making its signature simulator since 1982, predating even Windows, to make it the company’s longest-running product. As Microsoft has grown and evolved, the simulator has, as well. The newest version taps Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing services, which are now a major part of the company’s business.
The software’s longevity and attention to detail built up a fervent following over the years, with some fans developing an online air traffic control network called VATSIM. The software is detailed enough that it offers a nearly real-life experience.
“You can use it as a game,” said Edward Kjellén, a Swedish cargo pilot in Norway who also streams simulator sessions. “But then you can also use it as a tool to gain knowledge and experience and actually be taught a lot from it.”
That’s not meant to keep out casual players. Users can still play simpler game modes to hop around the globe without having to constantly check their airspeed.
Jörg Neumann, head of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, said his team had a “no pilot left behind” philosophy.
Even people who don’t want to go through the trouble of learning their ailerons from their flaps can enjoy the landscapes. Like Mandy and Appiah, many people stream their digital trips on Twitch, offering tours of Japan and Norway.
The technology in the simulator advances gaming, but it also has applications for the real world.
The digital twin of the Earth was developed by Blackshark.ai, a company in Graz, Austria. Simona Huebl, who works on strategic partnerships for the company, said the platform could be used to help guide autonomous cars or assist North American retailers experimenting with backyard drone deliveries.
For now, the digital world’s primary offering is as a respite for the many people who aren’t able to travel during the pandemic.
“There have been certain games that pop up and are special during a pandemic. They offer something really unique in this really strange time,” Mandy said. “You’re getting some positivity and some joy from something that you’re not finding elsewhere.”