Virtuous circles

When last I left you, I’d assembled a temporary simpit that I planned to use while I waited to put up the garden building I’m eventually going to use as a workshop / sim room.

Since then, I’ve mostly been flying the sim. It’s been good fun. But, as it always does, the upgrade bug bit me and I decided that what I’d assembled just wasn’t really good enough, even for the short term. The big issue is the display – a 55″ TV is nice, but it’s not mounted ideally and can’t be because of the height of the console. I will eventually build a new, more accurate and sophisticated console, but that’s going to take months. So I wanted to address the display issue.

This led me to consider resurrecting my projector for the outside display, but after measuring the room and doing all the calculations, I realised I couldn’t get a picture much larger than 60″ out of it, as it’s an AV projector intended for large living rooms and not small back bedrooms.

Not one to be deterred, I invested in a newer Full HD projector intended for business use, with a throw ratio to match. The plan was to put a large screen on the available wall, and have an image of about 120″, which is as large as I can manage. This would overcome my perception of not being able to see enough around the console. Since my wall is yellow, it would have to be painted over – and so I decided to make a screen out of hardboard and paint that instead. Then I figured I’d like to be able to use the thing in less than total darkness, and some research pointed me at Screen Goo, a specialist paint that claims to be able to reflect enough light to let you use a sufficiently bright projector in full daylight. So I bought some.

That would have been that. But then, while researching projector setups, I came across SimPit NZ’s Icarus Avenger 180. And my techno-lust lightbulb went ‘ping’.

The Avenger is a relatively small, 180-degree curved screen built into a frame that also houses two projectors. Using this, a PC, and warping software like Warpalizer, you can create a 32:9 wraparound display that you can sit inside. That’s not news to cockpit builders, many of the better setups use large curved screens within which the cockpit fits, but the Avenger is small enough to fit in an ordinary room, yet large enough to fit a single-person cockpit. While I wait for the real thing, this would give me a far superior setup than a flat projector screen would. And so I was sold.

One problem – SimPits is located in New Zealand and the pricing to buy and have a kit shipped here is, well, extortionate. Since AFAIK there is no patent on the design, I’m free to knock up something similar myself, which is what I’ve decided to do:

  • My screen will be made from painted hardboard, where the SimPit screen is a special ultra-reflective cloth that they sell and which is a large fraction of the cost – curved board painted with Screen Goo should do the same job.
  • A wooden frame will force the board into a semi-circular shape and keep it there, so there should be no hot-spotting or image distortion due to projection surface movement.
  • Finally, a gantry built onto the rear of the frame will hold the projectors, and the whole thing will sit on adjustable legs so it can move up and down as required.

The SimPits screen is – according to images on the site with some measurements on them – 1.8m in diameter. Mine will be a full 2m, requiring a screen arc of 3.14m. Each projector will need to cover an area of 1.57m x 0.88m. This is just about doable with modern 16:9 projectors – any larger and I’d probably need a third projector.

So, I set about buying a second projector, which was identical to the first. You should always use the same model or the picture will be subtly different and it’ll be impossible to blend the images properly. Once that arrived and with all materials in hand, I set about doing the calculations, and that’s when things went awry.

The projectors I bought were BenQ W1070+. This has pretty good reviews, and while it’s a basic model it would be more than good enough for my needs, except for one thing: it’s not short-throw. (If you’re not familiar with throw ratios and what they mean, by the way, go read my Projector 101 piece – I’ll wait.) It’s advertised as short-throw by BenQ, but it’s generally agreed in the industry that short-throw requires a throw ratio of 0.8 or lower at maximum zoom, and the W1070+ has a throw ratio of 1.15. The projectors would need to be so far from the screen surface that the whole rig would be unbalanced and would not fit in the space available.

I’d bought the W1070+ because it was advertised on Amazon as a new model of the older W1080ST. That’s the specific projector that SimPits uses, and it’s widely used in sims because of the low throw ratio – 0.69 at max zoom – and excellent picture quality. I should have been clued in by the fact that the W1070+ was quite a bit cheaper, but sometimes I’m dumber than I look, and this was one of those times.

So I now had two W1070+ projectors that were no good for my purpose. Thankfully I had not opened either box, so they were fit to go back to Amazon, but then I discovered that the first one I bought was outside its 30-day return window.

Long story short, I sold that one on eBay and returned the other one to Amazon, and then ordered two W1080STs, which are what I should have had all along.

Fast forward to now and I’m ready to go, but there are some housekeeping duties to be done first. I needed to move the existing simpit, and since I wanted to keep using it over the next few weeks as I build the screen, I had to put it somewhere I could re-assemble it. It’s now in my bedroom. Of course, since the TV for it was wall-mounted in the other room, I had to change the display. I still had a smaller 36″ TV that I used to use with my sim back in the day, so I put that on top of the console, but it was way too high up. So today I fabricated a plinth behind the console which sits the screen with its base a few cm below the line. This will work, although I’ll be missing some of the screen off. In a virtual cockpit situation, that won’t be a problem.

I’ll post updates as this build continues.

I’m not posting updates on my sim software, because this is a cockpit-building blog and not a general flight-sim blog, but I may take a moment to talk about Prepar3d v3, which came out a few weeks back and which is now my sim of choice, and explain why I think it’s the future of the hobby – at least, for now.

Back soon!