Bionic Display cuts computing power for flight simulator mixed reality
Saab and Varjo Technologies are developing a new low-cost, high-resolution mixed-reality (XR) technology for flight simulators to train pilots of the Saab Gripen E/F multi-role fighter aircraft. Called Bionic Display, it cuts the computing power required by taking advantage of the way the human eye works.
Simulators have become indispensable for training pilots, especially when it comes to high-performance fighter jets. By recreating the cockpit and environment of an aircraft, such simulators are not only valuable tools for teaching neophyte pilots without risking an expensive aircraft or human lives, they can also help experienced pilots hone their skills or learn new ones as technological upgrades appear.
The problem is to produce a simulator that can realistically recreate flight conditions, and do so economically. The images produced by the simulator need to be in very high resolution so the trainees can see fine details and read even small text. In conventional simulators, this is done by using large domes or cave-shaped screens that are hooked up to a supercomputer to produce the needed detail. If a 3D effect is needed, the trainee must wear special glasses.
The result is a system that is very bulky, expensive, and difficult to move or modify.
For the Bionic Display that will be integrated into Saab's new Gripen E/F simulators, Varjo uses virtual reality headsets that produce the 3D effect by displaying a different image for each eye. That isn't so new, but the clever bit is how the technology creates the simulation with so little computing power that the supercomputer is replaced with one that is the equivalent of a powerful gaming computer.
It manages this by exploiting how the human eye and brain process vision. We tend to think that a normal person has very sharp, high-resolution vision across a wide field. In fact, the eye only sees a small, central area in high-resolution image, while the peripheral view is actually relatively blurry but seems sharp to us because the eye is constantly shifting about as it scans the area. The brain stitches together these scans, giving the illusion of a wide field of sharp vision.
The Bionic Display uses mixed reality, displaying the actual plane controls the pilot interacts with, and a virtual environment outside the cockpit. The headset has infrared LED lamps that project patterns onto the surface of the eye that are monitored by small cameras. These allow the system to track where the eyes are looking at any given moment so the simulator doesn't have to produce a single high-resolution image that covers an entire screen on either a wall or in the goggles. Instead, it just produces the high-resolution virtual image where the trainee is looking, leaving the rest of the field of view in low resolution. This means less computing power is needed to support the simulator session.
"We’re finalizing the basic functionalities in our own simulator so that we can use Varjo’s XR-3 headsets in all our flight simulators," says Saab’s Head of Tactical Environment Simulation and Visualisation. "We’ve previously carried out smaller, independent prototype-like projects but now we’re integrating them into our actual flight simulators."
The video below gives a brief overview of the technology.