Why tech leaders should pay attention to Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020

Flight Simulator is more than just a game. Here’s why it may impact the future of technology.

Image: Microsoft

A few months ago I wrote about Digital Twins, a topic that was on my mind after seeing a preview of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2020, which was recently released. The game may have a nostalgic appeal for many reading this. For me, it was my first “real” computer game, which my dad bought in the mid-1980s while feeling sympathetic for his son who was stuck inside with a bad case of the flu.

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Flight Simulator forever changed my impression of the beige box that sat in our attic and was a device that I regarded with only mild interest since it seemed to do little more than allow me to type a school paper, or let my dad endlessly tweak numbers in a strange application called Lotus 1-2-3. Flight Simulator forever hooked me on technology when that monochrome screen lit up with an admittedly poor representation of Chicago’s Meigs Field rather than rows of uninteresting text, allowing a pre-teen to fly an airplane anywhere in the (virtual) world without leaving his home.

The latest version of Flight Simulator, returning to the market after over a decade, has come a long way from my monochrome Cessna, but what’s significantly more interesting from a technology leader’s perspective is how the game incorporates real-world data, artificial intelligence (AI), and massive multiplayer capabilities. It’s not unfair to suggest the game is essentially simulating the real world, and this was borne out when I took a quick simulated flight out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and heard the virtual air traffic controller guiding in an American Airlines flight that was quite literally overhead in the real world.

The game uses an AI engine, combined with mapping data, to build a 3D world, and sure enough I was able to fly over a few local landmarks and my house, and while things like colors and nuanced details were imperfect, a nearby lake and its hydroelectric dam were easy to spot, as was the Charlotte skyline.

It’s not a huge mental leap to wonder what kind of events could be simulated in this incredibly realistic virtual world. For real pilots, the ability to accurately simulate weather or take a “trial run” of a complex flight is an obvious benefit, but having access to an entire world opens up dozens of possibilities. My 10-year-old son immediately requested a simulated airplane crash (rather uneventful), but consider that this might be the first time you could test various air traffic scenarios, weather variations, or even simulate cargo or passenger routings for the price of a $60 game.

How can Flight Simulator help your business?

If your business has nothing to do with aviation, and you have no interest in games or flight, it’s still worth picking up a copy of Flight Simulator, if for no other reason than to get a preview of the first detailed simulated world, which I believe will be coming soon to a store near you. I can’t imagine that Microsoft and its partners would construct an entire world, with realistic weather, geography, and visuals, and restrict it to a single game. In several of its press releases, Microsoft highlighted the backend for its simulated world, running on its Azure cloud platform, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that they could sell access to this virtual world for commercial applications.

One obvious application could be simulating various supply chain routing scenarios. Thinking of moving a factory offshore? Rather than spreadsheet models, imagine if you could place it on a map, set up some simulated logistics partners, and then throw storms, political unrest, cargo delays, or different consumption scenarios at the simulator and determine the outcomes instead of retaining your onshore facility? Event planners could model hosting events at different sites and calculate real transportation costs using actual flight schedules, or a company launching a new product could simulate worldwide distribution using different carriers to find the best combination to meet their release schedule.

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It’s similarly not too hard to imagine an entire marketplace around this virtual world, with companies providing everything from logistics and shipping simulators that run in the world, to a global pandemic scenario that PPE suppliers could use to predict safety stocks. Imagine visiting the “world store” and buying the components you need to simulate all manner of scenarios that are too complex for spreadsheets or traditional analytics tools, and watching them unfold in a realistic and visually accurate model. It’s a pretty amazing scenario to imagine.

I’ve long advocated spending some time learning and developing a basic awareness of consumer technologies, and Flight Simulator is one you should add to your list. While I’ll take no responsibility if you’re caught enjoying a flight through the Grand Canyon when your boss walks in, this could be the first glimpse into a capability that will change the game for companies that take advantage of the ability to simulate large-scale, complex scenarios using these emerging technologies.

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