Page last updated at 18:24 GMT, Friday, 3 October 2008 19:24 UK

Virtual planes fly in real skies

By Andrew Webb
BBC News Website


Planes flying through virtual doughnuts. Video courtesy of Sky Challenge.

Two stunt planes have raced a computer-generated aircraft over Spain.

The pilots and a gamer manoeuvred through images of hoops.

Up in the real skies, the pilots swooped around their opponent's virtual plane, which they watched on screens.

On the ground, gamer Ernest Artigas could see the real planes in relation to his supposed position.

The Sky Challenge could pave the way for massive online competitions.

Peter Newport, Chief Executive of New Zealand-based Air Sports, masterminded the project.

Plane flies through virtual obstacle
Planes fly through virtual obstacles visible inside the cockpit

"It was amazing to see it come together," he told BBC News. "Ernest did surprisingly well against Castor Fantoba, the world number four pilot (in his class), coming only 1.5 seconds behind him."

Television spectacle

Mr Newport hopes the trial can lead to huge televised public competitions involving online gamers.

Technology developed for military use has made possible the fusing of real and electronically generated worlds.

It incorporates Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology and an Inertial Navigation System (INS), which measures momentum to track a plane's location. That information is relayed to gaming computers and pilots' navigation systems.

The team had to apply for permission from authorities governing the non-proliferation of weapons before flying the INS equipment to Europe.

Chris Hide, a scientist at New Zealand's Geospatial Research Centre, helped calibrate the positioning technology.

Gamers and real pilots can see their virtual opponents - a virtual plane flying through a virtual obstacle
Gamers and real pilots can see their virtual opponents

"GPS isn't good enough in an aerobatic aircraft," he said. "When it goes upside down and accelerates very quickly it's a very difficult environment to receive GPS signals, so we have to integrate INS."

Retina projection

Air Sports aims to ramp up the virtual experience in the cockpit.

It is considering projecting images of obstacle courses on to the retinas of pilots.

Nevertheless, safety concerns are an issue. One of the pilots from the trial reported feeling detached from reality in his cockpit.

Peter Newport is wary of pushing boundaries too far.

"We wouldn't suggest this is carried out by amateur organisations. We are working at the top of the game, using highly skilled pilots. Until virtual reality is better understood, widespread use should not be encouraged."

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