Should you choose Multiple Monitors, Head Tracking or VR in Simulation Programs?

One challenge in sim programs is that one screen only gives you the view straight ahead. There are times when you need to see to your right or left. A truck simmer must see if anything is coming when crossing a street. A racer needs to see if he or she can quickly cut to the right. A flight simmer needs to see where the runway is before turning to the base and then final approach. In a real life truck, car or airplane, you just turn your head and look out the side window. But in a sim, it’s not that easy. Many sims have the ability to program your wheel, joystick or yoke so one button instantly gives you the side view. This can work well, but it’s not ideal when the approach is tense with bad weather or other challenges.

There are three basic solutions:
1. Virtual Reality or VR. Many of the top simulator programs as well as games now support VR. The “immersion level” with VR is very high. It will look and feel like you are actually sitting in the plane. Like it real life, turn your head and you are looking out the side window. Touching the instrument knobs within the game will require holding a small VR controller device. Some real life pilots say immersion level is best provided by realistic aerodynamic aspects of flight in a particular airplane as is found in X-plane. VR gives you superior 3-D depth of field and a wider field of view.

With VR you must key bind as many functions as you can to a HOTAS (hands on throttle-and-stick) so you don’t have to lift the headset and see the real world device.

Doctors warn that virtual reality can cause eye strain because the brain is forced to process visual stimuli in a different way than normal. Some allege that VR may be harmful to children’s eyes. The VR headset, after all, does put your eyes inches away from the monitor. You do not see anything outside the headset so if your child about to fall or jump on you, you could not see her. Good VR systems are pricey costing $400 – $600. They also require a more powerful computer. There are cheaper ways to try it out such as Google Cardboard which uses a smart phone. While there are some impressive games that work with Google Cardboard, your favorite simmer application may not be in the list.

2. Head Tracking systems consist of two sensors – one that sits on top of the monitor and one that sits on your head using a hat, headphones or other device. They communicate to each other using infra-red so the head tracker “sees” where your head is looking. You set up a profile which will differ from a racing sim to a flight sim. It has up to six ranges of motion or axes. One advantage of head tracking over VR is that you can disable some of the six ranges of motion to get a more stable platform. You can see the problems in YouTube VR game videos where the is the camera is shaking and moving around nearly all of the time. This can cause motion sickness. An advantage to head tracking is that you have real peripheral vision so you see the actual room you are in as well as the keyboard and mouse, unlike in VR. You can see the switches on your joystick. In VR you have to feel around for buttons and switches unless they are built into the simulation.

Head tracking systems typically have no noticeable performance cost on the computer. VR systems can put significant cost on the computer. You may need to dial down some graphics settings on VR system. A downside to tracking systems is heavy sunlight. A room with a lot of sunlight can interfere with the sensors. So you may need to add curtains or blinds. Heavy sunlight will also be a problem with three monitor, but not of course with VR. The top of the line head tracking system costs about $170
3. Three Monitors. Some gamers want 2 or 3 monitors because it’s like having one big giant monitor – you can see more stuff at the same time than you can with one monitor. Many people opt for one ultra wide screen ranging from 29 to 49 inches wide, but most people prefer the triple monitor setup each monitor being 21-24 inches. This can provide those views out the side windows. A three monitor setup costs a lot more than head tracking. In addition to the three monitors, you may need a stand that holds all of them as well as additional cables. But the first thing to consider is whether your computer and your game can handle the demands of three monitors and whether your graphics card can cope with the resolution of three monitors and has enough connectors.

Not all games support three monitors, and for those that do, there is some definite adjusting to do in the game and in Windows to get the field of view just right in all three monitors. Rather than using three, one ultra wide monitor is a safe bet for weaker Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) and a wider variety of games. However, a triple screen setup, with its adjustability, can allow you to change the angles of the two outer monitors. This can give the effect of the screens wrapping around you, giving you a more immersive experience with a wider, yet still effective and not distorted, field of view.
Three monitors typically take more physical space than as single ultra wide monitor. In general, three monitors or one ultra wide monitor is less strenuous when racing or simming for longer periods than VR.
Bottom Line: In my own situation with the Xplane 11 flight simulator, I was sure I wanted three monitors. But after studying the issue and watching lots of YouTube videos, I’ve decided to start with a head tracking system and see if that satisfies.

BTW while VR may be the extreme case, you can get seasick from any of these three.