So You Want to Build a Dynamic Virtual Cockpit!


A Tutorial for Abacus Design Studio Pro by J.P. Amodea



WARNING: This tutorial shares something in common with air combat. It is 90% “setup” and 10% kill! But if you take the time to read the setup discussion, you will be rewarded with all the information you require to build a spectacular virtual cockpit, complete with active instrumentation and you will pick up a few tricks along the way.



Table of Contents




The Static View

Panels 101

Time to Build





As it turns out, you’ll be glad to know - that using only Design Studio Pro and a simple text Editor like Notepad®, it isn’t really hard to do at all!


A chicken in every pot and a dynamic virtual cockpit for Everyman is what I say!


Let’s agree first on two definitions. A static virtual cockpit is a 3D cockpit within which you can pan around, but nothing moves and the instruments are static or simple fixed images. A dynamic virtual cockpit is also a 3D cockpit as above, but the instrumentation functions dynamically and there may be animated parts as well, such as a moving stick or rudder pedals, etc.


Let’s begin with a little background discussion . . .


The first time I remember experiencing such a virtual cockpit - with all the needles and dials spinning around in virtual flight - was inside the cockpit of the native Combat Flight Simulator aircraft. It was then that I began to covet that kind of environment, some two years and more ago now. I saw something that I really wanted to have!


While I took up the hobby of re-painting or texture art creation, I kept waiting to see the first add-on with the DVC.


But we all waited in vain, didn’t we?


“It must take some magic not available to the average wizards in the flightsim community,” I thought. Some day perhaps, sigh!


And some day is here, thanks in good measure to Pentti Kurkinen.


Back in November of 2000, I was substantially finished with my own first FSDS aircraft, Schuftie, when I was all wrapped up in the wonder of the Multi-Resolution model.


I almost missed it . . .


I visit a number of sites on a near-daily basis, and as far as 3D modeling for any of the Microsoft flight simulator environments is concerned, you can’t find a better place than:


Free Flight Design


It was there that I almost missed it. The post by Pentti, announcing that he was finishing up a tutorial on building CFS/CFS2 aircraft using a hybrid system of constructing the individual parts with AF99®, but assembling them manually with SCASM coding and compilation techniques. Within that tutorial (available on line at the above site) you will find the essential knowledge that, one weekend in November, I applied to my FSDS project, Schuftie.


At that time, I resolved that this follow-up tutorial would be written just as soon as I could get my then-current and then-overdue project released into cyberworld.


O.K., now we are ready to get serious!




I am going to assume that you are a 3D modeler “chomping at the bit” to do a DVC yourself. Or perhaps you may be a would-be modeler or CFS2 enthusiast who may be just on the cusp of a decision to launch into a first project as well.


You’ll also need to have some knowledge of how to build a conventional “flat” or 2D panel.


You do not have to be a panel maestro; you just need some passing knowledge of the components and the interrelationships of these components.



What goes into a Dynamic Virtual Cockpit and how does it work!


Inside the cockpit, you will end up with just a few key elements.


You will start with a part that will be labeled for external display only. This part will be textured with a detailed representation of the cockpit panel, but will only be visible from a point of view outside the aircraft. Here you want some good resolution.


Next, typically, you will have two parts labeled vcockpit left and vcockpit right and these will be textured as well and “tagged” in FSDS for internal view only. The textures will be representations of the left and right half of the cockpit panel and do not require high resolution. I used only 128x128 pixel textures just like Microsoft used in their native aircraft. Why wouldn’t you want these to be high resolution as well? You’ll have to read the rest of the tutorial to find out.


Next you will need the projection screen(s)!


By this, I mean two square polygons that are sized properly for one half the cockpit width each. Don’t worry about the fact that to be square, they will “stick up” and extend outside the boundaries of the cockpit. Use a fully transparent polygon for each of these and label for internal view only.


The remaining elements consist of the chosen gauges that will be automatically selected from the sim’s gauges folder and the panel.cfg file that will instruct the sim as to how to project the gauges onto the two projection screens.


Later, as you read through the tutorial, you will learn how to make these elements function to create your own dynamic virtual cockpit.


How it works, we will get to as we go along.



The Static View from Out in the Cold


If you have already built an aircraft model with a static virtual cockpit, most likely, you will have built a relatively flat panel out of a few - or perhaps many polygons - and once satisfied with the final shape, you will have joined the pieces to form a single part probably called something like “the panel.”


If you want this static panel to be of high quality and if you want the dials and gauges and labels to be read from outside of the aircraft, you would apply a detailed texture that corresponds to a photograph of the internals of the cockpit. To be readable, you will need to use about ½ the height of a 512x512 texture panel as a minimum.


Here is such an outside view of Schuftie:





And below is an image of the particular texture that was used to achieve the above result: Pay close attention to this image capture of one of my textures, because there is a trick going on here that we will come back to later! Can you figure out what I did?





By the way, don’t forget that FSDS and CFS2 support night textures. It is possible to duplicate the above texture and adjust it and then rename it with a “_LM” appended to the texture name, and this is what you get!




If this were not to be a dynamic virtual cockpit, you would have tagged the part as visible within FSDS both external and also internal.

At that point, you would be done! 

Not any more!

You still need to do all this “stuff,” but just tag it for external view. This will be your static and highly detailed view when looking inside the cockpit from a point of view outside the cockpit – “out in the cold.”



Panels 101 – Needed components for the DVC


I’ll present some of the fundamental understandings first.


You need all of the elements of a standard 2D panel as a start and you need a platform within the 3D cockpit for display purposes.


What are the elements of the 2D panel?


·       Background graphic bitmap image.

·       Collection of selected individual and/or “cluster” gauge files

·       A panel.cfg file that serves as the text configuration file containing instructions the sim needs to project these active gauges onto the bitmap.


Those of you who have built conventional panels know that the panel.cfg is “the brains of the outfit.”


The panel.cfg lists the individual gauges that are “borrowed” from the collection of gauges in the gauges folder of the simulator and placed as an overlay upon the bitmap. Each gauge entry consists of a number or index, the name of the gauge file or portion of a multi-gauge or “cluster” gauge file and three numerical values separated by commas.


The numbers correspond with the “x” value or position from left to right; the “y” value or position from top to bottom and a number which indicates the diameter or size.


Let’s look an example taken from the Kittyhawk Ia Schuftie. The panel.cfg is opened using Notepad®.






size_mm=640, 480

window_pos=0.0, 0.0

window_size=1.000, 1.000






gauge00=Spitfire_mkI!Heading_Indicator, 202, 270, 80

gauge01=P47d!Fuel_Warning, 131, 326, 23

gauge02=P47d!Gear, 51, 417, 62

gauge03=P38F_LIGHTNING!Left-Engine-Gauge, 521, 416, 61

gauge04=F4U1A_CORSAIR!Altimeter, 182, 416, 66

gauge05=F4F4_WILDCAT!Ignition-Switch, 468, 428, 51

gauge06=P38F_LIGHTNING!Attitude-Indicator, 366, 276, 88

gauge07=F6F3_HELLCAT!Climb_Indicator, 314, 363, 69

gauge08=F6F3_HELLCAT!CHT, 514, 369, 46

gauge09=A6M2_ZERO!Clock, 119, 424, 51

gauge10=F6F3_HELLCAT!Turn_Bank, 243, 364, 69

gauge11=F4F4_WILDCAT!Fuel-Selector, 69, 377, 38

gauge12=F4F4_WILDCAT!Manifold-Pressure, 444, 362, 68

gauge13=P-40E!Fuel, 107, 364, 59

gauge14=P-40E!Airspeed, 165, 346, 73

gauge15=P-40E!Compass,320, 435, 58

gauge16=P-40E!Tachometer, 378, 407, 74

gauge17=F4F4_Wildcat!Flaps-Lever,250, 440

gauge18=P-40E!Cowl_flaps, 165,315, 25


As it is not within the scope of this tutorial to discuss all aspects of panel design, we shall only make a quick study of the portion of the panel.cfg shown above.


The section entitled [window 00] defines the basic panel size and shape and determines which bitmap file by name will be used as a background for the panel. In some cases, as in the above, two different resolution bitmaps are made available. The sim selects the appropriate one based upon user screen resolution settings.


For our purpose, you need only be concerned with the basic form of the entries for the individual gauges. When we get down to building the virtual cockpit, you will be making adjustments to a table similar to the foregoing. Within the panel.cfg, you will be adding your own table of values to instruct the sim where to project the individual gauges within the virtual cockpit. The gauges will be individually numbered and listed and the three numerical values will be entered to position the gauge and size the gauge onto an invisible square polygon that will substitute for the typical panel bitmap. There will also be a bitmap or two or three needed to act as the background screen for the projected gauges to overlay. More about this in greater detail later.


Below is yet another excerpt from the panel.cfg of the Kittyhawk Ia Schuftie. This excerpt represents the complete portion of the file that determines the layout of the Dynamic Virtual Cockpit. You will need to add such a section to any companion panel.cfg that will accompany your own prospective project.



size_mm=256, 256






gauge00=Spitfire_mkI!Heading_Indicator, 139, 33, 82,

gauge01=P47d!Fuel_Warning, 60, 91, 23

gauge02=P-40E!Cowl_flaps, 105, 80, 25

gauge03=F4F4_WILDCAT!Fuel-Selector, 12, 145, 38

gauge04=P-40E!Fuel, 49, 132, 59

gauge05=P-40E!Airspeed, 104, 115, 73

gauge06=F6F3_HELLCAT!Turn_Bank, 180, 132, 69

gauge07=F6F3_HELLCAT!Climb_Indicator, 250, 133, 69

gauge08=P47d!Gear, -03, 188, 62

gauge09=A6M2_ZERO!Clock, 63, 193, 51

gauge10=F4U1A_CORSAIR!Altimeter, 120, 186, 66

gauge11=P-40E!Compass,220, 200, 58









gauge00=P38F_LIGHTNING!Attitude-Indicator, 35, 40, 88

gauge01=F6F3_HELLCAT!Climb_Indicator, -04, 132, 69

gauge02=F4F4_WILDCAT!Manifold-Pressure, 118, 133, 68

gauge03=F6F3_HELLCAT!CHT, 188, 138, 46

gauge04=P-40E!Compass,-35, 200, 58

gauge05=P-40E!Tachometer, 56, 182, 74

gauge06=F4F4_WILDCAT!Ignition-Switch, 137, 201, 51

gauge07=P38F_LIGHTNING!Left-Engine-Gauge, 189, 188, 61



A quick look at the above seems to suggest that there are two virtual cockpits?


Actually, the DVC is divided into two squares each 256x256 pixels in size. What you are actually looking at is a representation of the left half of the VC – [Vcockpit01] and the right half of the VC - [Vcockpit02]


Why is it desirable to section the cockpit into two or more squares?


Generally, the cockpit surface where the gauges reside will be rectangular shape. Yes, you can make a single rectangular VC panel, but you will have to work a lot harder if you do. The gauges are easiest to manipulate when they are placed on a square surface. If you place a gauge on an oblong surface, it assumes an oblong shape. It is possible to “square it back up” by using a different kind of table of values. Instead of a single third number for the size of the gauge, you will need x-y coordinates and you will adjust the shape of the gauge to compensate for the “stretching” caused by applying the gauge to a rectangular or oblong surface. Why make things more difficult for yourself?


Am I being clear enough here? If you keep the transparent projection screen surface perfectly square, the gauges stay “squared” and they may be moved about and sized much more easily with the simple three-number locating scheme as above.


“But,” I hear you protest, “My cockpit has gauges right on or near the centerline or gauges that span across the centerline. How am I going to get the right effect with a seam down the middle?”


Well? You do not see any “stinking” seams in the examples above do you?


As it turns out, you can overlap the gauges in such a way that you have ½ or 1/3 of a gauge on one panel and the other ½ or 2/3 of the gauge on the opposite half. Isn’t that nice! Now you see why I illustrated a couple of the gauge entries in this color above. You may duplicate the gauge entries for gauges that fall on the seam, but you will have to experiment with the x-y coordinates a little.


If you want to get a feel for how the adjustments affect the position of the gauges in the DVC, just move the numbers around for Schuftie a bit as an experiment.


I confess to being a die-hard when it comes to panel design and panel work. I use the “trial and error” method using only Notepad® to make adjustments. Yes, there are a number of fine “drag and drop” graphic user interface design aids out there for panel creation. I believe a number of them work great, but you will need to manually move the gauges anyway for the DVC.


As mentioned earlier, the first entry is for the “x” position from left to right. Low numbers are left and high numbers are right. The second number is the “y” position from top to bottom. Low numbers are near the top and high numbers are near the bottom. The third number is the diameter or overall size of the gauge. 



O.K. Let’s do a recap.


You now understand that you need to build your static virtual cockpit first within FSDS. You need to label all the static elements for external view only. You realize that, to build a good dynamic virtual cockpit, you need to be familiar with the panel.cfg file and you also need to work with the elements of the 2D panel you have created or “borrowed” with permission.


Finally, for now, you realize what pieces have to be built within the model for the Dynamic Virtual Cockpit, but you haven’t done it yet and you don’t quite know how to make it all work together.


Remember my warning back up at the top of this tutorial? It’s 90% setup and 10% kill. We are now ready to go in for the kill!



Time to Build the Dynamic Virtual Cockpit!



You have completed building the static virtual cockpit. If we select only the 3D panel in FSDS that has already been textured and tagged for external view only, it might look something like the image below, left. FSDS shows all parts in the 3D view whether tagged external, internal, or both.



The next step is to duplicate this part and place

the new part in exactly the same position as the

original one in the “x” plane and the “y” plane,

but moved a few pixels closer to the pilot viewpoint.

NOTICE! I chose to divide the part into a left

half and a right half, though strictly speaking, you

could use a rectangular shape. Using two square-like

shapes, however, enables you to use two 128x128 pixel

square texture panels. This is a more efficient approach

than using half a 256x256 pixel panel.

I emulated Microsoft in employing this method.



The image capture to the right shows the original external background with the new overlay part and only the left half in place.


The easiest thing to do now would be to duplicate the left half using copy and paste. Then flip the polygon in the “x” plane and look at the part properties and change the sign of the “x” plane number so as to place the part on the opposite side of the “z” axis. I just described the easiest way I know to mirror a part.


At this point it is time to apply the texture for the right side and the image might look something like what you see in the left side image capture.


You will notice a little distortion in these images, because you are looking at a 3D view and the images are turned towards you from the perpendicular by about 60 degrees. Remember that the pair of textured parts that overlay the external view must be tagged in FSDS for internal view only.


Hint: You should consider using an image capture of your 2D panel for both the static background for the external view and you should edit this same bitmap, removing all the gauges and then split the bitmap in half vertically to have a consistent appearance. Remember to use the “V” operation to snap the left and right edges together for the two internal panel background polygons so that you avoid having an unsightly seam.



Time for the magic!


You will now add two more perfectly square polygons that will act as projection screens for the gauges themselves. As we discussed earlier, a square projection surface will keep the gauges from becoming distorted in shape. These two polygons will once again be placed a few pixels closer to the pilot point of view. You will want to check the polygons in the polygon mode to ensure that the surface normals are facing your pilot. I advise setting the properties of these two parts as fully-transparent , opacity = to 0. Make sure you tag these polygons for internal view only.


I have noticed that, with parts such as propeller disks and cockpit parts which are viewed immediately upon start-up, that the unsightly solid coloration experienced while the textures load, may be eliminated entirely.

You have built a sandwich and it should now look something like what you see on the left. Both polygons are present. The inside edges have been “snapped’ to avoid a seam. The polygons overlap the cockpit, but this will not matter as they will become transparent servants whose only purpose in life is to serve as a kind of “glass” surface upon which the gauges will be applied as a kind of dynamic decal.


You’ll find a more complete presentation below. Note that only the left side polygon is visible because it is selected, whereas the right side is not selected and is consequently fully-transparent.











If you were to stop here, you’d have a rather uninspiring bitmap background and no gauges. Let’s add the gauges, shall we?


The next step is to select the left half or right half of the projection screen. Here we happen to have selected the right side first. Once the part is selected, choose to texture the part. For the first time, you are going to enter a variable instead of a texture panel name in the BACK texture field. The name is unimportant, so long as it begins with the $ and specifies the name that you will use for the [VCockpit01] or corresponding [VCockpit02] in the panel.cfg file.


This entry establishes the connection between the data that is entered in the panel.cfg and the model or MDL file created by FSDS.



A little further experimentation may be necessary. In several attempts, I managed to “get it right” each time. If you were to compile the model at this point and if you had the data correct in the panel.cfg, the gauges may be upside down and backwards.


With the advent of FSDS version 1.5b, Louis Sinclair has simplified the required adjustments to get the orientation correct for the gauges. Select the Properties button for the BACK texture and you will bring up the next screen:




In this screen, begin by checking the “Invert Y” parameter. This should get the proper result for you on the first try. If not, you could see something like this:





Well . . .


To get to see the result of your handiwork, you must compile the model and go flying for a bit. In the above screen, I have done what you will most probably do. For the initial test, I did not bother to apply the animations. They can wait until you are satisfied with your new 3D Dynamic Virtual Cockpit.


If, in spite of inverting the “Y” texture application, you do not get the correct gauge orientation left to right and top to bottom, you may need to try another alternate checkbox setting.


At this point you have to prepare yourself for a little tedium.


I’ve made one part of the process appear a bit easier than it really is. Your gauges will not be lined up properly at this point. They will be there alright and they will be functional, but they will be in a bit of a mess until you align them into position with the old tried and true trial and error method.


Pull your socks up now it isn’t as bad as all that.


You may start by drawing the panel on a piece of paper and making an educated guess as to where each gauge may go. If you have made a 2D panel, then you know the drill. Top to bottom, the lower number is closest to the top. Left to right, the lower number is to the left. You’ll have to make an educated guess for each gauge and you will have no difficulty lining up the correct gauge sequence both vertically and horizontally, will you?


Here is a trick that will save you a lot of time. It’s an old trick for panel builders.


·       Start the game and go flying with your new masterpiece.

·       Pick a gauge that you would like to move.

·       End the flight, but do not get out of the game.

·       Switch to a different plane choice in your hangar, but don’t start up.

·       Open the panel.cfg.

·       Make the change.

·       Re-save the panel.cfg.

·       Re-select your masterpiece

·       Go flying again.


At this point you may leave the panel.cfg open with Notepad® and you may toggle the process of ending the flight without quitting the game, temporarily reselecting another aircraft; adjusting the panel.cfg and resaving and you’re flying again!


Maybe there is a better way to do this part? If so, let me know and I will turn you into a star!


You have finished your Dynamic Virtual Cockpit now, haven’t you?


Not quite. I have one more trick up my sleeve.


Do you remember ages and ages ago that I asked you to look at my static cockpit texture and I indicated that there was a trick at work there?


Have you figured it out?


Brilliant! Then you have already realized that I have used decals to add even more detail quality to the virtual cockpit, haven’t you!


We’ve got some good-looking active gauges; we’ve got a reasonably good background texture that is 256 pixels wide and 128 pixels high when considering the left and right halves. Why didn’t I go for another 512x512 texture? It wasn’t necessary because of the decals.


If you look at the texture, you will see in the lower right corner, some high-resolution images of the flaps warning, the coolant warning, low fuel and radio call. These were each applied as separate textures to each of four polygons used as decal overlays a pixel or two closer to the pilot point of view than the low-res 128x128 texture panels. Neat trick, eh?


I don’t know about you, but I am ready for a break!


You’ll have a tremendous amount of fun with this once you get the hang of it and it isn’t really all that difficult.


Drop me a line if you have any comments of if you have figured out a better way to do any of this. I would be pleased to update this tutorial from time to time and I will happily mention the source of any new, good ideas.




Joe Amodea


February, 2001