When Microsoft launched the new version of Flight Simulator, it made a great deal of noise about its extensive use of photogrammetry throughout the game. Photogrammetry, if you haven’t heard the word before, is the process of gathering reliable data about the physical world through various forms of photography and electromagnetic imaging. If you have a data set consisting of the same town photographed from different heights at known altitudes, you can use this information to correctly calculate the heights and sizes of objects.
This data set can be retrieved from the cloud and is built using Azure and information gathered via Bing Maps. There are 341 fully modeled cities in Microsoft Flight Simulator, and that’s a significant achievement — a genuine leap forward compared with anything any simulator has tried to do before.
Unfortunately, it looks like Microsoft just isn’t very good at doing this kind of thing yet. End-users have begun to notice that the data sets available from Google are better. In some cases, they’re much better. It’s not that the Bing sets are necessarily bad — reviewers and players alike were excited by the unparalleled detail, even if the game’s notable bugs have also generated their share of headlines.
In a plaintive post titled “Can we talk about photogrammetry quality,” user MegaRiceBall734 writes:
In regard to photogrammetry, we often talked about number of cities or places that have it on Bing vs. Google. However, when I was examining the same area on both platforms, to my surprise (or not), the quality of photogrammetry on Bing is a lot worse, both in texture quality and polygon counts. This is probably why sometimes I feel the autogen is even because the polygon count could be higher and the texture is definitely sharper.
He then provides some specific examples of photogrammetry comparisons between the Bing and Google data sets. Data shown below:
Williamsburg, NY. Google Maps. Photo by MegaRiceBall734
Williamsburg, NY. Bing. Photo by MegaRiceBall734
West Chester, PA. Google Maps. Photo by MegaRiceBall734
West Chester, PA. Bing photogrammetry, photo by MegaRiceBall734
According to the thread discussion, these images reflect what is seen in-game if you fly over these areas. Some players admit to using the autogenerated landscape specifically because the quality of the photogrammetry just isn’t good enough. According to The Register, gamers are launching mod projects to convert the data set used by Bing over to the data set used by Google before loading those assets into the game. You can see a video tutorial on how to pull off this asset-switching here, if you’re curious about improving your own image quality.
This kind of photogrammetric replacement is, it seems to me, a kissing cousin to the kinds of work upscalers are doing for both video and gaming. One of the biggest changes ushered in by the industrial revolution was the invention of the sewing machine. Prior to the sewing machine, the amount of time required to make a garment hadn’t changed much in centuries. It was mostly a function of the materials used, the skill and speed of the tailor, and the difficulty of the design. The invention of the sewing machine slashed the time required for clothing manufacturing from hours per piece to minutes per piece. It also spawned a huge cottage industry all across America. For decades, women’s magazines regularly featured patterns in the back — a do-it-yourself kit for some of the fashions displayed within their pages.
Fifteen years after the term “big data” was coined, we’re seeing the impact of these data sets at the individual, voluntary level. In the beginning, it was Google, Facebook, and Microsoft declaring that they were using this invisible quantity of “Big Data” to make various improvements to their ecosystems and products. Even as recently as 2018, when Nvidia began pushing out technologies like DLSS, the focus was on what the company could do internally with its own cloud data centers. There were already texture upscale projects for games running in 2018, but it was still a pretty new phenomenon. Heck, it’s still a pretty new phenomenon today.
Whether it’s swapping out photogrammetric assets in a flight simulator or rebuilding textures for video games, gamers are building improvements like they never could before. Image quality gains that would have taken the insane dedication of an entire modding team can now be accomplished by a couple of people working a fraction of the time.
Exciting times, all the way around. Also, Microsoft: might be a good time to fix that aspect of Bing. Doesn’t look like the current solution measures up.