EDIT: This article was updated to reflect that the Bing App offers better information than what’s on the Bing Maps website.
I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the pending release of Microsoft Flight Simulator “2020” as it is commonly known (although not officially titled, and only presumed to be released in 2020).
A number of people out there have been given “insider” access. I, however, am not one of them. Therefore, unlike an “insider”, I am not bound by any NDA agreements that have sworn others to secrecy.
I have no doubt that Flight Simulator 2020 is going to be very good, and a great leap forward from it’s 15-year-old-ish ancestor, but there were a few aspects of the hype that I just wasn’t buying. All the screens and videos that were emitted from Microsoft were totally slick, polished, and virtually flawless. With a world the size of… well.. the world, it seems to me that a child could figure out that accomplishing the task that Microsoft promises to accomplish, is far more massive than any company would sanely allocate resources and money towards accomplishing… especially for a computer “game”. Let’s keep in mind that Xbox is a target audience for this new sim (as well as PC), and no one can imagine it outselling Halo.
Red Flags Warrant Investigation
First off, in general, Microsoft has a pretty shady history with marketing. If the hype surrounding “Kinect” is any indication, the marketing shitheads at Microsoft are never going to say anything that isn’t totally glowing, positive, and over the top. Kinect was possibly the most bullshit marketing campaign in the history of computers. Microsoft bought Lionhead Studios, and put its marketing guy in charge of Marketing Kinect. If you all recall, Lionhead Studios made this really shitty game called “Black and White”, in which you could basically make a giant King Kong-like animal your pet and train it to eat villagers. The game made all kinds of promises in terms of advancements in AI, but in reality it was just a game where repeating actions eventually causes the pet to do things on its own… and the game had a whopping 3 whole levels… it was actually a total ripoff. If you want a better game in the same vein, try “The Sims”. Anyway… the Microsoft asshole from Lionhead Studios, told us that Kinect was going to be able to sense the emotions in our voices and have fluent, meaningful conversations with us, when in reality, what they gave us a shitty voice recognition system, eventually replaced by the even shittier “Cortana”… by far the worst voice recognition system on the market. Eventually they “patched” the Xbox, essentially removing Kinect completely. When the Microsoft hype machine says anything, I immediately think “bullshit”.
Microsoft claims that all of Flight Simulator 2020’s awesomeness is powered by a combination of Bing Maps and Azure AI. That’s really cool, I thought, but what exactly is the state of Bing Maps these days? Bing Maps isn’t Google maps. Nobody uses Bing maps, especially after Microsoft abandoned Windows Phone. Is there even enough information on Bing Maps to reasonably do what they are promising? We’re all familiar with Google maps or even Apple Maps, but where is Bing in the mix of things?
I decided to visit Bing maps for the first time in years, and I found it to be virtually the same feature set that they published 10 years ago. There are few cities with 3D buildings when compared to the trove of data that Apple Maps and Google Maps possess. There is a “streetside” view, which might offer the AI some assistance, but whereas Google publishes Depth information from it’s streetview, as far as we all know, the Microsoft data is missing Depth information, so we don’t really know if they have it. The website’s “Aerial View” is utterly useless and difficult to look at, although if you get the app from the Windows store it will give you better results, although again, few cities have 3D data compared to Google. If I were to develop an AI to cleanup satellite data from around the world into a living, breathing, interactive world, I’d feel far more comfortable starting with Google’s offerings.
Also, as a software engineer, whenever anyone brings up “AI”, I tend throw up a little bit in my mouth. “AI”, more appropriately known as “Machine Learning” is a bullshit hype word in our industry aimed at luring venture capitalists to invest in shitty ideas, and consumers into buying shitty products. (“Nest ‘Learning’ Thermostat” anyone?) In essence Machine Learning is a programming technique by which programmers build a system to classify data… creating a “training data set” of sorts… then they use the weights and ratios of the training data to try and predict the right answer when asked questions similar to that training data. But the problem is that the data sets can be off balanced. If there are more pictures of bananas than pears in the database, the computer might think that all things yellow are bananas instead of pears. As far as we can tell, Microsoft is trying to use AI to determine if a piece of a satellite photo represents, grass, trees, water, buildings, or roads…. but what about the shadows of buildings, the shadows of trees? I can guarantee you the AI is going to really dumb, a lot of the time.
So anyway… armed with natural skepticism, I went through the published materials looking for a smoking gun. There must be some evidence, somewhere, in some screenshot or video, that shows not the best, but the worst of it…. the flyover country… the 98% of the world that surely they didn’t have enough artists to touch up with paint brushes… the 36,500 of 37,000 Airports that they let the “AI” handle instead of the artists.
There was a leaked video where someone decided to live stream footage from the sim, but it was promptly taken down… and those who saw the leaked footage said it was amazing despite some clearly janky lightning effects.
So I kept looking… I dug and I dug and I googled and googled, but everything looked great… until I noticed something, right in front of my eyes, in Microsoft’s own published materials.
The above screen looks great right? Well… not so fast. This screenshot potentially tells us a lot. This screen is from Warsaw, Poland. The first thing I noticed was the ground texture. It looks like a flat satellite image. the cars are all flat, the trees seem to be awkwardly pasted on top of a satellite photo of trees.
So knowing that this was from Poland, I sought to figure out where. I quickly found the iconic building in Warsaw, Poland’s city center on Google Maps.
Well holy shit! That’s way off! There are many iconic buildings surrounding the one featured building in Warsaw that clearly Google knows about, but Microsoft doesn’t. Furthermore, Google has 3D information for the parked cars, school busses, and the Obelisk-looking monument near the bottom. Microsoft’s “AI” even missed a whole bunch of trees that Google Maps is perfectly aware of.
Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely going to get Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 when it is released… but don’t believe everything that is hyped to you by the marketing department of a trillion-dollar corporation.
Microsoft’s Bing Maps and Azure AI are actually way behind the competition, and Microsoft clearly doesn’t have as much valuable data as they want you to believe they have. It is very apparent that Flight Simulator 2020 would be way better if it had the power of Google’s map data backing it up.
Maybe this is all just a big advertising campaign, not just for Flight Simulator, but for Bing, Bing Maps, and Azure. They are struggling to complete with Google for Search and Maps as well as Amazon for cloud computing and AI.
Regardless, we’ve come a long way since version 1.0, where most of the buildings of Chicago, were rendered by drawing literally ONE single paper-thin line, only as fat as your computer’s graphics were shitty. It was the Flight Simulator equivalent of the Atari 2600 game “Adventure”, where the hero of the game was rendered as a single square, simply because that’s all they had room for in RAM.
Still… this is going to be an interesting year for Flight Simulation.