If you assumed that military training simulators were only made possible with the advent of 3D graphics and virtual reality, Tom Scott is here to prove you wrong as he test drives a fascinating ‘70s-era tank simulator that relies on a tiny camera exploring a detailed model of a miniature European countryside.
Modern simulators, whether they recreate the experience of driving a beastly vehicle or flying an aircraft, use a combination of real-time computer graphics and full-size cockpit recreations that move and shake and vibrate in perfect sync with what a pilot or driver is seeing on a screen or inside a virtual reality headset. The experience is incredibly convincing, and an effective way to give a trainee hundreds of hours of experience with a vehicle without putting them, or the real thing, at risk.
Military gear has always been cutting edge and very expensive, so simulators have long been a useful training tool, but before computers were powerful enough to generate convincing 3D graphics, building a convincing simulator required an entirely different approach, as Tom Scott discovered while visiting the Swiss Military Museum in Switzerland.
Trainees (or tourists, these days) climb into a recreation of a tank cockpit, featuring all the controls you’d find in the real thing, which sits atop a motorized base that can move the cockpit around in all directions. When looking out the tiny front window of the tank, the driver doesn’t see the real world, but a screen displaying a live video feed from a tiny camera that explores a nearby miniature recreation of the rolling countryside, with the camera’s movements controlled by the tank cockpit.
The simulator is a marvel of brute force engineering, but it’s the small things that help really sell the effect that the person in the tank cockpit is really in control and driving a full-size vehicle. The moving camera is housed inside a blue shroud that moves along with it so that what’s seen over the horizon in the video feed always looks like blue sky. And beneath the tiny camera is a small pivoting foot that slides along the smooth roadways in the miniature model, but pivots up and down when traversing rougher terrain, like logs, with those motions being translated to the tank’s cockpit in real-time.
It took the museum over two years to rebuild the retired tank simulator and get it working again, and while it still uses the original video gear, including the tiny camera that was probably a marvel of engineering back in the ‘70s, its computer control system had to be completely replaced with, unbelievably, a $35 Raspberry Pi.