Update 2022-07-24: Sim Update 10 Beta now supports multiple monitors, with most geometric distortions documented in this article removed. Consult the following video for an update.
— I will continue to preserve this long article for its historical documentation —
Microsoft released its new flight sim 2 days ago, on August 18th, 2020. This long-awaited launch got simmers really excited. I moved my flight sim equipment last month to a dedicated room in the basement, now with a triple-monitor setup, in anticipation of this launch. I set up XPlane 11 with these triple monitors, to make sure I got the hang of triple monitors. But all I wanted was the new Microsoft flight sim. I even took this week off from work, so I would not need to choose between work and enjoying the new simulator.
Boy, do I love the new Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 (MSFS from now on). It is clearly the next generation of flight sim, as folks have hyped since its announcement in June 2019. I say this, as a person invested in XPlane 11 (XP11), the previous greatest flight sim on Earth. I’ve made YouTube videos about using TrackIR with XP11, using Ortho4XP tiles with XP11, and adding Photoscenery Autogen and simHeaven Forests on top of Ortho4XP.
On launch day, version 1 of MSFS is, however, missing quite a few features that long-time simmers have come to cherish from established flight sims. For instance, MSFS can’t replay the adventure you just finished, or let you rewind and resume flying prior to a fatal mistake. Yet another example: MSFS supports TrackIR on day one (kudos to Asobo), but omits a command that pauses TrackIR, for when you want to lock down your current view. Clever simmers will try to compensate by setting up a button binding in TrackIR for pause. But MSFS resets cockpit view to the default view after 10 seconds of TrackIR inaction.
That said, everyone knows that these are minor issues. And they surely will be addressed in future updates. More importantly, there are workarounds that savvy simmers can resort to, for the time being.
There is, however, one fatal issue, for someone who has gone through the trouble of setting up three 43″ monitors, for the express purpose of re-creating a 180° surround view around the pilot.
MSFS 2020 does not yet support triple-monitor setups. That’s a bummer. Many have attempted to make it (sort of) work. Some even brag about it on Reddit, YouTube, and on AVSIM. But no one will admit that the geometric distortion is so severe that it distracts from rather than helps with flying. And this triple-monitor setup comes at the cost of lowered CPU and GPU settings. Quality settings need to be lowered, to accommodate 3 times the number of rendered objects and screen pixels on triple monitors.
At this time, it is not worth sacrificing visual effects and frame rates for two extra side monitors that show greatly distorted views of world objects. Triple-monitor setups are not common. And it’s not clear to me when Asobo will care to fix this problem for a niche market. Until then, the public remains confused as to whether MSFS can be said to “work as is” for triple-monitor setups. There isn’t a source online that compares distorted views in MSFS 2020 against expected, clean views in, say, XP11. Thus the YouTube video shown below, and thus this article.
Updated 2020-09-28: I am having too much fun. I made a second Federation of Triple Monitors episode.
The confusion on Reddit
People have been posting pictures of MSFS 2020 running on triple monitors on Reddit since Tuesday, when the sim was finally launched, and NDAs for alpha and beta testers were lifted. The sim doesn’t natively provide any multi-monitor support. So simmers have been using Nvidia Surround and the like to present multiple monitors to the sim as one single, super duper ultra wide screen.
Many Reddit posts showed Asobo’s splash screen images which were truly amazing. Folks were rightfully wowed by these pictures. The following picture shows a single virtual 5760 x 1080 screen presented by Nvidia Surround to MSFS. The loading splash screen is rendered on the three monitors.
This splash screen looks right. It’s awesome. But that is not how the world will look in-game. If you try to recreate this very same shot in the External View, with this triple-monitor setup, the screenshot you get will be geometrically-distorted. More on that later.
This splash screen isn’t distorted, because it is a simple 2D cropping of an original, taller picture. The app takes the image shown below (usually rendered for most users on a single, 16:9 monitor), and crops out the top and the bottom. So all parts of the super wide image shown on triple monitors look correct.
Geometric distortions seen from the cockpit
When actual cockpit views are shown, geometric distortions can be clearly observed on the two side monitors. Most of the times, however, users are dazzled by super visuals presented by MSFS 2020. Users are rightfully infatuated with the degree of realism in modeling and rendering of world objects. And these real world sceneries and buildings are available out of the box with this new sim, covering the entire world. In the past, folks had been buying aftermarket add-ons totaling hundreds of dollars to recreate looks like this, on XPlane 11, and for just some bespoke areas. I know this euphoria first hand. Below is your cheerful correspondent himself blissfully buzzing the JFK control tower at night in MSFS 2020.
A careful observer will notice anomalies in this image. First, have you ever seen pitot tubes this long, as depicted on the left monitor? And what is with the disproportional widths of those windshield pillars? The terminal building on the right is drastically stretched, but that is hard to appreciate without an expected view as baseline for comparison. More on these later.
Most simmers that install triple monitors expect to gain peripheral vision while staring at the front screen. Simmers also expect to be able to turn their heads to look out of a window on either side of the plane, and study, for instance, a runway at a 45° angle rearward, before making a banking turn into the base leg. Most bedazzled simmers on Reddit appear to believe that even with a severely distorted view as shown above, they can achieve these goals. Well, they can’t.
The two side monitors show very little real information horizontal-wise, due to the severe horizontal stretching of objects. For the same reason, objects fly by at increasing speed as they get closer to the left edge, and to the right edge. The two side monitors are not useful for VFR (visual flight rules). One can’t track a runway on these two monitors without inducing severe headache. The orientation and the distance of the runway as observed on these side monitors will be incorrect, leading to misjudgments in pilotage.
Geometric distortions seen in the external view
This distortion is not limited to the Cockpit View. Following images illustrate the same geometric distortion in the External View. Here the pilot flies in a tight circle above Governors Island, rotating skyscrapers in Manhattan into view, from top to bottom.
The Brooklyn Bridge is highlighted in purple. It can be seen shrinking drastically in size, as it rotates from the far left of the view to the center of the view. The same shrinking effect is observed with the Manhattan skyscrapers (green) which come into view on the left as gigantic, fat and squashed buildings. But they turn out to be tall and skinny skyscrapers far in the distance, when centered on the front monitor. The opposite expanding effect is seen with the piers (yellow) on the Brooklyn side. They are tiny when positioned in the front monitor, but turn into gigantic blocks when shown on the right monitor. For heading reference, use the Battery Tunnel Ventilation Building (orange). The ventilation building is found in all three images.
A proper triple-monitor setup for flight simulation
Many simmers, old and new alike, do not know what a proper triple-monitor setup looks like. Until one has experienced a proper immersion view with surround monitors, one has no baseline based on which to compare pseudo surround experiences from MSFS.
Shown above is a functional triple-monitor setup. The three 43″ monitors are placed at an angle to provide a sense of surround view. Each monitor is showing a 60° field of view (FOV), as configured in XPlane 11. The pilot sits at the focal point of this curvature created by the three monitors, so that the viewing angle for every monitor is zero degrees, when the pilot turns his attention to the center of said monitor. A TrackIR head tracking set is used, so that the pilot can sit up to get a better view at landing, bring his head closer to a dial to better read it, or turn his head 60° to see the tail of the plane.
XPlane 11 configurations for these three monitors are shown below. All three monitors are configured with a 60° FOV. The two side monitors are laterally rotated with an offset of 60° and -60° degrees, respectively. I was too lazy to fine-tune the lateral offset to account for the small bezel space between monitors. If you look at pictures shown in this article of XP11 screens, you will notice small visual issues. I chose not to hide virtual objects behind bezels, at the expense of small visual discords.
Expected cockpit view of a triple-monitor setup
In a proper triple-monitor setup, you will expect to be able to see out of the left side window by looking at the left monitor. You achieve this by simply turning your head to the left. Similarly, you can look out the right window by turning your head that way. The interior of the cockpit should look normal, no matter where an object appears. Examine the two windshield pillars in the picture shown below. The two pillars are of the right width, and appear where they should be, in 3D space.
Look at the two wing struts on this Cessna 172 in the picture above. From the view point of the person who took this picture on a mobile phone, they don’t appear to be at opposite ends from the pilot seat. But when a pilot sits on that chair, and turn his head left and right to look at them, they look correct, and they look to be properly positioned at opposite ends, with respect to the pilot himself.
Following pictures show the three monitors, from the pilot’s point of view. Click on the image to see a full-size version. From the pilot chair, the left view looks like the view seen out of the left window. The left strut is exactly where the pilots expects to find it. Similarly, the right strut is found at 180° from the left struct, as far as the pilot is concerned.
Litmus test for a correct triple monitor setup
Here is my simple litmus test for a proper triple-monitor setup. You can do this right on the tarmac. Just hop into your favorite plane with an unobstructed view on the right side of your pilot seat. If you are not sure, try the Cessna 172. In this plane you can turn your head to the right, and see the outside world almost to the tail of the plane. See the following picture.
Turn your head with TrackIR, or with manual panning of the cockpit view. Now, freeze that view right there. Get up, and walk away a few paces. Look at the three monitors, and assess whether they give you a 180° panoramic view of the interior of the plane, from the point of view of the pilot at the pilot seat. If you have the right setup, you should be looking at something like the picture shown above.
Now. Get back to your pilot seat. And take a look at all three monitors, one at a time. Look at the left monitor, and check that all mechanical instruments look circular, if you have those dials. Look at the front monitor. You should be staring at the right wing, and the right wing strut. Look at the right monitor, and confirm the interior looks undistorted.
The frozen view of the instrument panel on the left monitor (above) should look identical to the default view of the same panel on the front monitor from before you froze the view (below). The right wing view on the front monitor (above) should be identical to the default view on the right monitor from before you froze the view (below).
Distorted views with an incorrect triple-monitor setup
Now that we know the expected baseline for a triple-monitor setup, we can look at the launch-day version of MSFS 2020 again. I am of course eagerly waiting an update to come out eventually, to address this issue for simmers with three monitors. But the reality today is that you get a distorted cockpit view as shown below.
This is the same Cessna 172 that we’ve been showing, in the “expected cockpit view” section earlier. But the two side monitors present puzzling and distorted objects. First, this view is showing a 110° field of view, rather than the 180° we need. There isn’t a setting that one can tweak in the simulator to change the default field of view. And even if such setting existed, tweaking said setting to 180° would result in a view that is even more distorted and unusable, due to the same 3D-to-2D projection that causes the geometric distortion we’ve been discussing.
You can get a taste of this even more useless 180° view, if you use the scroll wheel on the mouse to zoom out. The max zoom (out) appears to add another 10 to 15 degrees to the FOV, resulting in objects within about 125° field of view to show up. Now the pilot appears to be sitting in the back row, but is still unable to see much out of either side window. The right windshield pillar alone takes up 80% of the right monitor, making the right view pretty useless. The left window appears to let much outside scenery in. But that is just an illusion. That whole visible window pane is only showing about 20° of real world view.
Compare the above distorted view to the baseline view in a proper setup, repeated again below.
Failed litmus test with FSMS 2020
When put to the litmus test, the current wide screen view in FSMS 2020 fails quite obviously. The following comparison between MSFS (top) and XP11 (bottom) illustrates the failure. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy MSFS, or that it is doomed. It only means that those of us with triple monitors need to gang up, and put pressure on Asobo to prioritize support for super duper ultra wide screen views. I mean, just look at the following gorgeous, albeit distorted, view of Manhattan cityscape in MSFS 2020. We all can’t wait for proper support of triple monitors from Asobo!
Next we have visual comparisons for all three monitors, as seen from the pilot seat. The narrow field of view in MSFS has already been discussed earlier. The failed view stretches for only 110°, from the left edge of the instrument panel, to the middle of the passenger seat. The rear window is nowhere in sight.
In addition, The passenger seat is visually brought too close to the pilot, as if the pilot were seating on it. The left edge of the instrument panel is horizontally distorted, and visually brought too close to the pilot as well.
But what about WideViewAspect in FSX?
It turned out that Microsoft Flight Simulator X released in 2006 had the same issue. People found that they could address this issue to some extent using the configuration variable WideViewAspect. When this is set to True, the sim would allow you to tweak zoom in the other direction. The end results are acceptable views on the two side monitors.
The WideViewAspect setting exists in the FlightSimulator.CFG file found in the installation directory of MSFS. But tweaking it doesn’t appear to do anything in the app, as of August 20th, 2020. Perhaps there are zoom levels and other settings I haven’t discovered which must be used in conjunction with this setting.
There is hope that in time the same FSX trick can be applied to MSFS 2020. This article will be updated when that happy day arrives.
Flying with undistorted surround view
Here is a fun intermission, with visual candies, before we go back to grill MSFS some more on its inability to show proper surround views.
Following is a picture of the Blackbird flying over Queens. Note the uniform street blocks shown on the left monitor in XPlane 11. Such non-distorted views make VFR possible. But you should know that XPlane 11 doesn’t come out of the box with such detailed satellite pictures of the ground. I had to install Ortho4XP, and had to painstakingly download tiles at ZL18 zoom level for Long Island, in order to get this view. Sadly there is no AI-assisted generation of 3D buildings from satellite pictures. So the view only looks good from a few thousand feet up.
Here the Blackbird flies above Far Rockaway towards JFK. The two side monitors are great aids for VFR. The pilot retains full situation awareness from extended peripheral vision, during all sorts of crazy maneuvers.
Here we are approaching JFK at an ungodly steep angle. There is no hope in landing the blackbird this way. Or is there? The end result is left to reader’s own imagination.
Flying with distorted surround views
Alright. We’ve had our intermission. Let’s look at some more pictures of geometric distortions. This time we’ll feature an actual flight done twice, once with distorted views in MSFS 2020, and again with proper triple-monitor views on XPlane 11. We are flying out of Runway 32 at the Republic Airport.
We’ve already mentioned earlier those unnaturally fat windshield pillars. These pillars can be seen on both sides of the MSFS picture shown below. From this point on, the same flight will be shown with the MSFS view on top, and the XP11 view at the bottom. The XP11 view shows the true dimension of the pitot tube on the left wing. You may recall that in the JFK night scene, MSFS distorted that short tube to 3 times its actual length.
We have lift-off. Note the stretched scenery and buildings in MSFS, circled in orange. These regions appear correctly in XP11, circled in green, even thought there isn’t much in XP11 ‘s bare terrain to highlight them. Keep looking at these regions in subsequent pictures to see the stark contrast between the visuals.
I deployed max flaps, and then nosed down to look at the runway. Don’t try this in real life at takeoff, obviously.
The ground scene in MSFS is also distorted in the next picture. That taxiway with yellow center line isn’t quite right. But the two shots were not taken at exactly the same location, so it’s hard to compare them.
The next picture really highlights how awesome the auto-building generation in MSFS is. These buildings almost match their real world counterparts. But sadly, they are misshapen and misaligned on the two side monitors, circled in orange, due to the lack of proper support for triple monitors. Now, look at the shape and the orientation of bare land plots in XP11 at the bottom for comparison. They are visually correct.
Finally we have identical objects to compare between MSFS and XP11. Here is a corner of the Pinelawn cemetery being ridiculously stretched in the left monitor in MSFS.
Continuing on to the intersection of the two runways.
Now the plane heads onto the end of the airfield to land on runway 1. Note the small rotunda structure (circled in orange) that MSFS created from arial maps. Why this rotunda is an item of interest becomes clear in the next picture.
You have come to expect what happens next. Yeah. The rotunda is no longer. Now it is an ovunda. Such is the joy of looking at distorted side views.
An accidental YouTube video
User stekusteku at forums.flightsimulator.com pointed out a YouTube video posted by Home Sim Pilot. It highlighted his experience running MSFS 2020 on his excellent triple-monitor setup. His setup is a few hundred times better than mine.
This is the first video I am aware of, with an almost full-length flight showing both a real-time video camera capture of his triple monitors, as well as an in-game video capture of a similar/equivalent flight. By comparing the triple-monitor capture to the single-monitor capture, one can observe geometric distortions in real-time.
Jump to time 2:55, and look at the taxiway-meets-runway sign 29R-C on the right monitor. As the plane inches forward, the sign moves backward, becoming more and more elongated as it gets closer and closer to the edge of the right monitor. Keep in mind that his side monitors are perpendicular to the front monitor, unlike my lightly inclined setup. His video camera captures these side monitors already at a deep angle. And the video camera already compresses optically what you see on the two side monitors. Yet, the sign still becomes unnaturally elongated in the captured video. In real life, a pilot seating on the pilot will see an even more elongated sign.
The pilot himself said at time 5:30 that the major issue he was having with the screen was that, “there’s no multi-monitor support unlike in XPlane where you are able to control both the visual offset and the field of view for each monitor”. In MSFS 2020, at this initial launch time, one is forced to use Nvidia Surround.
At 9:51, he comments on how only the front monitor looks right. The two side monitors show stretched and distorted projections, at this time. He thinks that once MSFS fixes this issue, it will be a game changer.
During landing, at 14:20, buildings can be seen greatly distorted on the triple monitors. Compare what you see on these monitors to the external view on the single-monitor. At 14:55, look at the brown patch of grass on the right. On the single monitor, it looks diamond-shaped. On the triple monitors, it got stretched into a thin line which at one point spanned the entire right monitor.
To see what properly-setup triple monitor with a correct surround view, watch another video from the same Tuber.
That’s enough monologue on geometric distortions. If you still want to know more, follow these pointers:
- WideViewAspect & Zoom: Part 1 by Almost Aviation from 2012. This is about FSX. But with additional research, perhaps this is applicable to MSFS 2020. Or perhaps Asobo will make similar settings work in a future update.
- Discourse on x-Plane 11 Multi View Geometry & Bezel Correction by Russ Barlow from 2017, including 3 monitors, 5 monitors, and more.
- Three-PC-Network Setup with three 4K TVs running X-Plane 11 by Michael Brown from 2018. He offers triple-monitor flight sim packages.
- GeForce Pascal Multi-Projection Engine
- Nvidia Simultaneous Multi-Projection Engine – review of GeForce GTX 1080 Pascal Review by Tom’s Hardware.
- Great video demonstration of Nvidia Simultaneous Multi-Projection by Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang.
- Simultaneous Multi-Projection (SMP) on the GTX 1080 Explained, by PC Perspective.
- How to cope with geometric distortion for now, by placing triple monitors on a flat plane, and sitting really close to the center monitor, by Steku.
- Even Fly Elise-ng is unable to do anything at this time. See their Aug 22nd blog post on this issue.
Here are some discussion forums where you may find additional information on the same issue:
- Triple Monitors Support (different resolutions) on forums.flightsimulator.com (official MSFS 2020 site)
- Geometric distortion in a triple-monitor setup for MSFS 2020 on AVSIM
If you care about this issue, go vote on this wishlist request at the official MSFS forum:
Also vote on this Q&A request:
People asks about my equipment here, in comments, or on the two YouTube videos I posted on this topic. Many wonder if they will be able to have a smooth and high-quality visual experience with their hardware, when running triple monitors. I think any decent graphics card in the last 5 years can handle triple monitors – you just need to tweak graphics settings in MSFS to lower expectations.
I wrote this article you just read only days after the launch of MSFS. I bought triple monitors ahead of the launch, but basically ran it on an ancient Alienware X51 Andromeda R3. I made one last major surgery on it in 2019 when I bought a GTX 1070 Ti card, and trimmed a few things in the case to fit that monster into the ancient shell. I did that so I could ran DCS with my Oculus Rift. That was the machine I used on the day MSFS launched. All pictures you see here are from that setup. As noted in the article, I ran a single virtual 5760 x 1080 screen presented by Nvidia Surround to MSFS.
The displays I used are cheap consumer TVs. They are not even computer monitors: SAMSUNG 43-inch Class Crystal UHD TU-8000 4K (UN43TU8000FXZA, 2020 Model). Yeah, I know, it doesn’t do 144Hz. But I could barely run MSFS on 3 x HD with that ancient Alienware (CPU-bound, not GPU-bound). So 144Hz is really a moot point. I think these TVs are more than fine for MSFS. They have OKayish viewing angles. Good enough from where I sit.
As soon I installed and ran MSFS, I realized that I needed a completely new PC. I assembled a new gaming PC. The new rig: Asus B550-F AM4. RYZEN 7 3700X. 32GB DDR4 3200. Radeon RX 5700 XT. M.2 1TB NVMe SSD. That was before the new crop of GPUs came out (e.g. RTX 3080). I knew they were about to be released. But I didn’t want to wait. That proved to be a wise choice.
My two subsequent YouTube videos were made with the new setup. This is what I added to the video description, after several inquiries on my setup: I am running 3 x HD (i.e. 1920×1080). You will notice that I am running in windowed mode (see the white window title bar at the top), and not full-screen mode. That’s because I can’t get Eyefinity/Radeon RX 5700 XT to let me change the combined display group to any resolution other than the default 11520×2160 resolution it created. In fact, Radeon Software reliably crashes after some 15 seconds if I tried to change anything in it in this mode. I had to use that 15 second time window to change it back to single-monitors mode before it crashed. I had much better luck with my previous setup which I used for the first two weeks after the launch (Nvidia 1070 ti) and Nvidia Surround. Since shooting this video, I’ve managed to get “Windowed Borderless Gaming” to make the title bar go away, but not without a lot of trial and error.