Projectors or Monitors for a Flight Simulator Cockpit?

Updated December 2016 
Originally published September 2013. 

I often get asked why monitors are sometimes installed in Flight Simulator cockpits, and at other times projectors are used to simulate the outside view.  It’s time to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both.

First of all, consider these two pictures – The first picture shows six projection screens and no monitors for the outside view. The second picture shows monitors for the outside view and a fake  windscreen:

Picture of external projector screens
Here we have the cockpit framework with real transparent cockpit windows (shown in black). There are no monitors for the external view, instead, the pilot looks out of the windows and sees the external surroundings displayed on the six projection screens.
Pic of cockpit layout using monitors
The external view is provided by six monitors inside the cockpit enclosure. The windows (not shown in this picture for clarity) would then be non-transparent fake representations visible from the outside but not from inside the cockpit so that the outside of the simulator looks plausible.
Pic of 6 monitors from above
Geometrical arrangement of 6 monitors for a 180 degree view. See above picture to get an idea of position with respect to the seats.

So what is the story here? At first glance one would think that the obvious solution would be to use external projection screens, but we really need to look into matters more deeply. For the moment, this discussion is not about how many computers are to be used to power those monitors or projectors, but simply which concept is better.

The argument for Monitors instead of projectors making up a 180 degree external view:

  • Cost (I’ll quote in dollars so that everyone reading this has a common reference currency) – Six 24″ monitors would cost about US$ 1200 while six LED projectors would cost between US$ 3000 to US$ 6000. So that’s a big factor. Modern LED projectors don’t have projector bulbs to burn out, so we can forget the running costs for comparison purposes. Whether you use monitors or projectors, the power of the graphics cards would be the same.
  • Brightness and Clarity – Monitors produce what is called “active” light which shines directly into your eye, while projectors shine an image into a screen and therefore produce “reflected” light which reaches your eye. Direct “active” light will always have more saturation and contrast than “reflected” light. The image that you see will also be much clearer and sharper if it hasn’t been reflected. You will also have to darken the room if you use projectors – using monitors will not need the ambient light to be lowered.
  • Projectors are more difficult to set up – To set up the projectors accurately so that an acceptably distortion-free image is obtained on each projection screen is quite tricky and requires some precision keystone controls on the projectors.
  • Aircraft flexibility – Let’s face it – sometimes we want to use a flight simulator for fun as well as for serious training. One day you might want to practice navigation in a Cessna, the next day, you’d like to fly an airliner and the third day you might want to do some bush flying. If your cockpit is built so that you are looking through the windows at external projection screens, the windows will have to resemble a particular shape. It would feel very strange flying a microlite while looking through the windows which resemble those of a Boeing 737! With monitors closely surrounding you, you feel like you are outside anyway, so the strange effect is minimised.

The argument for six Projection Screens surrounding the simulator cockpit instead of Monitors:

  • Seamless – Even when a monitor is removed from it’s bezel, there is still small metal frame surrounding the image. With projectors, the six images can be seamlessly joined without the annoying monitor edges. Of course, if you really want to to get fancy, you can use a curved reflection screen and use a collimated display system, but that is more in the realm of simulators costing millions of dollars.
  • Better reality feel – If you are looking out of actual windows in the cockpit, it feels a bit more realistic since you can move your head to see part of the external surroundings that might be hidden by a strut between the window panes.
  • Less claustrophobic – some people find being surrounded by so many monitors a bit disconcerting.
  • Monitors require large cockpits – Unless you purchase “small” monitors which have a smaller aspect ratio  than the newer “wide-screen” monitors, six 24″ or 27″ monitors in a semicircle can take up quite a bit of space and be too large for a one-person cockpit. If you tried to fit six 24″ monitors in a 180 degree arrangement into a Cessna C172 simulated cockpit it would wind up being larger than a real Cessna 172 cockpit which is actually pretty cramped. When using projectors, the cockpit can be built just the size you want it to be.

So those are the main arguments – pro and contra. Now you understand why I prefer to design cockpits using monitors instead of projectors.