One of the first things that we had to ponder when we began designing the MLF cockpit simulator was related to the way in which instruments would appear on the panel.
Today there are three basic ways to create a full-size simulated panel for a flight simulator:
Use a number of naked screens put one close to another: In this way, instruments appear on each screen in the same or a very similar way to those shown on your PC monitor whenever you run your flight sim of choice. The biggest difference is that in a home cockpit you will generally use more than one monitor and thus, you will need a multi-monitor hardware system. This option is very flexible and the least expensive of all, especially if you want to retain flexibility when it comes to change the aircraft type and model that you intend to simulate.
You can also use real instruments adapted with servos and actuators, or purchase especially designed units designed for flight simulators that appear to the pilot's eyes in a very realistic way. This is best used when you want to simulate a specific type and model of aircraft and don't plan on changing anything in the distant future because such an arrangement is very expensive (These hardware-based sim instruments cost at least as much as the real ones!) and inflexible. If you ever want to change anything on your panel it will not be a matter of cutting and pasting code in a configuration file; instead, you will have to peel off your whole panel, change your hardware and possibly software, and make a lot of tests.
Use a panel mask: This, in essence, is an intermediate solution that yields intermediate results between both former options, both in realism when it comes to simulate a specific cockpit and flexibility, when it comes to changing anything. Of course, specific type panels look more realistic than using naked monitors but a little less than using sim instruments, and changing things, while more complicated than the job required if you use naked screens, remains far simpler than what is needed for a hardware-based solution beginning with the fact that you will not have to fiddle with the logical configuration of the system. The main problem of masks is that you will have to find a way to interconnect all the gizmos with your PC by means of some sort of I/O subsystem, and if you change anything you will have to take this aspect into account too.
In the case of the MLF simulator we opted for the simplest solution because we wanted to retain the ability to change the type and model of plane being simulated with ease; plus, since the appearance in the real aviation market of screen-based panels such as the Garmin and Entegra models, we foresee that in the near future, simulating a panel with a quality equivalent to that attained with hardware sim instruments will be attainable just by means of naked screen configurations.
In order to integrate all these screens - three in the case of our cockpit - we used a Matrox's product known as TripleHead2Go, which is an easy to use hardware solution that connects to your video card. It proved to work pretty well with our fairly good card and each monitor shows a parallel image using a resolution of 1024x768, representing a third of what the video card of the cockpit computer is configured for.
An attitude indicator being projected on one of the panel screenes of the MLF sim.