The technology behind shooting simulators has been around for quite a while and this technology is becoming more popular and used in a wider variety of applications. This article is designed to provide a basic understand of the technology behind the simulators and a look at some of their applications today. I often hear this question asked from prospective customers:
“So this is like a Video game?” >> No, it’s not a video game.
You are NOT using a joystick or controller; you are using replica firearms that are true to size and weight, which help increase muscle memory, target acquisition, trigger discipline and proper grip. These are just a few of the benefits of using a quality shooting simulator on a regular basis.
All shooting simulators on the market today use three main components to create different packages which are sold to private individuals, commercial applications, law enforcement and military. These components can be broken down into three major categories: Hardware, Software and Lasers (weapons).
A shooting simulator requires some basic hardware which is fairly universal throughout all systems: A computer, a video projector and some type of hit-detection camera.
To best explain this, you need to understand these systems are laser based and to read the laser hits on a screen you need to be able to track where the laser is hitting on the projected image. This is where the hit-detection camera comes into play. Imagine the hit-detection camera emits a blanket of UV light onto the screen of a simulator and the laser which is used is a pin prick in that blanket.
The camera tracks the pin prick’s X and Y coordinates on the blanket and relays that information in concert with the software to determine the precise location of where the shot (the laser pin prick) was measured and ultimately if the shot was a hit or a miss. Much of the cost variant in shooting simulators can be in the accuracy of the hit detect camera and the mapping software. These cameras have become more and more accurate and sophisticated overtime, when we first started selling shooting simulators over ten years ago the hit-detection cameras were nothing more than fancy web cams. Another aspect of these cameras are the lenses which are used to filter out different kinds on light or specifically what type of light the camera is allowed to view. Some systems have lenses, others don’t. The makeup of these lenses often are proprietary information to each manufacture who creates them and are fairly protected as their intellectual property.
How accurate are these simulators?
The answer is VERY accurate. Depending on the hardware and software, some manufactures boast their systems are accurate to around 3 pixels! There are 3.78 pixels in 1 millimeter, so some of these simulators can track a laser’s signal down to a little over 1mm. So yes, that’s accurate.
Software can be simple or it can be very complex. The first aspect of the software component is (as mention above) is the software written to understand the data received from the X and Y coordinates read by the hit detection camera. The better this software is, the better the simulator. Think of this as the foundation of software of which all other software is built upon and depends on. If you don’t have a good foundation you don’t have a robust building. The speed and accuracy of this software is key to the functionality of game play, if this software is out of date or not written correctly it will negatively affect the flow of the next layer of software, which is the calibration.
All systems use calibration to accomplish two things; define the parameters of the detectable area. Imagine this as defining the four corners of the blanket onto the screen, or the area in which the camera will detect laser pin pricks. The second use of the calibration process is to test the lasers and hone in the accuracy of the shots on the screen. The fact is there are very few (if any) shooters who could consistently hit a target 1mm in size, so what the software does is to provide the shooter a target, register a few shots at that target and use that information to create some variance to where the shots are registered. Think of it in this way. You are shooting at a target on the screen the size of a quarter. This quarter on the screen at a 1:1 ratio has a diameter of 24.26mm. The calibration allows for some variance in where you hit the quarter. To be registered as a “hit”, you are not hitting the exact same 1mm spot at the center of the quarter. You are hitting an area which is pretty close (maybe within 30-50mm) from the center of the quarter. The system tracks several shots and then uses the data to create an area which the system will register a shot as a hit. Most simulators will also use a similar process to differentiate between how a simulator reads a pistol, rifle and shotgun within the game play. The variance and tolerances in this process directly relates to the overall accuracy and difficulty of the simulator. A system used for entertainment requires a wider variant, while a system for the military might require a more precise shot to be registered as a “hit” by the simulator.
Now that we have made our way through the technical, behind the scenes software now we can look at the software you actually see and use. For the vast majority of uses of the simulator there are two categories of which the software can be broken into; entertainment and training (of course there is crossover between the two). Entertainment titles are designed for fun and are typically pretty basic. Bottles on a fence, paper targets, zombies and so on. The software presents a target, you shoot and either hit it or not and the simulator software reacts. With a hit, the bottle breaks, with a miss you might see a simulated bullet hole on the fence post.
Most of the hunting software falls into the entertainment bucket, although there are some pretty tough hunting titles out there which require a great deal of accuracy, very much like you do in the real world. Games can be pretty similar between manufacturers and there is a fair amount of redundancy between titles. A Dueling tree is a Dueling tree and it doesn’t really matter who makes it, apart from the accuracy of the hit detection.
The other major category of software is training. Training software is designed to do just that, hone your skills and train you. This can vary from firearm based training, judgmental training, Taser, OC Spray and even baton. Training software can offer bells and whistles to increase your training sessions, such as low-light (training with a flashlight), flashing lights, loud noises and other distractions.
Some training software is very basic, target recognition, sight alignment and so on, while other versions can be complex with branching scenarios with multiple possible outcomes. Most of the training simulators on the market today for commercial use are dumbed-down versions of the same simulators used by law enforcement agency, so the content of these training simulators is top notch. The advanced software is expense to make and is the reason why the “training” simulators carry a higher price tag. Like it or not, the expense of the software development gets passed on to you. Crossover happens between the two groups of software. When you run through a few software titles, you’ll have some fun, while receiving some training at the same time.
As you have read above, lasers are a key component of any shooting simulator. The laser pulse (or pin prick) acts as a simulated bullet. Pull the trigger, it fires the laser and the laser is tracked by the camera. There are different types of lasers used on simulators, both visible and non-visible with different wavelengths measured in nanometers. The industry favors non-visible infrared laser, there is a belief that with a visible laser, the shooter will “walk” their shots into the target. I’ve seen it with customers and to be honest, I have done it myself. Its fine for entertainment but for training it’s much more realistic to go with non-visible. Not every laser will work on every simulator on the market. This is because of the filter on the cameras and also what the range the manufacturer has allowed for in their hit detection software. There are a few frequencies which are pretty universal with the infrared spectrum, but systems which capture visual lasers will work with all visible laser. On the old systems we carried, you could use a laser pointer and the camera would pick it up as a shot.
Most of the weapons/guns are either real (live-fire) guns or some type of replica gun which has been converted to work with the simulator. When I say converted, I mean a laser has been added, either internally or externally to the gun in order to fire a laser and not a projectile. This process has proven more difficult than it sounds and it has taken the industry several years to come up with some viable and dependable firearm options. The weapons are fairly true to weight and feel and in some instances the guns are exact replicas of the real thing, even on little details like sights and weight. As you can guess there is quite a range of products to choose with the price points ranging from a couple hundred to several thousand (when all said and done). There are options available to use your own personal gun through the use of “drop in” lasers as well as kits which use Co2 or green gas to operate the slide on the gun to simulate normal function and provide recoil to the weapon.
It is important to note Airsoft guns or other replicas are not classified as firearms and are legal for use by all ages under federal law. In some municipalities and states, there are restrictions on Airsoft guns or the modification of real guns, IT IS THE BUYER’S RESPONSIBILITY TO CHECK WITH AND ADHERE TO THEIR LOCAL LAWS. The last thing you want to do is purchase a shooting simulator, open the doors to your new business and discover you have broken the law. Do your homework first; it’s easier than dealing with the law after you have made a mistake.
Now we have a deeper understanding of what a shooting simulator is, we can dive into who uses them and why. We have been selling shooting simulators for over ten years and have seen or heard about nearly every type of application for a simulator ever conceived. The customers we have sold to can be divided into the two main categories of residential and commercial. The residential customers are people who are looking to keep their shooting skills sharp when they’re not at the shooting range or in the off season (for our hunters).
On the commercial side of the industry we see a much wider variety of applications. The most popular is for training. We sell many of our higher end simulators to firearm instructors who teach conceal carry and personal protect classes. These are typically existing businesses that are looking to expand their offerings or take their firearms training to the next level. We sell a fair amount of commercial systems for their entertainment value as well; this includes cruise ships, apartment complexes, hunting clubs, rental companies, dude ranches and more.
A growing segment of our customers are using the simulator as a way to introduce people to shooting for the very first time. Shooting on a simulator provides a safer and less intimidating experience over taking new shooters to a live fire range. We also see shooting simulators used with Hunter’s Education classes to enhance what is being taught in the classroom. We have schools, churches, federal agencies, youth groups and countless businesses within the firearm industry using these systems.
Hopefully you now have a deeper understand of what exactly a shooting simulator is and how it may be beneficial to you. If you have additional questions please feel free to contact us for more information.
J. Todd Mallon
President, Sports Entertainment Specialists, Inc.