Touring A Carnival Cruise Simulator: 210 Degrees Of GeForce-Powered Projection Systems

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to tour Carnival's CSMART facility in Almere, the Netherlands. This facility is one of a handful in the world that can provide both extensive training and certification on cruise ships as well as a comprehensive simulation of what it's like to command one.

Simulating the operation of a Carnival cruise ship is anything but simple. Let's start with a ship that's at least passingly familiar to most people -- the RMS Titanic. At roughly 46,000 tons and 882 feet long, she was, briefly, the largest vessel afloat. Compared to a modern cruise ship, however, Titanic was a pipsqueak.

versus Titantic
Average Modern Day Carnival Cruise Ship, Versus RMS Titantic

This comparison, of Titanic against the Costa Concordia, demonstrates the point nicely. As the size and complexity of the ships has grown, the need for complete simulators has grown as well. The C-SMART facility currently sports two full bridge simulators, several partial bridges, and multiple engineering rooms. The company is also working on a new expansion that will expand its training capabilities and flexibility. The company was founded after multiple incidents in 2006 in several vessels owned by Carnival subsidiary P&O Cruises forced the company to reevaluate its safety and certification courses.

C-SMART's mission is twofold. While it's a Carnival training and certification facility, it's also designed for safety training and industry-wide events. The company's simulator centers are vital to both goals. When the Costa Concordia wrecked off the coast of Italy several years ago, the C-SMART facility was used to simulate the wreck based on the black boxes from the ship itself.

Full Bridge

This is what's known as the full mission bridge simulator. Partial simulators are smaller and far cheaper, but the advantage of a full simulator is that something much closer to the exact operating environment can be created. The dials, switches, HUDs, and readouts that you'll see in these photos aren't static shots -- they're each connected to a corresponding backend. Turn the wheel, and the boat's course will shift accordingly with appropriate updates pushed to each system. Active phone lines allow a crew inside the simulator to speak to other simulator crews stationed in the engine room or with C-SMART staff who act out appropriate roles.

Bridge Controls2

The display screens you see out the front of the simulator aren't static, either. The entire assembly is a synchronized 220-degree view projected floor to ceiling using multiple linked projector systems. These systems are actually due for a significant upgrade, the company is moving to F85 projectors capable of 1920x1080, 11,000 lumens of brightness, and a contrast ratio of 15,000:1 -- all significant improvements over the 1400x1050 projectors it initially installed in 2007.

Bridge Exterior2

The giant simulated environment isn't particularly sexy by 2014 video game standards, but the entire engine is due for a significant overhaul. The new Seagull 6000 software system from TransasMarine is set to be installed, with new lighting and particle effects, cloud shadows, more detailed wave and water simulations, and the ability to simulate how ice builds up across a vessel traveling in colder climates. These are all subtle factors that impact how a ship controls, turns, and maneuvers, particularly in rough weather. The last time I saw a display system this immersive was at Disneyworld in the late 1990s and while I'm sure the House of Mouse has upgraded its own technology, it's still impressive to see equivalent tech with responsive hardware deployed in real life.

The one thing the C-SMART simulators can't do is rock back and forth on a hydraulic system, but that type of movement is exceptionally difficult for any company. The projected viewfield can still roll and pitch based on wave action, and the eye's tendency to interpret this as movement means that the simulator is perfectly capable of making people seasick.

Engine Room

Other areas, like the engine rooms, are simulated with virtual monitor banks capable of displaying the readouts of multiple ship classes. While this isn't as tactile as the bridge simulators, which use identical layouts and switches as the full service vessels, it allows for a greater degree of customization in smaller spaces. The monitors to the right display simulated events within the bowels of the ship.

Fire Monitor

Here, you can see that the right-side monitors have flipped from displaying a normal engine room to a simulated fire. The engineer on duty has activated the high-pressure sprinkler system to dampen the flame while simultaneously shutting down one of the cruise ships three pairs of engines. The engineering outputs all shift in real time and the manned phones reinforce the idea that these events are actually occurring.

Bridge Controls
All of the simulation hardware works, in that it creates physical changes within the simulated ship's systems.

When C-SMART moves to its new facilities, it'll pick up an enormous improvement in processing power. The next-gen visual system is going to be powered by no fewer than 104 GeForce Grid systems running banks of GeForce GTX 980 GPUs. While we weren't able to see this system in action, C-SMART executives claim it will actually substantially reduce their total power consumption thanks to the improved Maxwell GPU. Which solution is currently in place was unclear, but the total number of installed systems is dropping from just over 500 to 100 rackmounted units.

Long-term, C-SMART wants to move away from projection systems altogether. Multi-unit projectors have to be carefully and precisely aligned on a weekly basis or else the image either has over-bright portions or gaps form in the display field. Banks of LCDs can solve this problem, but the banks themselves must be subtly curved to prove a 220-degree field of vision. This requires its own visual wizardly to create a seamless field of view, and the technology isn't quite in place to allow for this kind of solution.

Overall, this was a fascinating example of how improvements in GPU hardware have allowed companies to build simulation centers that weren't really possible before. Shipping companies and airlines have used some type of simulation for decades, but the type and nature of the environments those simulations can include is rapidly expanding -- and such improvements at the industrial scale inevitably trickle down to consumer hardware and applications.