By Clayton Moore
Strap yourself in. The creators of the HotSeat Chassis want to take you for a wild ride.
In fact, a seatbelt might be the only thing missing from the HotSeat Flight Sim, a revolutionary gaming and simulation unit built by HotSeat Chassis Inc. This specially designed chair started life as an innovative accessory for Microsoft Xbox players. But recent developments find the HotSeat evolving into a fantastic asset to aviation enthusiasts.
The station is designed to provide a self-contained gaming seat for racers and pilots alike and can be equipped with flight sticks, throttles, racing wheels and the latest personal computers and gaming systems. Constructed in 10,000 square feet of its parent company’s 95,000-square-foot facility in Terryville, Conn., the HotSeat is quickly becoming a popular draw for pilots, corporations and racing enthusiasts across the country.
Dreaming up the HotSeat
Jay LeBoff, a longtime amateur race car driver, invented the gaming chair. His company, located in the same facility, manufactures fasteners for automobiles including Lexus, Infiniti and Honda, invented the gaming chair.
“I drive open-wheel cars and have been racing since the mid-1970s,” LeBoff recalled. “When the Xbox came out, I bought one for my sons, along with all the racing games. I was terrible with the controls. One thing led to another, and I built a unit that replicated the seat position of a race car.”
LeBoff took the newly dubbed HotSeat to the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where it was a huge hit, winning the CES Editors’ Choice Award from Popular Mechanics. The following year, commercial airline pilots approached him at the show, wanting to know if it could be used to run flight simulators. His response was, “Why not?”
“I went back and designed a system to run with Microsoft Flight Simulator,” he said. “I sent the first one to Tom Benenson, a senior editor at Flying Magazine, to get some feedback. He loved it, kept it for a month and wrote an editorial for the magazine. I sent the second one to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and they liked it so much they bought two of them. We began to see the potential market for this iteration.”
LeBoff has also donated several units to worthy causes. He recently donated two units to Southern Vermont College. During EAA AirVenture 2006, he donated a unit for the Experimental Aviation Association’s KidVenture educational program. Volunteers from the organization are outfitting their HotSeat with a replica 1930 round bump cowling from a Gee Bee Model Y Senior Sportster, to simulate a 1930s racing plane.
“Of course, as KidVenture chairman, I had to test the product to see if it was OK for the kids to fly,” said Dan Majka, an EAA director. “Wow, what a blast I had. Its adjustable seat and surround sound was as close to real flight as I’ve ever experienced on the ground. I could understand why the children didn’t want to eject.”
Although the HotSeat comes in a basic configuration, with merely the chassis, seat and speakers, most customers opt for more robust packages. The entry-level flight sim comes with a nicely equipped 1.8 GHz HotSeat Extreme PC, a 27-inch display, Dolby 5.1 surround sound, CH yoke and pedals, a Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse and Microsoft Flight Simulator X software. Every unit even comes with a beverage holder.
“We don’t want you getting dehydrated,” LeBoff said.
The key to the experience, LeBoff says, is the sound quality produced by six high-powered speakers.
“It’s all in the sound,” LeBoff said. “We have the subwoofer under the pilot’s seat. We also have a device that gives you more feedback from the engines under the seat. The sound is bio-directional, meaning that if you’re sitting in the cockpit and look left, the sound moves with you. If you’re in a Beechcraft Baron in Flight Sim X and throttle back into the cruising RPMs, you get that low, deep hum just like a real plane, until the whole unit is vibrating.”
Another aspect that may not immediately occur to potential customers is just how comfortable it is to spend time in the HotSeat.
“What makes it work is that your hands, eyes, feet and brain are all in the visual cockpit,” LeBoff said. “Everything is in the right place. One of the most important aspects is comfort. The comments I get at tradeshows are along the lines of, ‘I could’ve stayed there all day.'”
At an even higher end, HotSeat has built the Ultimate Flight Sim, which includes three video displays and an FAA-approved cockpit module and radio stack, as well as the standard flight sim components.
“If you have an instructor with you, you can log your simulator time,” LeBoff said of the Ultimate Flight Sim.
HotSeat Chassis found another lucrative market when it brought a HotSeat to the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference, a military simulation show in Orlando, Fla.
“We were there in a 10 by 10 booth, with one racer and one flight sim,” LeBoff recalled. “Around us were Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman and the Israeli Air Force. We have a $4,500 flight sim that’s fully equipped with a PC, monitor and controls. The next closest flight sim in the building costs $10 million. That’s a big difference. There’s a market here.”
The company is already meeting with a major defense contractor to discuss producing combat flight sims for futuristic military aircraft. Dubbed the Combat Pro, the new configuration features a joystick and throttle control and can integrate precision touch screens, allowing military pilots to simulate fighters or attack helicopters.
Last year, LeBoff and his team toured aviation museums like the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Dallas’ Love Field.
“A lot of these museums attract military and aviation retirees who want to stay plugged into the planes,” LeBoff said. “At the American Airlines Museum, we were introduced to the guy who runs the airline’s aviation simulation next door. They’re talking about using our platform to qualify or disqualify applicants who say they can fly, as opposed to putting them in a $15 million simulator.”
These are just a few arms of the company’s rapidly expanding aviation market.
“We’ve moved a major focus of the business into the aviation world,” LeBoff said. “We’ve been selling to pilots, used-to-be-pilots, wannabe pilots and aviation sim addicts. We also sell them to aviation schools, colleges and high school aviation programs.”
Among HotSeat’s educational customers are Barrington Irving’s Experience Aviation in Miami, an aerospace academy in the Bronx, and Starbase-Maxwell, a unique aviation program for schoolchildren based in Montgomery, Ala.
Drawing a line
In another unique application, HotSeat has created specialty combat simulations and flight sims for use at U.S. military recruiting stations. These units usually run WWII flying simulations or the videogame “America’s Army,” a combat simulation created by the U.S. government.
“The Army does a lot of flying,” LeBoff said. “Whether the recruiter drops a racer or a flight sim down in a shopping center or a state fair, they immediately get a line of young men. It’s a great recruiting tool, because it’s inexpensive and an immediate draw.”
The corporate promotional crowd is also flocking to HotSeat, which is happy to build custom chassis for heavyweight clients like Pepsi, Red Bull, Motorola, Verizon and Bank of America.
“This has turned into a very attractive tool for attracting visitors to corporate booths,” LeBoff said. “When you put one of these units down on the floor of a trade show—and it doesn’t matter what kind of show it is—you immediately draw a huge crowd.”
Driving and education
HotSeat Chassis isn’t building systems only for aviation pursuits. Plenty of racing enthusiasts are out there as well, putting their HotSeats through their paces with games like “Gran Turismo” and “Need for Speed.”
“We have all kinds of stuff coming down the pipe,” LeBoff said. “We’re in the process of building fiberglass attachments to put you further into the scene. We’re building specialty units for Daimler-Chrysler and Dodge, including two tricked-out racers that will be racing Vipers on 27-inch screens.”
The popularity of driving simulations and LeBoff’s own racing experience led him to propose a way the HotSeat might be used to give teenagers a better driving education.
“When my son was 16, we went to the Skip Barber Racing School in Lime Rock, Conn.,” LeBoff recalled. “They basically teach you panic braking, panic lane changes, ski recovery and smooth driving through the cones. Later, we ran into the guy who runs our local emergency room, and he said kids were coming into the hospital in record numbers—from car wrecks.”
LeBoff put two and two together and wrote a teaching program to change the way young people learn to drive. To change the learning curve, his program uses the learning center from “Gran Turismo.” During each session, three young drivers are put through their paces in the learning center, while a fourth runs defensive driving school exercises on a closed course with the help of a real driving instructor. At the end of the session, they can participate in the game’s racing section as a reward for their hard work—but only if they don’t wreck the car. Dent the vehicle and it’s back to kindergarten.
“Statistics show that the current method of putting four kids in a car and driving around with a brain-dead instructor is a failing strategy,” LeBoff said. “America, as a country, is pouring all this money into programs that aren’t just ineffectual; they’re boring. The whole concept of driving education is ripe for someone to turn it upside down and that’s us.”
To expand the test program, LeBoff is writing a grant and meeting with executives from the Ford Foundation and national insurance companies. He hopes to launch a three-year pilot program to execute the driving program with the involvement of local schools and hospitals.
It’s another facet to the potential of HotSeat units, but it’s one that’s close to LeBoff’s heart.
“Right now, about a third of our business is in flight sims, a third involves corporate promotions and a third is in driving simulations,” he observed. “The educational section hasn’t yet fully launched, but it’s certainly going to expand.”
A place in the pilot’s life
Even people with no interest in flying or gaming will get to see the product soon enough—on the big screen. The HotSeat Ultimate Flight Sim will be featured in the Hollywood production of “Iron Man,” based on the Marvel Comics character. The film features Gwyneth Paltrow and stars Robert Downey Jr. as an armored, flying superhero.
LeBoff isn’t a licensed pilot himself, but he’s logged plenty of hours on Microsoft’s new Flight Sim X software.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “I’m not particularly brilliant at flying, but I spend a lot of time in it because it’s very engaging. I take off from LaGuardia in a Beechcraft Baron, fly down the East River to the Statue of Liberty and then fly an ultralight over Manhattan. All the physics models are correct, the geography is right and the planes are accurate. It’s a nice way to spend an hour.”
LeBoff also believes a HotSeat Flight Sim can be a valuable educational tool for real pilots as well.
“Let’s say you’re going to fly from Boston to Nantucket,” LeBoff said. “You can sit in our unit, set your radio, take off from your home field and shoot a few approaches at the destination. The next day, when you go to the airfield, you’re really ready, because you’re prepared. It’s a very simple thing to do, but if you execute that kind of planning, you’re much more confident on the day of the flight, because you’ve done it a bunch of times. The HotSeat has a place in a pilot’s life.”
For more information about the full line of HotSeat Surround Sound Simulation Chassis, visit [http://www.hotseatinc.com].