Friday, March 15, 2013

The Magic of Engine Driver

Last post, I talked at great length about how exciting it was to discover the Operations module in JMRI, the Java-based model railroad software suite. Operations was the answer to my wishes for some sort of system to create logical car movement on the railroad. After what seemed like an endless search, I (unlike U2) had found what I had been looking for.

With a couple of vacation days to use up this week, the goal became to dive a little deeper into the Java Model Railroad Interface, or JMRI. Little did I know I would end up discovering one of the most amazing applications of technology I have ever seen. And I've seen a fair amount of tech-starting with DOS running on 286 boxes, working through who knows how many versions of Windows, a touch of Linux, and a dozen or so cell phones and tablets. There have been some stunning uses of 1's and 0's on that list, including things like, ATCS, various photo and video editing software, and progressively more advanced digital cameras. Still, nothing matches the WOW!!! factor I felt today.

After wrestling with a Digitrax PR3 yesterday afternoon and evening, I finally managed to get it to perform its most basic function this morning, when I was able to read CV's and program DCC decoders. That was pretty stunning in itself. I never, ever would have considered using a speed table in a locomotive until I saw how simple Decoder Pro makes it. (Yes, Decoder Pro is just one part of the JMRI package, kind of like the Operations module is one small part.) Decoder Pro changed my whole approach to programming locomotives in about 3 minutes. Never again will I not change a CV because it is too much work, or takes too long, or I have to look up the numbers in a thick manual or on the web. No need for any of that now, just fire up Decoder Pro, open that roster number, make sure the loco is on the track, and program away in a point and click interface. Speed tables? No problem! Slice and dice them however you want. Momentum? Headlight effects? Kick start? It's all there.

And then I connected the PR3 to the layout, and the fun really began. I opened a "virtual" throttle on the screen of the laptop. I was able to control the locomotive while sitting at the computer! I could control speed, direction lights, sounds, the whole enchilada. And the throttle cost me nothing. Again, amazing is the word that jumps to the front of the list.

But the best was yet to come. I had downloaded something called "Engine Driver" onto my Android tablet, and it installed without a hitch. Somehow this was supposed to control locomotives wirelessly. I had no idea how but that has never stopped me before and so I clicked on a tab in JMRI that let me start a "WiThrottle Server". I clicked and poked and fiddled around until, wonder of wonders, I was controlling a train with my tablet. I could make it go forward, at any speed (at least any speed I allowed when I set up the speed tables). Or backward, or turn the lights off and on. Or make the horn blow or the bell ring. I was doing this with no wires connecting the tablet to anything. Here is what really amazes me-I was using software on a tablet computer, that was communicating with my wireless router, which was sending commands to my laptop, which was in turn talking to the Digitrax PR3 connected to it by a USB cable, which then was relaying information to the command station, a Digitrax DCS 51. THEN the command station was sending packets out the Loconet to the engine, which has a tiny computer chip inside that was deciphering those commands, and turning them into actions such as speeding up, slowing down, turning various things off and on, and changing direction. All at the speed of light.

Did I mention being amazed? Well I was.

The software is all free. I have the laptop, tablet, and command station. I paid around $65 for the PR3, which I really bought to use for programming, so this is just an added bonus.

Seriously, I was amazed. And then tonight I was playing with the setup some more and learned that while Engine Driver will run one engine, it is just as capable of running TWO. Just like my DT 402 throttle, yes, this software can control two engines at the same time.

I just love to discover new things like this. They are so much fun, and so exciting. And when you find something really useful, it's not just a temporary excitement, it lasts and lasts. I've got a feeling this is just the beginning of a long love affair with JMRI and the people who build it.

1 comment:

Piter Turek said...

Do you realy paid $65 for the PR3??