It’s been a while since I’ve given an update on my “Virtual Freight” for model trains concept. I was asked a while back to attend The “Great New York State Model Train Fair” with my demo. At the time it felt like I had plenty of time to get a demo together. Well a few weeks ago I realized I was way behind and needed to rush a bit. Ooops! Here’s an update on various bits of the build process leading up to the convention.
Power To The Module
Last I gave an update I was in the process of installing the first sensor in the first module. The first module I decided was going to be a coal power plant. After getting the sensor mounted I started working on ballasting (Adding the rock to the tracks) and a little bit of scenery. I felt for the demo it was also important to you know.. actually have a powerplant. The tech I’m working on is neat but in busy noisy convention hall you need something to get peoples attention. Most of the power plant construction was pretty straight forward, airbrushing most of it and coming back with hand painted details. I’d like to weather it more but I think overall it came out pretty great!
The Coal Mine
Though I could in theory do the demo with a single module and just demo filled hoppers being unloaded, it’s not super compelling. I needed a source for the coal. My second module was to be a coal plant. Thankfully I had already started work on the coal mine building. What took me the longest with this step was simply trying to figure out how to layout the track and keep the module as condensed as possible (All while giving enough room to maneuver a loco and some cars while not making the turns too sharp. I eventually settled on the layout you see here which isn’t perfect but it does do the job.
Wiring it All Up
Once I had two modules with sensors it was time to actually bring it all together. For the demo to be a success I felt at the very least I needed to demonstrate taking an “empty” car, filling it with coal, and delivering it to the power plant where it gets empty. I decided to invest in some cheap Amazon Fire 7 Tablets and mounted them on stands above the industry. I must admit getting these mounted I started to feel the excitement of this crazy idea coming together “This just might work!”. There was a flurry of coding at this point to add in stations that consume resources and dealing with various bugs. I was able to catch the first actual virtual load being picked up and dropped off in this video. SUCCESS!
Making a Scene
Once I had the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) for the demo rolling it was time to turn towards scenery again. Ultimately I didn’t have enough time to finish it up but I think it was enough to see what I was going for. It was around this time that a cool device crossed my periphery. A tiny self contained smoke machine. The MicroFogger 3 Lite. What if the coal plant actually kicked into action and started emitting smoke once you delivered coal? I HAD to do it. Though it wasn’t technically specific to the tech I was demoing I felt that the opportunity to draw folks to the table as well as give a satisfying result to delivering coal was just TOO much to pass up. I got to work figuring it out. Luckily the folks at vosentech documented how easy it is to trigger the smoke, just a simple relay to connect two wires. I was able to grab another ESP8266 and connect it to the main game server with WebSockets. Now any time there was coal being unloaded it could trigger the smoke stack! (There is also some nuance here that I might get into on another blog post. long story short you cant just lay on the button for the smoke machine it will burn everything out, so I had to think about how to titrate the smoke as well as have a failsafe incase the internet went out) When it call came together the effect made me VERY happy.
The Curse of The Tech Demo
So despite having bullet-tested everything as much as possible and adding all kinds of failsafe’s, the rule holds true. Any tech when demoed will act in unusual and unexpected ways. When I setup the demo the Friday before the show in the convention space, it was completely broken. The stations couldn’t see the server, the loco wasn’t responding to DCC. After some debugging it became clear that the culprit was our travel router. I suspect it was overheating having to deal with the interference from so many other signals in the area, thankfully I was able to get a replacement router and got it all setup for the next day. Phew!
The Great New York State Model Train Fair
The show was AWESOME! We got lot’s of positive feedback and I learned a few things about how we can make the demo even more compelling (More on that to come). Some folks were not quite sure what they were looking at but that was expected. Overall a fun and positive experience. It has opened up invitations to attend future train fairs as well as some possible future collaborations so I can’t really ask for more than that. I have a tendency to start on projects and not follow through. I feel like this one counts as a win. Now I just need to manage these new ideas I’ve developed while seeing other train setups… hmm