Author Topic: Virtual op sessions using CI-1, HC Simulator and Zoom  (Read 169 times)

JJ Crooke

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Virtual op sessions using CI-1, HC Simulator and Zoom
« on: November 27, 2020, 09:53:26 PM »
Hi everyone,

I'm not sure if anyone else has already tried this but I've tested the ability of controlling a RailPro locomotive remotely via the internet. During these times where op sessions have become almost non-existent, I was looking for a way to host op sessions with a friend living about an hour away from my house. I am aware of JMRI's remote control capabilities but how about RailPro? Actually, it is fairly easy to accomplish.

Full disclosure: I have yet to test this approach during an actual live op session (2+ hours) but my in-house testing was successful. I should be able to fully test it within the next week or two. I live in a rural area (40 minutes outside of Ottawa, Ontario) so my crappy internet connection will be the determining factor if this method is sustainable or not for me but it should work just fine for anyone living in an urban area.

With my buddy acting as the remote engineer and also partially fulfilling the role of the conductor (planning and calling all the moves), I would mainly concentrate on the live video feeds (one tablet for a wide-angle view of the switching area and my cell phone for close-ups) as well as uncoupling cars.

As a pre-requisite, you would need:
  • Zoom app (the free Zoom account has a limit of 40 minutes per video conference while you have unlimited video conference minutes with a subscription)
  • CI-1 module
  • HC Simulator
  • One or more repeaters (e.g. PWR-56 power supply)
  • A good internet connection to avoid time lag as much as possible

With the HC Simulator app installed on my laptop (using a mouse) and knowing that the CI-1 module’s RF signal is much less powerful than the HC-2 handheld controller (must be within 2 or 3 feet from a RailPro product for the signal to work), here's the important part...

My layout is separated in three sections which each section having its own PWR-56 power supply… and each PWR-56 can act as a repeater to strengthen the RF signals. This means that the CI-1 module does not have to be within 2 or 3 feet from the locomotive decoder for the HC Simulator to work. As long as the CI-1 module (and the laptop) is within 3 feet of a repeater (e.g. PWR-56), then the repeater will send the signal to the decoder (and other repeaters) no matter where the locomotive is located on the layout. My layout room is roughly 13' x 32' and there were no dead spots between the HC Simulator and the locomotive during my test. (note: make sure to set each PWR-56 as repeaters in the HC Simulator prior to the session)

But what makes it possible for someone to control a train remotely is a Zoom functionality that permits a Zoom participant to take control of a shared screen. So in theory, if:
  • I join a Zoom conference via the Zoom app on my home laptop
  • The remote operator joins the same Zoom conference via the Zoom app on his home laptop/PC (including a mouse)
  • I position my home laptop within 2-3 feet of a repeater (e.g. PWR-56)
  • I open the HC Simulator on my home laptop
  • I insert the CI-1 module in my home laptop USB port
  • and I share my screen during the Zoom conference…

…the remote operator should be able to request control of my shared screen, including the HC Simulator app. Audio communication could be via the Zoom conference meeting or by cell phone while the remote engineer would see the video feeds via the Zoom video conference (note: each video feed must be registered as a conference participant). Zoom also allows a participant to "pin" another participant's video feed, which provides the remote engineer with the option of seeing all video feeds "Brady Bunch style" or to view full screen ("pin") a specific video feed.

When I did a test using my home laptop and an older laptop, there was initially a time lag of 1 or 2 seconds which I think is acceptable when running a train remotely. But after 30 minutes of testing, the time lag increased to more than 10 seconds which can be problematic (don’t want the engine to go beyond the end of track because of a late stop, for example) but I suspect that it is because of my poor internet connection speed. Stopping screen sharing and sharing it again helped to reduce the time lag but I guess that I will know for sure how it will behave once I try it during a real virtual op session.

The session will be limited to one remote engineer and myself but it should be fun nonetheless!
~ Joel

Modeling the Ottawa Central Railway in HO


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Re: Virtual op sessions using CI-1, HC Simulator and Zoom
« Reply #1 on: November 28, 2020, 07:16:00 AM »
Your laptop built-in camera or a web cam attached to your laptop is the view?

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When I was a kid... no wait, I still do that. HO, 28x32, double deck, 1969, RailPro

JJ Crooke

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Re: Virtual op sessions using CI-1, HC Simulator and Zoom
« Reply #2 on: November 28, 2020, 08:29:39 AM »
My laptop is the shared screen with the HC Simulator running on it so the camera can be off. The two views are from my cell phone camera for close-ups (roaming) and my Samsung tablet camera for a stationary overhead view of the switching area. Each view must be registered as a participant in the Zoom conference. To do that, I would send the Zoom meeting invitation prior to the op session to the remote engineer's email address plus two of my personal email addresses to ensure that each view (cell and tablet cameras) are separately available. So there are four "participants" during the Zoom meeting:

     * My home laptop (the "organizer" from which the Zoom conference invitation was created using the Zoom app) which runs the HC Simulator and will be access remotely by the engineer
     * The remote engineer (sitting comfortably at home in front of his laptop)
     * My cell phone camera video feed (meeting invitation sent to my personal email address #1)
     * My tablet camera video feed (meeting invitation sent to my personal email address #2)
~ Joel

Modeling the Ottawa Central Railway in HO