In 2016, I suggested that it’s time to stop running our trains as if they were a slot cars. Real locomotives have throttles and brakes, not huge speed knobs. As if in answer, Iowa Scaled Engineering developed the Protothrottle for diesels, and a thread over on Model Railroad Hobbyist suggests that we may see something similar for steam before long.
That thread at MRH starts with the question of design: what should a steam throttle look like? It’s a good question because, compared to a diesel’s control stand, the controls for a steam locomotive are spread all over the cab. Those who have used the Protothrottle tell me it’s really big, and we can imagine the steam throttle will be even bigger.
The days are numbered for dedicated train control hardware, though. Wi-throttle shows the way, but augmented reality is going to finish the job. In the same way that Wi-throttle provides a simpler user interface, AR will take that to an irresistible level.
Imagine you want to drive a locomotive. With a hardware throttle, you press a magic sequence of buttons, including the locomotive address to obtain control. With a Wi-throttle you more simply choose the engine, but you still step out of the model world and into your smartphone. With your AR glasses on, perhaps you will just point.
Then the magic will begin: your field of view is consumed with the interior of the cab. You want to see the models, though, so you pinch that cab and dock it somewhere convenient. Your fireman steps into the cab with you and feeds the fire, not by pressing a button, but by making a shovelling motion.
When she steps out to throw a switch, she does so by pointing to the turnout, and her view of the cab interior is replaced with a switch stand. She unlocks it and manipulates it as if it were real. To re-enter the cab, she points back to the locomotive. With steam up, you drop the Johnson Bar into full forward and crack the throttle open; the model begins to move.
It sounds like science fiction, but we’re closer than you might think. Apple is rumoured to announce AR glasses in 2020, and AWS Sumerian already provides a software toolkit to make it possible. And if you think everyone won’t have AR glasses, ask yourself if you thought you needed a smartphone prior to 2008.