AR will kill the knob

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.

7 thoughts on “AR will kill the knob

  1. Or, to paraphrase your last sentence “And if you think everyone won’t have AR glasses, ask yourself if you thought you needed a 3D TV prior to 2010.”

    AR is interesting, and Apple/Google/Microsoft and others are all putting resources into it. But they all still have the same problem, that it appears to be a technology looking for a solution rather than a solution to a problem.

    My biggest concern, perhaps unfounded, is what happens to the eyes – focusing for long periods of time on something right next to the eyes takes us into unknown territory.

    But there is also the issue if tech has its way we will be using AR on the job, and having spent all day wearing AR glasses for work will we really then want to put them back on for our hobby or will we want to forget about them as part of our escaping from work?

    1. All good questions. 3D TV is a little early on the adoption curve to call it dead, but regardless, the opportunity it represents differs fundamentally from AR. The tech giants are investing in AR in the continued battle for attention: they will find the killer app to push it upon us because they need it to survive. By contrast, 3D TV is a technology looking for consumer pull.

      While AR is going to start at work for some of us, I shall be surprised if you ever take the glasses off once they go on. In the same way that we feel naked without our phones today, our AR glasses will be a constant part of our lives, for better or for worse.

      When it comes to our model trains, it will be better.

      1. Um, they stopped making 3D TV’s 2 years ago. It is thoroughly dead. And one of the reasons was the requirement to wear glasses to watch TV, which the public resoundingly rejected.

  2. Very interesting post. With all the shovelling and pointing motions, should we be designing our aisles even wider now in anticipation?

    I visited an art show recently here in Edmonton that had two interactive installations, one which let you physically interact with a body on a table using VR glasses and a hand held device… it was extremely interesting just for the technology, never mind the commentary of the installation itself.


    1. AR has two implications for layout design that leap to mind. First, you are right: aisles should be wider. Second, plan to make switches and other elements that require interaction powered.

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