What is a simulator?
A simulator is something that has enough of the behaviour of whatever it is simulating to be useful, usually for training.
Simulators are used in many areas of training, most notably to help people learn to fly. A jet aircraft simulator is very
big and expensive, while a hang-glider simulator is very basic and cheap, with simulators for learning to drive land vehicles
coming somewhere in between. Simulators are also used to train operators of complex industrial plant.
In all cases, the key components are realistic controls, a (hidden) model of the dynamics, and realistic feedback (visual,
aural, tactile as appropriate) to the person using the simulator.
Simulators for training bell ringers have been around since the 1970s, when the late Peter
Cummins invented one, and used it extensively to develop his own ringing, and also to help teach others. His early simulators
were built with discrete electronic logic circuits (many of them preserved in the Bellfoundry
museum) but modern simulators use standard digital computers running an appropriate program. As well as the 'box' containing
the logic, a practical simulator needs connecting to something physical that the trainee can 'ring'. Often this is a real
bell, with the clapper fixed to silence it, and the wheel fitted with sensors that send a pulse to the 'box' at the point
in the bell's swing when it would normally strike. The 'box' then does the rest. It makes the sound of the trainee's bell
in response to the pulse from the sensor, and makes the sounds of all the other bells (the ones being simulated) when they
should strike according to the predetermined sequence. The trainee's task is thus to ring the bell and adjust the timing
of its swing so that it fits in with the others.
The simulator provides three training advantages. It doesn't require a room full of (patient) ringers to ring the other
bells. It strikes all the sounds perfectly, so the trainee only has to worry about his/her own mistakes. It encourages a
rhythmic style of ringing, with listening used as the main feedback for accurate striking.
This last benefit might not be obvious to a non-ringer. When all the bells are rung by real ringers there is an additional
source of visual information from the movement of the other ropes. Ringers are encouraged to develop 'ropesight' in order
to make sense of what is happening around them, but one negative effect is a tendency to rely for timing on following the
rope movement of the preceding bell, rather than listening to the actual sound. Since the rope movements do not always accurately
reflect the timing of the striking, the resultant ringing is less accurate.
A bellringer needs several sets of skills, not all of which can be helped by a simulator:
- Bellhandling skills are about the relationship between the ringer and the bell. They involve co-ordination of hands
and arms in order to control a bell swinging full-circle on the end of a rope. For a cycling analogy, think about staying
on the bike without falling off.
- Timing skills are about the relationship between when the ringer's bell strikes and when all the other bells strike.
They involve involve detecting any misfit in the sound sequence and making small, accurate corrections to the bell's swing
so that it fits properly into the overall sequence. For a cycling analogy, think about being able to cycle in a group,
keeping equal distances between all cycles.
- Dynamic bellhandling skills are about controlling the bell accurately when the sequence changes. They combine and
extend the skill sets above. For a cycling analogy, think about cycling in formation round corners and obstacles. (A closer
analogy would be cycling in formation with each cyclist continually overtaking or being overtaken by other cyclists in
accordance with a predetermined set of rules, but that might stretch your imagination.)
- Method skills are about learning and executing complex sequences. They are mainly cognitive skills, overlaid
on the above motor skills. For a cycling analogy, think about learning complex routes for navigation, or patterns for
when to overtake and when to drop back – and then performing them with no visual aids or markings.
Since the advent of the basic ringing simulator there have been further developments, some of which had
unexpected side effects.
- Performance feedback – Feedback is a powerful training technique. With the original simulators, the only
feedback on the trainee's performance was what (s)he managed to hear while ringing, and what the tutor said afterwards.
More recent simulators record the trainee's performance, and allow it to be reviewed afterwards, typically as a graphical
display, so it is easy to see how far each blow was off the correct time, and whether there were any consistent patterns
to the errors.
- Multi-bell interfaces – You only need one physical bell to ring with a simulator, but it is convenient
to be able to choose which one is best suited to the trainee. Fitting sensors on more than one bell gives such choice,
and fitting them to all the bells, with the ability to switch between them, gives complete choice.
- 'Silent practice' – It was a small step before someone worked out that you could use this arrangement
to allow all the bells to be rung together as normal, but for 'silent practice' where the sound isn't heard outside the
tower. The clappers are all tied, with the simulator making all the sounds (but not doing anything else). This has become
quite popular because it is cheaper than fitting physical sound control shutters into the tower (like
here). The use of simulators as 'electronic' sound control had the unwanted side effect that for many ringers this
secondary use completely eclipsed the original use as a training aid. So despite simulators being more widely fitted in
towers, the growth of their use to train basic ringing skills has been slower.
- Visual displays – Some simulators don't use a visual display (or have a minimal one sufficient to operate
the controls). But most simulator software now runs on general purpose computers that come with screens attached, so all
manner of displays are possible to accompany the ringing. In some situations this can be useful, most notably to help
a solo user to re-orientate and recover after making a mistake while ringing a method. The most basic displays are the
numbers of the bells as they strike, but there are also various ingenious representations of the appearance of the bell
and/or rope. Again there can be unwanted side effects. If trainees get used to looking at the screen while ringing, it
undermines one of the simulator's main benefits, ie encouraging reliance on rhythm and listening for the timing.
- 'Ringing' from the keyboard – Many simulators allow you to 'ring' by pressing keys instead of connecting
a sensor attached to a bell. This removes an important part of the simulated ringing experience, since the feel and dynamic
behaviour, are no longer remotely bell-like. So it is of no value for training ringers in the skills of accurately timed
bell control, but it is widely used to permit ringers to exercise the cognitive skills of method ringing (the 4th in the
list above). What makes this option attractive are (a) it requires no hardware in addition to a standard computer and
(b) it can be used anywhere. Some people find pressing keys very unnatural compared to being on the end of a rope, while
others adapt to it quite well. The keys have to be pressed at the 'wrong' time, because there is no delay, as there would
be with a swinging bell.
- Dumbbells – Although many simulators use the rope, fittings and physical mass of a real bell to provide
the dynamic feel when ringing, it doesn't have to be a real bell, providing the mechanical behaviour is reasonably similar.
The generic name for something designed to emulate a bell's behaviour in this way is a 'dumbbell', and many ingenious
variants have been produced. All have a rope, wheel and some sort of rotating mass, but they come in all shapes and sizes,
as designers have sought to meet different criteria, including portability, lightness, minimal
'tower' movement or easier handling for novices . It could
be argued that since a dumbbell mechanically simulates a bell's dynamics, in the same way that a traditional ringing simulator
simulates the experience of ringing together with other bells, then a dumbbell is a 'simulator'. Some people refer to
them as such, but such blurring of boundaries can be confusing for those not in the know.
- Going mobile – In 2010, Mobel , a version of Abel
that runs on an iPhone, was released. This allows ringers who use the key pressing technique to practice in places where
they couldn't otherwise. It also allows ringers to 'look up' the diagram or line of a method without carrying round a
large book. Mobel has also been used to help explain ringing to strangers when the topic arises in conversation.
- Handbells – Ringing simulators have always been capable of being connected to a pair of dummy handbells,
instead of to a tower bell (or dumbbell). With handbells, bell control is much simpler than with a tower bell, so the
emphasis when using a simulator is much more towards personal practice of change ringing. Several people made their own
dummy handbells to plug into a simulator, but see below.
- Ringing with motion controllers – When small, cheap, hand-held motion controllers became available for
games boxes, it wasn't long before someone realised that they could be used as dummy handbells. In 2009 Graham John produced
Handbell Manager software to enable these devices
to work with a ringing simulator, and the leading simulator developers adapted their products to match. This avoided the
difficulty that some handbell ringers have with the 'key pressing' approach, which prevents them using the sense of rhythm
that they get from their hands moving the bells while ringing. The controllers are much lighter than most handbells, but
some people have added weights to them, and/or attached them to longer handles so the action of ringing them is closer
to that of ringing a real handbell.
- Integrated software – Software is so versatile, it is tempting to make it do more and more. Some modern
simulator software forms a small part of a quite complex overall product that can do lots of ringing related things as
well. There are pros and cons of this approach.
Contact me if you would like to know more, or if you