What is a simulator?
A simulator behaves sufficiently like something else to be useful, usually for training. Simulators help people learn to fly aircraft, to drive trains and to operate of complex industrial plant. They nhave realistic controls, a (hidden) model of the dynamics, and realistic feedback (visual, aural, tactile).
The picture shows a trainee with a bellringing simulator in the tower at All Saints Wokingham
Simulators for bell ringers have been around since the 1970s. The late Peter Cummins, built one and used it to develop his own ringing, and teach others. His early simulators (some preserved in the Bellfoundry museum) used discrete electronic logic but modern simulators use software on a computer. A practical simulator needs connecting to something physical for the trainee to 'ring'. Often this is a real bell, with the clapper silenced, and sensors on the wheel that detect the bell's rotation and send a pulse to the simulator when the bell would normally strike. The simulator turns this into sound, and mixes it with the sounds of all the other (simulated) bells, all sounding perfectly in sequence. The trainee's has to ring the bell, and adjust the timing of its swing, to fit in with the sound of the others.
The simulator's advantages are: Training doesn't need a room full of (patient) ringers to ring the other bells. The simulated bells sound in perfect time, so the trainee only has to worry about his/her own mistakes. It helps develop a rhythmic style of ringing, with listening the main feedback for accurate striking.
To a non-ringer the last benefit might not seem an obvious benefit, but it is. When ringing with real ringers it is tempting to rely too much on the visual cues from the movement of the other ropes, but this is much less accurate. 'Ropesight' is a valuable skill for ringers. to make sense of the movement of the other ropes and work out what is happening around them, but the rope movement doesn't always accurately reflect the timing of the striking.
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 want help.