Socially Distanced Ops, June 2020

Screenshot from the camera control computer

Tonight was the ops session we have been planning for the last few weeks. Since we are in the middle of a global pandemic, we decided to severely limit on-site attendance, institute social distancing, wearing masks, and try out remote participation.

Instead of the usual 10 – 15 session participants in the layout room, we had only four: A yardmaster for Nowheres, and three engineers. Plus one member for taking care of cameras, Internet, and streaming stuff. We also had three club members joining us remotely as engineers, and a remote dispatcher.

Remote control of our web-based layout panels and locomotives on the layout is easily accomplished using a VPN application that connects remote devices to the club network. EngineDriver’s automatic discovery of JMRI’s Withrottle Server doesn’t work over the VPN connection. Instead, remote participants need to enter IP and port number of the computer running JMRI manually. In our case 192.168.8.10, port 12090. The control and dispatcher web panels are available at http://192.168.8.10:3000 over the VPN connection as well.

Upacking technology

Over the course of the afternoon we installed cameras in the layout room. We used Foscam X1 security cameras, as well as old Android phones with the IP Webcam app. All four cameras were streaming video into OBS.

The four cameras were set up to cover as much of the layout room as we could pull off. The intent was to give remote operators maximum visibility of the main line, so that they get to see the trains they are running.

We also streamed from OBS to Youtube Live for some time during the session. Using the Present from window Google Meet feature worked for the video stream, but resulted in unacceptable latency for remote participants. We will need to try this again with the OBS VirtualCam plugin.

The control stand

On the left is the FRS Radio / Meet gateway. This old Dell laptop runs Linux and has separate microphone and head set plugs, with microphones taped to computer and headset speakers. The laptop in the middle runs OBS and acts as the hub for all the video streams, including broadcasting to Meet and Youtube Live. The laptop on the right was the control for the Youtube Live stream.

This was another step towards restarting operations at Silicon Valley Lines. Operations sessions as we know them will not be possible for a while. Some remote participation component will be needed for the time being.

The club Internet connection has 24 MBit/s downlink and 5 MBit/s uplink. We found that throughput on the uplink was very variable, and stopped the Youtube Live stream halfway through the session after downgrading quality multiple times to free up more bandwidth for Google Meet. That definitely resulted in improved video and audio quality with less artifacts.

IP Webcam did not work reliably on some phones, while it worked just fine on another phone.

Finally, we need to build a more compelling remote engineer experience. While the camera setup we used allows for an ok overview of the layout room, it very much has a security camera feel to it. We will try to make it more reliable, but even then it’s at best nice as a novelty.

What we really want to do is to put the remote engineer in the middle of the action. If you can’t be there, maybe with technology we can provide an experience that is not possible when standing in the layout room.

Stay tuned.

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