Simulations for Fun and Profit

Simulations for Fun and Profit
Summary: At this article you will find several Simulations Tools and Best Practices!

Simulations for Fun and Profit

NOTE: The video and simulation both require Flash and adequate bandwidth. As mentioned here, we have discontinued web distribution of our training in favor of local launch, server authenticated systems of our own design due to bandwidth and latency issues on the Internet that are not likely to be resolved for a long time.  The video is compressed enough for 500kpbs or so throughput and the simulation will run in less.  By the mid 90s, simulation was the place to be for those on the cutting edge of technical training.  A variety of raster-based, multi-tasking computer platforms were available that could provide real-time, free-play simulations of complex machines.   Whoops.  I’ve probably lost a bunch of you right there at “raster.”  I’ll explain.

Horses for courses

Rather than go into the technical explanation, let’s just explain that raster=TV.  By the mid-90’s, the personal computer world was in three parts:  The office and industrial world was dominated by Windows for Workgroups, graphics and print by the Mac, and the home and video industry was pretty much all Commodore, the 64 in homes and the Amiga in video. Tim Jennison’s Video Toaster, introduced in 1993, created the desktop video industry and within a couple of years virtually every video shop in the country had one churning out “cheesy toaster effects” and many of them were founded just because of the Toaster.  The heart of the toaster, however, was Lightwave 3D, the most powerful solid modeling program of the day and still heavily used in its PC version.   It worked so well because the Amiga operating system was raster based (remember, raster=TV) so the enormous processing now required to render video from the Windows vector based operating system was completely unnecessary.  Rendering a complex scene took less time then than it does now on systems that are, on paper, thousands of times more powerful.  So, as the British say, “Horses for courses,” a phrase drawn from horse racing meaning to choose the right tool for a task.


There was nothing on the Windows platform that could compete at any price, so the Amiga rapidly penetrated the industry. At ARCO Technology Transfer Group in Dallas, some of my students from the University of North Texas where I was teaching at the time, took me seriously when I told them the age of video as the primary tool for training were numbered and computer- based training was the wave of the future.  They were lucky to be working as contractors for Vince V. Hall, a computer challenged but visionary head of ARCO Technical Training who provided them with a laboratory to not only “think outside the box,” but to think as if there were NO box.  The box they came up with was “SimStation,” a patented simulation computer capable of 24 bit color video output and full screen, 480P video with computer overlay and 8 separately controllable sound channels.  At this point, I was called in and became project manager of a scheme to build a complete simulation of an offshore production platform’s safety shutdown systems to meet the requirements of the U.S. Minerals Management Services requirement for certification of all personnel every two years.

Conventionally, this required 5 days of overtime pay in the classroom “teaching the test.”  When completed, the SimStation version, known as Production Safety Systems Training” or PSST, averaged 12 hours or less per student done on the job as time allowed.  While the cost was around 2 million dollars, the entire project was paid off in 6 months and began to return a profit.  Until the recent changes in the MMS due to the BP spill, the PC version, which I transcoded to the Windows platform in 1997, was still being offered online through a Houston-based training company who purchased it after ARCO was absorbed by BP.

It was a cash cow for 15 years for Well Control School, Inc.  The “Show Video” button below will open a Flash video showing SimStation in action.  It was recorded via S-Video output from the SimStation itself in 1996.  It’s pretty rare to be able to go back this far in time in our business, so enjoy in spite of the VHS quality. The last couple of minutes with the small jerky video is from the Windows version of PSST running on a Win95 PC and illustrates just what a performance hit training took with the loss of the Amiga.  Of course, video performance will be a matter of your bandwidth.

SimStation Video

And then there was one, two if you count Apple…So, what happened?  Commodore Business Machines was badly mismanaged by leadership who literally starved to death in a grocery store.  The company suddenly imploded with no grieving at Apple or Microsoft leaving no capable platform for such video and graphics intense simulation.  In fact, we were planning 2.0 at the time and intending to use 3D goggles for a complete virtual experience.  Of course, that ended with Commodore as the Windows version of the 1.0 took half a million dollars to port and was not remotely as smooth, fast, or robust as the original, much less capable of the demands of a virtual world rendered “on the fly.”  Windows and Apple computers still represent compromised performance and capabilities compared to a raster-based operating system.

Back to the Future

It has taken over 15 years for us to get our Wintel OS and architecture to the point of these long gone systems.  It remains technically awkward and inordinately difficult for the machine, but we can now get back to more efficient and effective training via the ubiquitous PC.  There remains an obstacle, and that is our addiction to streaming and the massive disconnect between LMS systems architects and the training professionals who feel obliged to use them.   That is an article, perhaps a book, in itself, but definitely another story so I’ll get on to the “workaround.”

We designed a modification for the open source LMS “Ilias” platform to allow it to use a local eSATA or USB drive background synchronized with a master server launch content rather than stream the training materials.  At around 250.00 per site this proved vastly cheaper than providing the intranet bandwidth required for a quality user experience and the HD video required for precision training applications.  Everything else remained “standard,” that is, tracking, authentication, etc.  From what we learned modifying Ilias we designed a new type of LMS system precisely tailored to our needs that will replace Ilias in 2013.  However, removal of the bandwidth red herring allows us to use 1080P video and sophisticated simulations that would simply choke even the fastest generally available streaming solution, and with hundreds of rigs scattered over the globe and oceans, it’s a far superior solution.  Further, we did a bit of under the hood tinkering to allow ubiquitous “Articulate”’ authoring package to allow it to launch and track such simulations when used with the type of simple SCOs Articulate excels at producing efficiently, quickly, and reliably.  However, our key tool for rapid simulations development is Digital Workshop’s “Opus Professional” tool which is, in our opinion, the most powerful and easy to use Windows simulation authoring tool ever.  Think “C++” made human, but much more flexible and powerful with full SCORM compliance.

Opus: A taste of the good old days, but here and now

I’ve often said I can teach a person to do simple simulations or web pages with Opus in half a day, and then they can spend the rest of their lives learning the extraordinary flexibility and power of this marvelous tool.  I first used it at about version 4 in the mid ‘90s when it was called “Illuminatus.”  I found it very useful as a rapid prototyping tool for ARCO and my other clients to visualize things to be developed on the SimStation platform.

It has really matured over the years and became my primary development tool after a gig at the U.S. Army Chemical Corps School where I used it along with Bryce, the landscape modeling program, to create a “rapid prototype” of a simulated Iraqi airbase to train soldiers on how to spot roadside IED’s and landmines.  They apparently liked it a lot.  In fact, I found out well after I’d completed my sub contract that the Army rejected the final output from the prime contractor as not adequately matching my prototype in speed or sophistication.  When I took my present position, we had Digital Workshop to modify the program to conform to SCORM, as well as add a few other things needed for simulation.  To my knowledge, it’s the only authoring tool available that provides for right click programming in Flash.  That’s a huge plus for application simulations.   Using what we learned from modifying Ilias we plan to build a custom LMS solution designed to precisely meet our needs using Opus both as the LMS and as the content development engine as well.  It will be deployed in early 2013.

Simple Sims Solve Serious Situations

Simulations do NOT have to be fancy, highly sophisticated, or complex to do the job. The example I am going to use here took only a couple of days to put together, and I do NOT consider myself a programmer.  I believe most of those reading this could learn to build a similar simulation in a couple of weeks.  More important, even taking that long would result in a simulation that will pay for itself very rapidly.   The refractometer is a very simple device, but a critical tool in cold environments. Our drilling rigs are entirely self contained and completely dependent upon the engines that generate AC power to operate everything.  Sometimes these are in cruel environments where the temperature may be way below zero for long periods of time. If these engines freeze up during rig moves or while offline, it’s a major problem. The refractometer is a simple device that tests a sample of coolant and tells you to what temperature it will protect the engine.  The instructions are only a page and a half, but mostly text with black and white drawings.  Given we long ago learned from Dale that reading about something is almost as far as you can get from doing something, it should come as no surprise that we found our crew members were able to master correct calibration and use of the refractometer in less time via this simulation than by reading the page and a half of instructions.   Even better, when used with a touch tablet on the scene with the refractometer itself, they can perform the actions on the simulation and duplicate them on a real sample.  Now, THAT is example of advanced “blended” instruction! Please use the link to access “Refractometer” and learn a new skill.  I’ll wait…

Refractometer SimulationSummary

This is a VERY simple simulation, actually little more than flipping pictures.  Total development time was one day, including the images which were done using a flatbed scanner.  Most flatbed scanners have surprisingly good depth of field and make superb images of objects that will fit on them.  Opus Professional, the authoring and programming tool used to develop it is easily learned, but I am not here to sell that tool and there are probably others you can use just as effectively.  Please share any you know of.  In spite of the simplicity, as an instructional tool it represents enormous power and efficiency compared to anything short of a direct human-computer interface.  It would probably stream OK, but most simulations will not and when you are teaching equipment that can kill you if you don’t get it right, having latency or other bandwidth issues prevent “virtual” performance is a showstopper.  The solution to that problem isn’t rocket science and we are taking steps to remake the LMS model to our needs rather than shortchanging our employees with “conformant” slide show solutions, grainy, jerky, tiny video, and latency-plagued simulations.  I urge you to spend less time worrying over “conformance” and other distracters and let’s get back to what we started out to do in the first place:  Use available technology when we can, and develop new technology when we must in order to improve employee welfare, increase competitive advantage, and improve shareholder value.