Imagine what it would be like to be so immersed in operating a model loco, that you feel like you’re in the cab.

Go ahead, watch the video and get that out of your system. We’ll come back to it later in the post.

Stories in the digital age

With the short story in Part One, I painted a picture in your mind with words and the images they implied. Artists, musicians and video game developers use similar techniques to touch a variety of sensory touch points to immerse people in their work.

For example, game developers use techniques such as creating a unique environment with its own rules. They craft a compelling story with interesting characters and plot lines and, most important, engage the players on as many levels as possible, visually with compelling graphics, aurally with sound and musical scores and physically via the game controller.

In most games players are faced with some challenge or objective to meet and conflict of some kind is employed to heighten the experience. You have to find the pot of gold, while avoiding the pirates. Save humanity from the aliens or beat the bad guys using whatever means the game developer gives you.

The layout as a 3D game?

The parallels to the essence of what we do with our layouts are striking to me (minus the aliens and explosions). We create an artificial world with its own rules (the layout and its operating scheme). There’s an objective to be met (the trains have work to do) and, on the best layouts, there is a story being told using all of the above (It’s a mainline, a branch, urban, rural, prosperous or not, the action is fast paced or slow).

Layouts designed for multiple operators also have different characters (dispatcher, yardmaster, brakeman, engineer) that have unique roles to play and whose actions impact how you accomplish the outcome of the game (op session).

We immerse ourselves in the layout experience through a variety of means.

In Part One, I suggested the many ways a compelling story line contributes to our understanding of a layout objectives and a modeler’s learning experience. Here are more ways we become immersed by the layout itself.

Sight and sound

A well done, fully scenicked layout can be a visual treat of the first order, one that gives dozens of clues to what type of atmosphere you’re working in.

We engage by running a train. We have direct control over the action.

More recently we’re also engaged by sound, not just the sound of the train, but in many cases, ambient background sounds too.

With sound there’s an opportunity for a deeper level of immersion that a handful of forward thinking people in the hobby are fully exploiting. The science of sound is very technical. However, when handled well, sound can be very immersive. Note my caveat: “when handled well…” Most of us have no idea how to employ multiple sound effects. We want to hear them, so the natural tendency is to crank up the volume. This never works. I once visited a layout where the host had multiple trains with sound all going at once. The volume of noise was physically uncomfortable for me and I couldn’t wait for it to stop. As suggested by very knowledgeable people, in order to replicate the atmosphere of the real world, sound effects have to be at much lower volumes.

Sound has other qualities beyond volume. The deep resonance of a modern diesel locomotive can be physical in nature. So much of what we experience at trackside watching a train is visceral in nature. In other words, we feel it. That brings us back to the video.

If you haven’t already watched the video, take a look at it now. Watch once for the action, then replay it, close your eyes and just listen to the many layers of sound. Did you get a different impression the second time? A tiny one-inch speaker just can’t move enough air to recreate this. Modeler Lance Mindheim has thought about this a lot.

A bigger speaker doesn't always help

A bigger speaker helps the sound quality, but isn't always practical.

Immersed by sound

As Lance has outlined on his blog, he coupled a stationary Tsunami sound decoder mounted under his Downtown Miami Spur layout, to a set of high quality audio headphones that he wears while operating. He reports that the bone rattling bass of the prime mover is greatly enhanced along with his experience of running the engine. I’ll leave the technical details and fuller explanation to Lance via his blog entries**, but think about this for a moment and let the implications sink in.

By wearing the headphones, Lance has immersed himself to another level in the experience of operating a model locomotive. The headphones tend to filter out the extraneous noise of the room, placing him “in” the cab via the physical nature of the sound he’s hearing. This is where things get very interesting in my view.

Lance is a strong proponent of slowing the pace of modeled operations significantly and the quality of sound coming from the headphones has a strong influence on how he operates the loco. Sound with real physical qualities has to give an incredible sense of the mass of a real loco. Couple that with the momentum effects of DCC, and you tend to slow way down and run accordingly. Lance reports that this level of immersion, coupled with other realistic procedures also taken from the prototype, greatly expands the apparent size of his modest layout.

From the level of detail on individual models to the track, scenery and operating qualities, much of what we try to accomplish in this hobby is directed toward recreating the reality of real trains. Now think about the level of immersion for the modeler in all this. No matter how detailed the scene might be it doesn’t ring true on many levels due to what’s missing from our real world experience. Think also of what a visitor who doesn’t know anything about railroad modeling would experience and how it would impact his impression of the hobby. Done right, it just might open his eyes to how interesting this hobby could be.

**Lance’s blog:

Unfortunately Lance’s blog platform won’t allow me to link directly to individual posts. Scroll down on the first page and look for the post titled Sound on April 7, 2012, and the Headphone Sound, Parts 2-3 dated April 10 and 20, 2012.