The history of direct driving in the world of simulation racing (1/3)
One of the things that sets motor racing and simulation fans apart from other sports is the pursuit of verisimilitude over entertainment, and that’s because the reality of motor racing is one of the most exciting and challenging in which to participate.
At the start of 2015, I was going through a period of professional heartache. Few responsibilities and expectations on me, due to corporate restructuring, left me enough time to reflect on the simulation, what I expected from it and how I could improve my own experience. The iRacing forums (the old ones and not this thing now) were buzzing with ideas, especially in the Hardware section, from scented candles with a circuit smell to fans that moved based on telemetry. At that time there was talk of a very interesting development using industrial motors, and did Logitech, 10 years after the launch of the G25, didn’t seem to be making a dent in their belt-driven flywheel sales, but a lot of people were asking for something more and no commercial brand was willing to provide it.
A few years earlier, Frex, a hard-to-reach Japanese brand, was the only one that tried to do something better and more expensive, but it didn’t even show up as a viable option. There was room for innovation and a few took it upon themselves to lead the way down twisty and unsuspected paths. What could be done to improve driving sensations? How to achieve more solidity, durability and immediacy?
Interestingly, there were more home appliances that used or had used belt drives in the past, the most reliable solution in the simulation of the decade 2005-2015, one of the most common we have all at home are washing machines. These devices had also started to evolve and get rid of those bulky, annoying motors with moving parts that just broke down over time. The solution they had found for over a decade was Direct Drive motors, which allowed them to perform the same function without friction, with much more revolutions and being much more powerful.
What’s a washing machine got to do with a car steering wheel? Well, at first glance, nothing, but on closer inspection, perhaps one can find a similarity. For us, the FFB we put our hands on to simulate the steering column is nothing more than the change of direction of rotation in this axis with its corresponding speed and force, just as it happens in the real car , where the column remains fixed but the steering moves to either side depending on tire contact. The Direct Drive motor allowed this to be done relatively easily, so with a programmable controller it could be used to receive information and transmit it to the user much more immediately than going through a complex belt mechanism.
It was the solution that was already branded, without reinventing the wheel and using something that already existed in many different forms. There was only one small stumbling block in the way, finding hardware that was not closed and that could be programmed, something very difficult in an industrial landscape where each brand was very jealous of its technology and its engines.
In recent years, the implementation of free software at the enterprise level has become more and more institutionalized. Almost 90% of the software we use is free or runs on free systems. Your phone, the pages you read, the games you play online, etc. Almost everything runs on free software, and it’s proven that if a project is useful, it eventually works, first with community input, and then with huge amounts of money and hours that the companies that adopt it put out of their own pockets. Finland has this paradigm well instilled in its universities thanks to the Linux case in 1990, and it may have something to do with the next stage of our history.
Granite Devices (hereafter GD) was born in Tampere (Finland) in 2006, from the hand of Tero Kontkanen when he noticed the lack of flexibility of existing motor controllers on the market. With more people having the same problem, they are looking to develop and manufacture direct drive controllers and motors, and for that, they couldn’t think of a better way to distinguish themselves from the rest than to make their controllers “Open source” allowing anyone to program them from the same firmware. After years of hard work, the first example and key component of the great-great-grandfather of the OpenSimWheel (term given by Bernhard Berger to the developments under this postulate) is the Argon controller whose appearance dates back to 2013 .
With all the elements on the drawing board, it just needs to be brought together under the umbrella of some very talented people who work with these motors and controllers in industrial environments and see how it could help them in their simulation hobby. The first to take the plunge is electronics engineer Leo Bodnar of Silverstone. Bodnar already has a working Direct Drive system from early 2014 which it sells for just over €3,000. Internally, nothing more is known and it is not distributed how it works, so nothing can be done other than checkout. What is clear is that it uses a German-made AKM Kollmorgen engine, like most of those tested at the time.
Also at the end of this year 2013 SimXperience’s Accuforce was released, which uses a stepper motor instead of a servo. This motor has different characteristics and is cheaper than servos, so in some packs, in later years, it becomes the only alternative under 1000 euros/dollars. In 2016 would arrive a new version that has not had more continuity for the moment.
Back to the end of 2013 and with Argon now available, the fruits are starting to be seen among users in German forums where the first schematics appear to interconnect the controller to a motor and an interface to the PC (the board that helps recognize the device connected via USB). It’s not a difficult assembly for a beginner in electronics but the amount of all the parts and motors used in conjunction with Argon easily exceeds 2500 euros. That’s roughly what a Leo Bodnar is worth, but the difference is that there’s the option of using a small Chinese engine from a factory called MiGE that’s much cheaper and has enough power. That’s more than enough for some people to jump in the pool and start testing it since there’s firmware and software that replicates what Bodnar has for adjusting steering wheel settings, only available to everyone.
In recent months this small revolution is magnified in the iRacing forums where appears (or rather reappears because it comes from the German forums) a South African based in Australia who works in the CNC industry and whose nickname is Beano. This tireless enthusiast and connoisseur of motors and controllers seeks to reduce assembly costs through what he has learned from his years of experience in the trade. He knows GD and knows that they are working on a new controller designed for 3D printing that could be used to reduce the total cost, but first he needs to see what Argon does and what results it delivers. He gets to work and in a few weeks he builds a working prototype following what the Germans have already published. This is crucial for refining the development of Ioni that GD is carrying out in 2014 and the first months of 2015.
To be continued in part 2 in a few days with the launch of Ioni, what it entailed and what it entailed afterwards.
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