A big step forward for Handbell Stadium

On Thursday I helped Graham John test a new version of Handbell Stadium, again with Lesley Boyle and Gareth Davies, and Simon Humphrey too. The new version has a feature that Graham calls "ping balancing", which compensates for the differing network transmission delays to different ringers. (In the online gaming world, the transmission time for a signal is known as the "ping"). The idea is to calculate a rolling average of the delay to each client, and make all the clients except for the slowest one insert a compensatory delay between detecting the handbell swing and making it strike. For example, usually Graham's delay is 0 (because he is directly plugged into his server) and mine is around 24ms. So the balancing system means that Graham's bells sound 24ms after he swings his controllers. Usually Gareth and Lesley's delays were about 13ms, so their compensatory extra delay is 11ms. Similarly for Simon.

This works really well, and removes almost all of the irregularity in rhythm that we were experiencing before. It feels very nearly like normal ringing, just a little slow. We rang some Kent Royal and then some Cambridge Royal, at a peal speed of about 3h05, which was a big improvement on the 3h35 (for major) that we were getting in our quarter peal attempt last Sunday. And there were no episodes of having to fight against delays and struggle to maintain a rhythm. I must say that my internet speed seemed much more consistent than before, which might also have helped. Tomorrow we're going to try a quarter of Cambridge Royal. It should be much easier than the quarter of major that we've lost twice.

Yesterday I joined Graham's open Handbell Stadium practice. We started at 8.30, and Graham put people into separate groups with an instruction to all get together again at 9.00. I was in a group that rang some Plain Bob Major and some Kent Major. We were still using the old version of Handbell Stadium, without the ping balancing, because Graham thought it would be disruptive to release the new version just before the practice. So the ringing wasn't as smooth, but my internet was still behaving reasonably well (although again with the longest delay in the group) and the ringing was manageable.

At 9.00 the groups were rearranged, and I was in a slightly different group that decided to ring Double Norwich. Now, I don't ring Double Norwich very often, and sometimes I decide that the best approach is to ring it by place notation. So I got the place notation into my mind (as I thought), we started ringing, and it didn't work at all. Clearly I was doing something very wrong, but what? After a little thought (and I confess that by that point in the evening I had drunk a couple of glasses of wine, which never improves my handbell ringing) I realised that I was actually trying to ring Superlative! Another double method constructed from the place notations 14, 58 and 36, but in a completely different order...surely an easy mistake to make. A bit more thought (and a "hang on a moment" while the others were trying to restart) and I got the correct place notation loaded up. We managed to ring a plain course, and then a plain course of Yorkshire, which also went well.

I enjoyed the practice, and I think stopping after an hour was about the right length. There was less setup delay at the beginning than in the previous week's practice, and everyone knows what they are doing with their computers by now. I think there's a future for online handbell ringing even when we are able to resume ringing in person - it will be a real boon for people who want to learn but don't have nearby bands to ring with.

In comparison with Ringing Room, Handbell Stadium only allows ringing with motion controllers - there is no option for pressing keys. This is a deliberate decision by Graham, to keep Handbell Stadium as a realistic ringing experience (and it satisfies the Central Council "norms" for performances, which basically means that quarters and peals on Handbell Stadium should be viewed in the same way as live ringing performances). But it does mean that everyone who is ringing needs to have suitable motion controllers. I will write more about that in another article.

Handbell Stadium and Ringing Room

On Sunday evening we had another unsuccessful attempt at the quarter in Handbell Stadium. In the first attempt, one of my bells got stuck when the computer stopped recognising the motion sensor. In the second attempt, which lasted well over half way, we were hit by a big increase in internet delays (at my end again, I think) and we didn't survive the disruption to the rhythm. Maybe my internet is worse than other people's. Handbell Stadium constantly displays the measured delay to each participant, and mine seemed to be not only higher, but also much more variable, sometimes becoming ten times higher than the others.

Yesterday evening the Glasgow handbell band tried Ringing Room. We started with rounds on 10, which was very encouraging because we hardly noticed any delay. Then we tried three leads of Kent Royal, in which we started to notice delays. At the second attempt we got it round. It takes some determination to get through the patches where the delays build up, but we survived a couple of incidents. After that we rang half a course of Cambridge Royal, again at the second attempt, which was pretty good considering that we haven't rung anything on handbells for two months.

Recently a band including some of our friends from Oxford rang a quarter of Bristol Royal on Ringing Room. Now that we've tried surprise royal ourselves, their quarter seems even more impressive.

I still have mixed feelings about the online ringing I have tried. It's much less enjoyable than real ringing, because of having to fight against the delays and lag. However, it has reassured us that we have not completely forgotten how to ring, and I think we will be able to use it for some useful practice. We've arranged to ring again next week, and try some Lincolnshire Royal, which is what we were going to ring when our last real session was cancelled because of the onset of the lockdown.

The other aspect of it that I like is getting together with my ringing friends to actually do an activity, rather than just chat. We've had some Zoom quizzes with the tower bell band, which are good too, but ringing is even better. On balance I think it's worth persevering with Ringing Room (we can't use Handbell Stadium as a band because not everyone has motion controllers).

A nice review of "Change-Ringing on Handbells"

This week's Ringing World contained a review of the handbell book, written by Bill Croft. He likes it! The review gives a good summary of what's in the book, and comments favourably on the style and presentation.

The headline summary of the review is worth quoting:

Like a thoroughly experienced conductor, perfectly at home with the method and the composition, the authors of this volume guide the reader from the very basics of handbell ringing through to method ringing on eight bells. At every stage the reader is guided, sign-posted and encouraged, reaching a final ‘Congratulations!’ in the concluding chapter.

We've put a small colour advert into the next Ringing World, to remind people, and then we'll do a few more black-and-white adverts at monthly intervals.

Also this week, the two previous Central Council publications about handbell ringing have been made available as free downloads. These are "The Beginner's Guide to Change Ringing on Handbells" by Bill Butler, and "Change Ringing on Handbells" by Chris Woolley.  I have heard that they have been downloaded at least 100 times already. I downloaded them myself to have a look, although I'm pretty sure we have printed copies somewhere. I must say that I think our book is a great improvement, better for complete beginners and with many more (and more beautiful) diagrams. Anyway, readers can decide for themselves.

Handbell Stadium

Today should have been the Scottish Handbell Day, but like so many other things, it can't go ahead. However, yesterday I tried out Graham John's Handbell Stadium, both for solo practice and online ringing with other people.

Handbell Stadium works with little motion controllers that plug into USB ports. They allow a realistic up/down action for simulated handbell ringing. Some people have been attaching them to handbells, with the clappers tied or removed, to give some extra weight and improve the feel, but I just used them as they are.

The 3D version of Handbell Stadium gives a much more realistic experience than ringing with Abel. There is a choice of room decor to ring in - these pictures show the "basement" - and you can choose either disembodied bells or the "men in black".

I have done so much practising with Abel / Mabel, when I don't look at the screen, that it took me a while to get used to watching the simulated bells. It certainly is possible to look at what they are doing, especially the treble as I normally do while ringing. I think it's a big step forward for simulated handbell practice.

Handbell Stadium also offers online mode, where you can ring with other people over the internet. Graham invited me to try a quarter with him and Gareth Davies and Lesley Boyle. We logged in to Discord, which is a text/audio/video messaging system much used by online gamers ("I didn't know old people used Discord", said my son Thomas) and went into a room in Handbell Stadium. The idea was to ring a new surprise major method for VE day. The method was reasonable, right-place, Cray above the treble with an 8ths place lead end - I won't reveal exactly what it is, in case Graham wants to keep it for another time. We found the ringing difficult because of the internet lag. It seemed that my lag was worse than the others'. Possibly connecting to my router with a cable instead of wifi would have helped, but I have left the necessary adapters in my office. Maybe we need to upgrade the router. I think we were ringing the method OK, but there were times when it became impossible to maintain a rhythm and it seemed as if everyone was ringing at once. We had two attempts of about a course and a half each, then gave up and rang a course of Yorkshire, which we found a little easier.

Later in the evening I joined one of the open practices that Graham has been organising. Everyone gathered on Discord and then Graham put us into groups in separate rooms. I was with three other people and we tried some Bob Major, but one of the others became disconnected and wasn't able to join in again. The remaining three of us rang Bob Minor and Kent successfully. I found it easier with fewer bells, because we were able to go at a slower pace without grinding to a halt. Then one of the three had to leave, and Graham gathered the other two of us into a group of six, which managed to ring some plain hunting on 12. Apparently it was the first 12-bell ringing on Handbell Stadium.

I'm really impressed that Graham and others have produced workable software for online ringing, so quickly. I haven't tried Muster (which connects up several instances of Abel) or Ringing Room (which has become fairly popular). I think it's worth persevering with online ringing, to see whether it can get close to the real thing if everyone has fast enough internet. I would like to try it again. But in any case, Handbell Stadium in practice mode is a fantastic development for individual practice and I'm sure it will be refined during the coming weeks.

A cheap and cheerful handbell ringing robot

Three weeks ago, Graham Firman posted on BellBoard and YouTube about a handbell-ringing robot he has made. Subsequently he has written an article for the Ringing World about its construction, including the fact that it is controlled from Abel (I didn't know it, but apparently Abel can send signals on an output port when it is ringing the computer-generated bells).

We've got a couple of programmable Lego sets, so I thought of trying to build something similar. I got as far as finding a Python interface to the programmable Lego Mindstorms system, and thinking a little bit about how to attach the microbells to the motors, but didn't follow through (concentrating instead on publishing the handbell book).

However, this week Dorothy told me that she had to do a STEM project for school and she wanted to finish the Lego ringing robot. So I spent part of the day helping her, and we ended up with something that can ring the microbells.

There's a BellBoard report of Plain Hunting on Six here, and a YouTube video here. I must confess that I hard-coded plain hunting on six, rather than writing something general that will ring any method from place notation. That can be a project for the weekend. Also I think the timing needs a bit of work. Clearly the whole thing is less robust than Graham's robot, but on the positive side, it only took half a day to get it working reasonably well.

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