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Thread: Using PCs as a central haunt control system.

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  1. Default Using PCs as a central haunt control system. 
    #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    Posts
    70
    Id like to get people opinions on using a PC as a Haunted house control system, I know there are a lot of haunted house operators who would rather be buried alive than use a PC, and Id like to understand if this opinion is based upon hard experience or anecdotal evidence.

    My interest in this matter is as a professional controls engineer I have been developing PC based control systems for on and off 20 years, and I'm actually very familiar with many of the arguments, and have often successfully proven many of them to be unfounded, out of context or easily solved.

    The case for the PC is very strong, today even baseline machines are inordinately powerful, and in recent years the prices have crashed to a level where you can buy a perfectly serviceable laptop computer for $400, compare this to a number of stand alone haunt and animatronics controllers and it represents an incredible value..... however, given an option of using PC or not then most people will still prefer the 'not' option.

    When you factor in the fact that a single PC with the right combination of hardware and software could do the job of many stand alone controllers, and give you a singe central point of control then I feel its well worth examining the case against the PC.

    The haunted industry is not alone in this preference either, there is a whole world out there who would much prefer non PC solutions, I work in the industrial automation industry and have known clients want to spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars on redeveloping a non PC solution.

    However, much of the anti PC rhetoric is often based on a number of misconceptions, and evidence that is anecdotal, out of date, out of context and in several cases based upon scare stories whipped up by manufacturers protecting non PC products.

    Reliability is probably the PCs most damning criticism. EVERYONE complains about a failed PC at some point and we all have personal experiences and stories about the frustration of being unable to get one to do the simplest tasks, however how often have you sat back and asked why, after all, under the skin the hardware of a PC is solid state, the only moving part in a PC is the hard disk drive, and indeed its the only part thats liable to mechanical failure.

    On top of this hardware we have the software.... and this is where the arguing normally starts Microsoft/Micro$oft/Microshaft Windows/Windoze, call it what you will everyone hates the "evil money grabbing giant" that is Microsoft and the "unreliable junk" they peddle.... and often these accusations have been well justified, they completely underestimated the development of computers from day 1 and the windows 95/98/ME product line was absolute garbage.

    But, probably the biggest fault of the PC, its biggest weakness is its accessibility, just about any would be geek thinks he can buy a disparate collection of parts and build a PC, just about any Taiwanese electronics shop can build a motherboard/card/widget that plugs into a PC, and just about any kid in a darkened bedroom can write some junk software, and just about any user over a period of time will load up his computer with the most bizarre range of junk and 'cool gadgets' that its no wonder the thing operates at the speed of pouring cold tar.
     

  2. Default  
    #2
    Join Date
    Jun 2006
    Location
    Eastlake, Ohio
    Posts
    815
    I would love to go to central control in our haunts, but all the wiring is my biggest draw back. We are temporary, so 5 weeks to set up everything. Thats why I normally stick to stand along controllers.

    The other thing I have yet to find is a good software program that would allow me the number of i/o's i need and is user friendly.
    Brian Warner
    Owner of Evilusions www.EVILUSIONS.com
    Technical Director of Forsaken Haunted House www.Forsakenhaunt.com
    Mechanical Designer (animatronics) at Gore Galore www.Gore-Galore.com
     

  3. Default  
    #3
    Join Date
    May 2008
    Posts
    142
    If I could find a nice linux or even windows based software and ethernet controled selanoids I would so be all over this. If it had a great GUI I would be in heaven. I am not a control engineer but do a ton of Networks and ethernet cable can be ran in no time and could be rolled up and stored for temp house or heck wireless. Well I am just dreaming but that would be awsome to me. Just keep a spare PC on hand with a backup of the configuration and you take most of the problems out of the mix. Don't ever let it touch the internet and you are in even better shape.
     

  4. Default  
    #4
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    Posts
    70
    Very good points about keeping a backup and keeping your control computers away from the internet, in fact, if you are using a central control computer, you should only ever use it as a control computer, don't let the kids play games, don't use it for email, once you get a control computer doing the job you need it to do then don't screw with it.

    What about DMX? a DMX network can control 512 bytes of output, and its quite easy to build a DMX solenoid manifold using DMX relays, and you can use wireless DMX.

    After DMX then there are industrial protocols like Profibus, Profinet, fieldbus, these protocols are supported by hundreds of thousands of network devices such as pneumatic manifolds.... and more significantly your input devices can sit on the same network.

    Software is the easy bit, over the past three years I've been developing the Exorcist haunt controller, and I'm currently trying to understand what kind of system would be of interest to professional attractions.
    Last edited by Phoenix; 05-08-2008 at 01:23 PM.
     

  5. Default  
    #5
    Join Date
    May 2008
    Posts
    142
    I must look into this for future upgrades to the manor. I would love to run everything from a central location with a nice gui have a second monitor with the floorplan up and it could then alert maintenance when there was a problem. I see lots of very useful things with a central control center.
     

  6. Default Absolutely! 
    #6
    Join Date
    Apr 2008
    Location
    Oxford, CT
    Posts
    75
    You can have the best of both worlds. Individual PLC's (Programmable Logic Controller) can be located at each scene or room. Depends on how complex your props are. Might have only two or three PLCS in entire haunt or one per prop. Each PLC has a network card so you just run a single network cable from each PLC back to a hub that's attached to the PC. The nice thing is that your PLC ladder logic resides on each individual PLC. In your code is a "safe mode" that if network goes down resort to local control only. PC kicks out, network crashes, the PLC will keep on humming in "dumb" mode, allowing you time to re-boot or grab the fire extinguisher depending on severity. Great for safety too. Have e-stop to tie all controls together and a dump valve for air.

    Creating controls for a mini haunt right now. And when I say mini I'm talking 12' x 16'. Suppose to be a for rent for parties or something like that. But it utilizes several PLC's tied to a touch panel HMI display. Limited control, but for $300 you get a touch pad display with custom graphics that ties it all together. Perfect for a rental where the operator won't have any controls background or haunt experience.
    Scott Ames
     

  7. Default  
    #7
    Join Date
    Aug 2003
    Location
    Livermore, CA
    Posts
    227
    Sounds like an interesting idea, kind of like the Holy Grail of Haunt controllers, and I am very interested.

    Back in 1999 Simulated Reality tried to market a product with a similar concept. Never really got off the ground, for various reasons, but we were Beta tester for the Brain and it's related daughter boards.

    Couple of basic issues right away; first is the expense. It just SOUNDS expensive!

    Secondly, we have what seems like a ton of money, time and resources tied up in various controllers like Prop1, Prop2, Gilderfluke, KeyBanger, Cowlicious, Midi show control, old computers with KIT-74s, homebuilt crap, product from vendors that are no longer around and others Iím failing to remember. Of these maybe 50 controllers, each one has a fairly unique purpose and the thought of recreating each of these components in a PLC seems to be daunting, at least to me. Iíve got enough trouble getting each of the systems working each year as it is without the complexity of a PLC. So the question is how do you program the PLC? A nice Windows GUI that you supply would really set my heart at ease. I donít have the time or desire to learn another language.

    How many outputs does the PLC use? What voltages? To cobble together all of the components we currently use we would need a variety of DC voltages and AC. Then sound and triggering control is something else.

    So I guess my biggest reason not to centrally control is the seemingly overwhelming task of trying to get our current stuff ported to work on a central system.

    But I really like the idea and please keep me informed as you progress.
     

  8. Default  
    #8
    Join Date
    Aug 2003
    Location
    Las Vegas
    Posts
    876
    So it's sounding like a good idea to start out with, bad idea if you already have controllers in place! At first I wanted everything in one control center, all the sound, all the control, then I was concerned about "all the eggs in one basket". At least with seperate audio and/or controllers if one goes down at leastthe rest of your show is up and running. And like Karl, what to do with all the existing controllers? Haunted EBay??
    R&J Productions
    Las Vegas, NV
    www.LasVegasHaunts.com
     

  9. Default PLC's very reliable 
    #9
    Join Date
    Jan 2004
    Location
    Huntington, IN
    Posts
    461
    PLC's are in industry running nearly all controls for automation for all industries out there. I work for GM and we use Allen bradley exclusively. The most common, and very infrequent, service issue is to power down and reboot. By infrequent I mean days and weeks, if not months of 7/24 up time. Many never go down. We have PLCs that were installed in 1986 and still plugging along running conveyors and other equipment that are the heart of the Chevy truck assembly plant here.

    As a side note, there is still in place several systems I programmed in 1986 that are graphic display overviews that Mr Gates never made a dime on. They use cpm language, this is pre-DOS.

    The biggest drawback is learning logic programming. The software and interface cables can be salty, but you only need one.

    eBay has a ton of plc equipment available.
    .
    .
    .
    Brett Molitor (aka ~ JamBam) Member of HAA

    Haunted Hotel-13th Floor (est by Huntington Jaycees in 1968 8) )
    Longest running Haunted House in the WORLD!!

    Haunted Cave, Fort Wayne Indiana


    www.HauntedHuntington.com

    www.facebook.com/hauntedhotel

    www.facebook.com/hauntedcave


     

  10. Default  
    #10
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    Posts
    70
    legacy devices........, sooner or later these stop being the attractive quick fixes they were when you started out and evolve into a liability, this is because they lack scaleability, and what was a good fix for a single prop is not necessarily a good fix for an integrated control system.

    The real problem with legacy devices started when they were first used, and the user wasn't looking at a bigger picture, Ive done it many times myself and it usually always ends up in an incomprehensible tangle of wiring and having to juggle which device can be connected to which prop/sound output etc...

    The real danger with legacy devices is when you find yourself at a point where they have become so numerous that you are incapable of expanding the schema, yet at the same time you still feel they are too valuable to dispose of, this thinking can easily paralyze development, and the sooner you opt out and go for a scalable system the less painful it will be.

    However, distributed sound processors, PLC's and the like are not a problem, and indeed with a more complex control system can indeed be an asset, the trick with them is to use devices that can communicate with the entire system, however as an overall control system I don't see PLC's as the way forward, there are a lot of things that PLC's on their own are not good at... and we come back to the point, at current PC prices PLC's cant compete for value.

    Networked E-Stops is an absolute NO unless you are using a network protocol thats categorized for networked E-Stops such as azibus, if you are using an E-Stop then it must be hardwired, fail safe and have a degree of redundancy.
     

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