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Sunday, June 25, 2006

VIRTUAL CHAOS

Simulated calamities


By TOMOKO OTAKE and ERIC PRIDEAUX
Staff writers

We would be the envy of every railway otaku in Japan: JR East had invited us to try out the company's driving simulator outside Tokyo, where real JR drivers hone their skills at the controls of a virtual train.

News photo
Driving a train, even virtually, is no easy task for novices, especially when you have to do something radical -- like stop.

Excited and feeling quietly confident we were about to reveal our hidden talent to hardened pros at the training center, we planned a little competition to see who could pull our virtual trains into virtual stations with the fewest screw-ups. Little did we know that overshooting the platform would be the least of our troubles . . .

Ladies first

As the instructors motioned me to the controls, I had no idea how agonizing train-driving could be -- I hadn't even driven a car for five years.

I pulled on the lever to set the train in motion, and it jolted slightly, then bumped rhythmically over the imaginary tracks below. And then, when it started snowing soon after I eased out of a simulated station, I did what came naturally: I panicked.

Before I could even collect myself, a red car had sped through a crossing and smashed into my train! JR East Trainer Tetsuo Ishige said in an urgent tone, "Hit the bogo musen!''

What? Bozo mugen? Bobo mupen?

Ishige pointed to a red button on my right which made a high-pitched beep to warn oncoming trains of imminent danger.

Soon after I restarted my train, I saw a station. I hit the brakes, but overshot anyway. So I drove back -- 6 meters too far back. I moved forward again, and overshot again. Sigh. I felt like such a loser that I just wanted to get out of there immediately.

"It takes four months for a driver to learn where to start braking," said JR East spokesman and former driver Shunichi Sekiguchi.

When I'd composed myself (again) and set off (again) . . . my train rolled backward. I had forgotten to turn the key to the drive mode.

"People are human, so when they are in a rush, they forget to check the controls," Ishige said. "Part of this training is to teach people to double-check."

A point well taken. I will double-check that I never again touch that train simulator game.

Boys will be . . .

Compared to the obstacle course that my rival colleague was subjected to, my ride started in far less dramatic fashion.

Granted, I had to radio central control after an emergency light came on. There was a false alarm down the virtual line at Utsunomiya, they told me. With that sorted out, I got the OK to proceed. Woops. Next there was a slight computer glitch on my console -- not my fault! -- and my instructor rebooted. All was well again.

Well, that was, until . . . things went terribly wrong. Lulled by overcoming these minor obstacles, I failed to notice a red signal it seems I motored blithely by.

"Stop the train!" barked Ishige.

I slammed on the emergency brakes -- but too late. In awful slow motion we closed and closed and closed on a train ahead. Then we slammed into it with enough power to knock my train onto its left side.

I grabbed the phone and shouted my status to the command center. They asked, coolly, if I'd been injured and, with an awkward chuckle I said something like, "I'm OK, considering!"

Hearing that, Ishige said, "In reality, you might have been hurt. Or dead."

Command central said they were dispatching officials. There was nothing else to do now but help my passengers.

Ishige opened the connecting door, removed his hat and bowed deeply to the imaginary passengers. "It's very important," he told me over the screeching alarm, "to apologize at once."

It's surprising how lousy even a virtual accident can make you feel.

For other related stories, please click the following links:
Tokyo's ring of steel
Lives in their hands
No end is an end in itself
Goodies to let you live with the Y
Smiles on retail's fastest track



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