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Scalextric Spark Plug
#1

Scalextric's Spark Plug is a neat new gizmo that turns an Apple or Android smart device into a wireless controller. It looks like this...

   

It plugs into the controller socket on the current version of the basic Scalextric analogue powerbase - the ones using the chunky plastic rectangular plugs...

   

Spark Plug runs with the standard Scalextric analogue power supply (P9400) plugged into the base and a combination of Spark Plugs and standard analogue controllers can be used together.

When you plug in a Spark Plug and the power supply, nothing happens until you place a car on the track - the dongle recognises the car (the wheels spin if you hold the rear off the track) and the green LED on the dongle flashes...

   

It's then time to download (if you haven't already) and launch the Scalextric Spark Plug app - available free from the Apple App Store and Google Play. The smart device connects to the Spark Plug dongle via Bluetooth, so the minimum requirements are: Bluetooth v4.0 BLE, Andoid OS 5 (Lollipop) or Apple iOS 8.0. Launch the app and the green LED on the dongle will eventually go solid - and you are greeted on your device by a Spark Plug animation and then the main screen, where you can choose a character or set-up your own driver profile...

       

There are plenty of ways you can customise the app, all of them accessed via the main menu...

       

And there is one alternative 'skin'...

   

But the most important thing is how the Spark Plug works. This is the main screen in standard 'Single' player mode...

       

On the left is a throttle slider and on the right a brake button. The slider drops back down to zero if you lift your finger off it, the braking effect depends how long you press the button for. The picture on the left is with the car slowed slightly  with the brake - on the right it is slowed with the throttle. For those of us who have many decades of using a standard controller, it takes time and effort to get used to.

In fact, I've found it takes a completely different way of driving - instead of lifting off the throttle going into a corner, I dab the brakes (or step on them hard for a hairpin). It's not unlike using a race simulator or video racing game - and very similar to digital slot car racing using programmes like RCS64 with dynamic braking turned-off (which is how we race at WHO/digital). Essentially, it is left-foot braking a slot car using a smart device. Or it would be, if you change the screen round to the 'left-handed' setting, which - as a right-hander - I found slightly more intuitive...

   

It was time to do some testing against the clock...

   

This was made quite simple by the fact that Spark Plug works with the basic ARC One powerbase. The controller sockets are the right ones and the various Bluetooth connections did not interfere with each other. I set up the simple rug-racing track with the Scalextric Mini Cooper S cars (with magnets) that I use for public events (see here). I chose this set-up because it's how Spark Plug will be used by most people.

With a standard 'traditional' Scalextric controller I managed a pretty quick best lap time of 1.64 seconds. With the Spark Plug app on my 4-inch iPhone screen, I got down to 1.87 seconds, which wasn't bad. I then swapped devices and used Spark Plug with my 9.7-inch iPad - taking exactly a tenth of a second off my best on the phone - 1.77 seconds. Maybe it was because the controls were bigger?

   

At the bottom of the screen is a button with Max Speed on it. This opens up a menu to set the power from 10 to 100% - ideal for beginners learning how to race. And it also gives more 'sensitivity' across the throttle range - especially useful on a slower, technical circuit. The Max Speed menu can be accessed from the main menu or from the race screen, which is ideal. Another 'learning aid' that is due with the next update of the app is an in-game option that penalises crashes and rewards drivers who stay on the track. It's a great way of training new slot car racers while have lots of fun...

       

Speaking of fun, the two-player Versus mode provides some riotous enjoyment. Added to the race screen are Boost and Resistrict buttons. Each lasts ten seconds and then recharges more slowly (Restrict taking the longest). Boost increases your own speed significantly - quite alarmingly, in fact. Restrict reduces your opponent's speed to a crawl. Pushing Boost to counter-act Restrict does work, but you really must count down the ten seconds - otherwise the power surge after the Restrict ends will definitely put your car in the scenery!

If you car is off the track for a while (lost in the scenery) or you replace it on the wrong lane, Spark Plug will tell you...

   

Although there is no way I am about to hang up my traditional controllers (too many years of muscle memory invested in those), I did enjoy the challenge of getting to grips with Spark Plug and learning a new way of driving. I started on a simple-ish track - which was sensible - but having learned the basics, I would like to try Spark Plug on a bigger, more technical layout.

For younger and newer racers, I can see that Spark Plug will have enormous appeal. It certainly adds some pizazz to rug-racing and - with the Versus mode - a huge amount of fun. I also like the easy-to-use learning features.

Spark Plug Pros:
  • Fun
  • Family-oriented
  • Stylish
  • Simple to set-up
  • Realistic throttle-brake driving style
  • Right and left-handed format
  • Beginners' features
  • Compatible with all standard Scalextric analogue sets
  • Future functional and aesthetic updates - including DC Comics characters and 'skins'
  • Very good value
Spark Plug Cons:
  • Boost feature excessive
  • Engine sounds not loud enough
  • Brake sounds not loud enough
  • Rumble feature not available on most devices
  • Not everyone's cup of tea...
The RRP for one Spark Plug is £14.99. However, expect to see some discounts. If you don't have the powerbase and power supply, Jadlams have them cheap and there is this full package - 2 x Spark Plugs, power base + power supply - on pre-order for a ludicrously good price.
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#2

Cheers Andy, great review.
Have been planning to buy one Spark-Plug just for the experience but have succumbed to the Jadlam Offer. Many thanks for the heads-up on that.

Leo

Forum Precepts:  Don't hijack or divert topics - create a new one.   Don't feed the Troll.    http://www.scuderiaturini.com
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#3

Yo Andy,
Well, looks like I was just in time to get the special deal on Spark-Plugs. I got email from Jadlam telling me that my order had been shipped but when I went back to check progress the offer page now says 39.95 pounds.    
The stars must have been in line for me.

Many thanks again,  Leo (also many thanks to Jadlam for honouring the bargain price)

Forum Precepts:  Don't hijack or divert topics - create a new one.   Don't feed the Troll.    http://www.scuderiaturini.com
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#4

My bundle form Jadlam arrived today and i did a quick check with the powerbase sitting on top of the kettle in the kitchen and all worked fine with the car driven wheels off the track. Cue much bad language when I let the wheels touch the track and the car dived off the end of the powerbase. Ah well, later I can superglue the rear wing back on the ultra-rare Fly Lancia Rally.  

My permanent layout is Ninco track so I had already formed a plan to connect the Scalextric power base in via the controller socket. I did that and ... I had control. Following Andy's above recommendation to set the config to left handed and setting the max-speed to about 50% I set off using a car that was handy - Team Slot Lancia Delta S4. I managed a couple of slow laps without de-slotting but realised that the quirky handling and powerful motor of the Delta was not a wise choice for this new venture. Scalextric Ford RS200 are quite forgiving and sure enough I was soon only de-slotting occasionally.  The de-slotting was of course down to my unfamiliarity with the controls. After several more laps including some good ones I fired up the Race Coordinator computer for timing. 16 seconds is a fair lap target that I challenge visitors with so I hoped to match that. With a decent car I can get down to 13 seconds and about 11 if magnet assisted. After several laps I managed a 19.3 with the RS200 and called it a day. 

I found that I was coasting in to the bends due to the lack of dynamic braking and the slowness of moving my thumb on the slider meant that I couldn't manage to pulse the power in the bends. I was using a Lenovo 110mm (diagonal) screen.
I began to get a feel for the speed control but ignored the brake button for now. I started to feel that it was almost calming to drive using this tech and that racing against someone using the same could work quite well. 
In this era of portable devices being an everyday thing, its nice to think that the Spark-Plug could actually initiate a revival of slot-car racing. 

The only real snag I identified was that it is essential to hold the device with two hands and I couldn't find a comfortable way of doing that - as we tend do with a traditional hand controller.
A minor snag is that when I was retrieving my car I had to reach over the track and in doing that my device had inverted the screen so I had to "shoogle" it get the correct orientation. I turned off "Auto-Rotate" but that didn't help - I guess that device feature really only covers landscape to portrait stuff.

Am thinking that having a stand for the device might improve the ability to control the slider. That may help us old codgers adapt to this technology. Not sure that a larger device would help, the slider movement would be increased.

Will work on my left-thumb braking technique, that is probably the path to quicker laps. 

Leo

Forum Precepts:  Don't hijack or divert topics - create a new one.   Don't feed the Troll.    http://www.scuderiaturini.com
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#5

Sounds like you had fun Leo! I like how you hooked everything up to your Ninco track. Definitely a brave decision to hit the permanent layout straight away - so that's not a bad time without any braking. I found the size and weight of my phone more comfortable to hold and use. I was using my thumbs for the brake and the throttle.
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#6

Being an analogue dinosaur this is not my cup of tea but my mind wandered when I read of the difficulty of using two hands with a slider for the throttle.

I have a steering wheel/foot throttle/brake kit for playing motor racing simulations, would it be  possible to link up to one of those as well as a smartphone? Steering wheel obviously redundant but you could control acceleration and braking on a slot car with the foot pedals just like the real thing. Or am I just being silly?
[+] 1 member Likes CMOTD's post
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#7

Hello Brian,
Another aspect of Spark-Plug is that it offers the opportunity for "coders" to create their own "Apps" that can link up and control cars. Hopefully that will appeal to the tech-minded generation and keep slot-cars "relevant".  
(Have indicated the post-dinosaur terms that I have used - LOL)

So... when someone creates PC software that can work with your simulator kit and link it to the Spark-Plug ... then yes you can. It didn't take long for the Magic App to be created for the Hornby Arc hardware and some people prefer it to the Hornby Apps.  In the early days of slot racing it was not long before people started to produce their own hand-controllers and use them to win races. 

As tech advances/changes I always recall my mother telling me that her mother used to say that telephones were a "machine of the devil" (Talking of the days of the GPO). 
I am of a similar age as you Brian, probably a bit older in fact, its part of our job to encourage the youth of today. 

Of course getting off the simulator seat and putting your car back in the slot might be tiresome.

Leo

Forum Precepts:  Don't hijack or divert topics - create a new one.   Don't feed the Troll.    http://www.scuderiaturini.com
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#8

I am all for progress, providing it doesn't change anything, as we say in Norfolk. Rofl

As for leaving the simulator seat to put the car back in the slot, isn't that what robots are for?
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#9

It will be interesting what clever people will end up doing with Spark Plug. It could be used now as an in-car chip controlled by the app - and with engine noise and brake squeal coming from the car.


However, in the meantime, I found this video with Alex Zanardi talking about the challenges of having a hand accelerator and brake on his car at the Daytona 24 hours last year...



He has the brake on the right.
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#10

Yo! Andy,
Kind of looks like the brake lever is on the right because having the lever on the left would obstruct entry and exit. Rally cars have the hand/rear brake lever on the right also (if left hand drive). 

It would be interesting to get feedback from the younger members at your club,  someone who has never driven a 1:1 car.

Leo

Forum Precepts:  Don't hijack or divert topics - create a new one.   Don't feed the Troll.    http://www.scuderiaturini.com
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