Wednesday 1 June 2016

Chronos Review Part 1: General overview

Saturn (image from Wikipedia) was not responsible.
In today’s long awaited next instalment of the E-Primer blog, I’ll be demonstrating some of the fun capabilities of the Serial Response Box 2: the Chronos. No, not that Saturn guy with the big appetite, but he who split the world apart to form the earth, sea and sky. Plutarch failed to mention, however, that you can now acquire such superpowers from Psychology Software Tools and unleash some seriously time-shattering accuracy on your psychology experiments.

Anyway, in this review, I will discuss:

•    How to add the Cronos to your experiment;
•    How to light up the lab using its LEDs and
•    How to add the voicekey.

I'm also presenting an unboxing video and showing off my virtuoso Windows Critical Stop Piano skills. Next week (I can confidently state as I already wrote this part), I provide a Chronos walk-through featuring a pretty nice and theoretically sound experiment as a tutorial.

Let’s go!

Some months ago, I received the Chronos from PST, and as I had just returned from my holiday, I was still full of vigour, writing that "I'm trying to channel the "gadget" reviewer enthusiasm while talking about these devices, as there seems to be very little media attention for the latest in behavioural and cognitive apparatus. Clearly an oversight than must be addressed forthwith." It turns out that tech review writing is not actually all that easy, and it began to dawn on me that perhaps an extended review is not exactly worthwhile. Then again, science is not normally well-paid, so I was pleased to hear that simply unpacking some toy can lead to serious bucks. The Chronos device is way better timed than the unboxing competition, very prettily lit, and comes with a break-out box, recalling my childhood’s dear friend, the C64! So in my book, it beats the competition hands down on all the key indicators, so if this is going as planned, you won’t be hearing from me anymore.  Presto!  Nonsense aside, the video also shows you how to hook up the Chronos which might actually be useful if you are also confused or unable to read the manual (for example because CDs are so last decade, PST!).

Now let’s imagine that like me, you are able to successfully get an external CD drive from your local IT department, were able to hook up the Chronos as demonstrated above, and were able to install the Chronos drivers. [PST, would you be able to put up a public link to the drivers? Surely copyright infringement is hindered by the fact that one needs both the Chronos hardware and the software license USB key / dongle]. That means somehow you found the manual and software, and got the Chronos to show up in Device Manager (start > “device manager”), where it’s located under “Research devices”, without question marks or such indicators suggesting something went awry. If so, excellent, the thing should work! At least for me, the whole process was pretty "plug and play".

Now you know what to do with the analog output!
But how to play? Adding to the excellent getting started guide and user’s guide, the aging (still mainly E-Prime 1 based) E-basic documentation, the addenda of web knowledge base articles, and so on, comes the Chronos’ literature. First, there is 97 page Operator Manual, which seems, despite the size, a bit rushed near the end. Or perhaps I am not the target audience? For example, the first 24 pages have instructions on what the cables are called, and how to install software in Windows. I am normally more likely to read my hoover's instructions and safety warnings than the coverage of how to install software, which inevitably includes screen captures of screens that will pop up anyway and tell you exactly how to handle themselves. But I suppose that is a tradition in manuals, or something. However, if you, like me, are wondering what one might do, why, or how, with that mysterious cable hanging at the back of the device ending in a jumble of multicoloured wire (the AUX cable), have a look at the Additional Topics, 8.5: Analog Output. Did you get that? In other words, at times it feels like the Operator Manual was put together by a National Instruments trained electrical engineer and a primary school teacher, leaving us psychologists feeling like we are reading a book on quantum physics illustrated with the very very hungry caterpillar.

There are two parts in the documentation that are, however, solid enough: chapter 5 up to 5.2, which functions like a basic getting started guide, not unlike the E-Primer, and the “Sample Experiments”. The “Feature Explorer” has multiple demos with little bits of code that are well-documented and clear. For example, in the first demo, we see some LED demo, and the Feature Explorer, in the DemoLEDs inline tells us:

'Turn on the Chronos LED State for all LEDs
Chronos, as seen on TV
Chronos.LED.SetState True
'Turn LEDs on one by one
Chronos.LED.SetColor CColor(c.GetAttrib("Color")),0,0,0,0
Sleep 100
Chronos.LED.SetColor 0,CColor(c.GetAttrib("Color")),0,0,0

And so on. There are five lights on the Chronos, and if you read The E-Primer, you will be able to guess that CColor(c.GetAttrib(“Color”)) grabs a colour from the list (e.g. white), so in all probability, the fourth line will make the first LED shine white, and the sixth will make the second LED shine white. However, these two statements only work if the second line is added, which I therefore deduce is one way to arm the Chronos for some serious disco!

Apart from the LED Demo, there is a response demo, a voice key demo, a photo sensor demo, a foot pedal demo (if you happen to own one, which I don’t), an audio out demo, and an audio in demo. Furthermore, there are two longer demo experiments. One demonstrates the Chronos for AudioIn functions, for example if you want to do a voice-key experiment and also save the subject’s audio to a file for later analysis. The AudioOut samples demonstrate low latency audio presentation and the LED samples seems to be no more insightful than the aforementioned feature explorer.

Finally, in terms of documentation, there is also a summary. Let us start with a blank experiment and add the Chronos: in E-Studio, go to Edit>Experiment>Devices, press Add, add the Chronos, and look at the properties of the Chronos. Notice also the convenient summary of the documentation available by clicking on the question mark to the far right of the Chronos properties. Closing this, and still looking at the list of devices, move the recently added Chronos up so it is now located above the audio device. This is necessary, because otherwise the Chronos will not do audio (why? I do not know).

Adding the Chronos device
One more thing about the documentation: it seems that PST has left what us tech reviewers call an Easter Egg in the documentation! You notice that the Chronos device help is just an HTML file. Remove the last of the address so that the address ends with the last backslash. Now type: Chronos Command Reference.html (see below). A hidden tab emerges, and tons and tons of E-Basic commands appear! One day, the prophesied Chosen One* will arrive to add a column with detailed explanations, like a new version of the long awaited E-Basic guide, but until then, at least you have an overview of the many functions available.
Compare with the previous figure: an extra tab appeared!

Still with me? Confused? Don't worry: the neat thing about the Chronos is that if you have ever used the good old SRBOX, you will be pleased to know that if you treat the Chronos like it’s just an SRBOX, it will work. So, the five keys are the same as response buttons 1 to 5, and the voice key is 6. In that way, converting an old SRBOX experiment to a Chronos version should be a breeze, which will be a rather welcome feature for all of us who never got quite accustomed to TaskEvents, audioIn, or disco. On the other hand, if you are not afraid of new functionality, you will quickly learn that it is easy and rather fun to experiment with Chronos. Have you, for example, ever dreamed of playing WindowsCriticalStop.wav piano on Chronos?

In the next instalment, I will try to keep a lid on the over-the-top geekiness, and do a more useful tutorial.

* PST assures me that indeed, more documentation is in the works. They also suggest that this specific bit of documentation was intentionally hidden but for the more insistent investigators, for fear it may in its current and incomplete form merely confuse users. They also tell me that "When the complete version of this Command Reference is released we will send out a notification to our users. There will also be a section in our Knowledge Base dedicated to Chronos. If we find that any particular area of the Chronos device needs a more in-depth explanation or find general gaps in our documentation, they should be cleared up by the Knowledge Base."

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