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Virtue for Shocker
By Bill Mills - October 2005
Advantage Paintball has carved a niche market for itself by developing aftermarket circuit boards for a variety of paintguns, including the Intimidator, Cyborg, Defiant2, DM4, DM5, Matrix, NME, Nerve, Proto Matrix, and the Shocker SFT and Nerve. While the company’s product line consists of replacement chips for some paintguns, and complete circuit board replacements for others, the key focus is on their software. With modern electronic paintguns, the circuit boards and components are only half of the equation, how the paintgun performs depends on the software that is loaded into them.
While it might seem a simple task to write software to control a paintball gun, with just a trigger and a solenoid to worry about, the process is more in depth, especially when it comes to high performance, high rate of fire operation. In addition to the obvious issues such as complex modes of fire, and adjustability of dwell times, the logic of the process involved comes into play. The trigger must be monitored at the right times, for example. If the software does not watch to see if the trigger is released while the solenoid valve is cycling, unexpected results can occur, like the rate of fire decreasing when a player pulls too fast on the trigger.
Advantage Paintball has focused on developing high performance software to drive their upgrades. Some of their earlier product releases included the Speedy Chip, one of the few products to be banned by name from the NPPL, because it was designed to allow the user to switch into tournament illegal modes when a secret combination was tapped on the trigger. The company’s current flagship product aspires to be more virtuous, however and bears the name Virtue.
Assorted versions of the Virtue software are available for several different paintball guns. The Shocker/Nerve Virtue Board was examined for this review.
At first glance, the Virtue board for the Shocker looks much like the Smart Parts stock Shocker/Nerve board. A lever switch near the top is activated by the trigger, a connector on the back links to the wire bundle leading to the upper circuit board mounted on the Shocker’s solenoid, and wires for the 9-volt battery exit near the middle of the board. On closer inspection however, one will notice that the Virtue board is much simpler in design. It has significantly fewer components, and a larger microprocessor. It also lacks the stock board’s speaker, but adds a 5 pin programming port, multicolor superbright LED array and a two-pole DIP switch.
Feature wise, the Virtue board offers much more control over the operation of the Shocker, and more modes of fire than the stock board.
Seven modes of fire are available. Semi-Auto is the first, and it is a traditional semi-automatic mode in which one trigger pull delivers one shot. The PSP Ramping Mode fires the same as semi-auto for the first three shots, but then on the fourth shot in a string it begins adding shots, or ramping the rate of fire beyond the number of actual trigger pulls. If the trigger is held down, or released for more than about a quarter of a second, the PSP Ramping Mode stops firing. NXL Style Full Auto works similar to the PSP mode, but once the third shot has been fired, the trigger can be held down and it will fire as a full-automatic until the trigger is released. In Ramping Mode the Virtue software adds shots to those initiated by pulls on the trigger, but instead of being activated by a set number of shots, it kicks in when a pre-set rate of fire is reached. Just how many shots get added to each trigger pull, and what rate of fie is needed to activate the ramping are all user definable. Auto Response mode works like the mechanical Auto Response trigger frames for the Automag and VM-68 that were produced in the mid 1990s – a ball is fired when the trigger is pulled, and another is fired when it is released. Full Auto is as one would think – as long as the trigger is being held down, the paintgun will keep firing. The final mode is called Breakout Mode. It is really a hybrid of the Full Auto and Ramp modes. The first trigger pull is fully automatic, allowing a back player to lay down a hail of paint on the break, and immediately after that, the software switches into Ramp mode.
While programming of settings and modes on the Virtue Board is done with the trigger and power switch, with feedback from various colors of light in the board’s LED array, the dual DIP switch plays an important role. Switch number one is a 15 ball per second cap. Since the NXL, PSP, CFOA and other leagues following their model limit a player’s maximum rate of fire, flipping that one switch easily brings the Virtue equipped Shocker into ROF compliance. From a player’s point of view, this is a nice convenience. With the stock board setting a 15 bps cap means calculating and setting the proper combination of dwell and ROF values, and this author has on more than one occasion seen players penalized when they thought they had their gun set legally. In essence it makes 15 bps compliance goof-proof. From a referee’s point of view, it is also nice, because after popping the grip open it is very easy to see the position of the switch – no knowledge of LED color or blink codes is required. As long as the board is programmed with the legitimate Virtue software, the position of the switch ensures the 15 bps cap. The second switch is the tournament lock. When this switch is off, the Virtue software does not allow the player to change any modes or settings, thus the board is tournament legal, because access to the switches requires the use of a tool.
Installing the Virtue Board in a Shocker SFT turned out to be easier than expected. The first step was removing the wraparound grip and taking out the 9-volt battery. The stock board is held in place by a pair of steel pins which run through the grip and a pair of holes in the trigger switch.
These two pins can be tapped out with a punch and a light hammer, but it important to make sure that the grip frame is supported by non-marring material, like a piece of wood, so that the reveiver, if still connected, does not contact the work surface. With the pins part of the way out, they can be removed with a pair of pliers.
Once the stock board is released from the pins it can be wiggled and jostled to the side and out of the grip frame. The wiring harness to the upper board and solenoid valve must be removed from the main circuit board, being careful to remove the connector, and not pull by the wires.
With the stock board out, the Virtue board slides into place. The new board plugs into the wiring harness easily. Care must be taken to be certain the two steel pins are properly aligned with the holes in the switch before tapping them back into place.
With the Virtue board in the Shocker, a press of the power button turned it on, and it was ready to go. Flipping the two dip switches locked it into 15 bps semi-auto and it was ready to work under the CFOA rules. Working with the new board, one thing is immediately noticed, the lack of speaker means no cricket chirps as with the stock Shocker board. This expected audio feedback can be missed, especially in bright sunlight where the power button LED is difficult to see. The LED array on the Virtue board faces forward toward the metal of the front of the grip frame. This means it is only visible in the assembled gun by what light reflects off the metal and onto the translucent grip panels. Indoors it was no problem to see, but outdoors in full sunlight, viewing the lower LED often required covering the grip with a hand for shade. A simple job for an airsmith would be drilling a view hole in the front of the grip frame, and filling it with clear epoxy or silicone, to allow the LED array to be seen more easily.
Turning on the Shocker, the power LED blinks rapidly, to indicate it is live, while the lower LED uses color to show the status of the breech. Red indicates that the breech is empty, while blue indicates that the Vision Eye is detecting a paintball. This simple indicator can make it simply to tell if a ball jam has occurred. Pressing and holding the power switch for a moment disables the eye logic, and changes the blink rate. This can be used in case the eye has become fouled. The Virtue Software will even report a problem with the Eye by flashing the lower LED blue.
So, with the programming switch on, and the 15 bps cap disabled, what can the Virtue board do? Turning it on while holding down the trigger enters programming mode. In programming mode, the lower LED array’s color and flashing rate shows the current menu selection. These include:
Blue – Firing Mode
Cycling through the menu choices is done by tapping the trigger. Advatnage PB’s method for viewing, and changing the value of a setting for each of the menu items is simple. When the desired menu item is selected, the trigger is held down. For example, changing the dwell time means turning on the power with the trigger held down, and then tapping the trigger until the lower LED array is flickering green.
Holding down the trigger at this point results in the current dwell value being displayed by the LED array blinking that number of times. Once the current value has been shown there is a two second window in which a new value can be entered by simply pulling the trigger the desired number of time. The LED will then again blink the current setting to confirm what was entered. Turning the power off by holding down the power button closes out the programming mode, saving all setting changes. To help recover a board that has been adjusted out of spec, holding the trigger down for ten seconds while in the programming mode will automatically reset all of the variables to their factory defaults.
The firing mode selects between the previously discussed modes of fire available in the Virtue software.
The Debounce setting adjusts the amount of time that the trigger must be released before the software will accept a new signal as a trigger pull. The purpose of this setting is to filter out electronic switch noise (see http://www.warpig.com/paintball/technical/turbo/index.shtml for more information.) Because all major paintball leagues have set up their rules such that electronic signal bounce is not considered to be a trigger pull, keeping tournament legal means keeping this setting high enough that only one shot is fired for each physical pull and release of the trigger by gross finger movement.
The Ramp Activation speed allows the user to adjust the rate, in balls per second, at which the virtue software begins adding shots in the ramping and breakout modes.
The Ramp Percentage determines how many shots are added when ramping occurs. Twenty-One settings range from ten percent (adding one shot for every 10 trigger pulls) to 200 percent (firing two shots for each trigger pull.) Additionally, setting a value of one sets the Ramp Percentage to “Max Loader” which simply fires each time a ball is fed into the breech as long as the trigger is being pulled as fast as the Ramp Activation speed.
The Dwell time is set in milliseconds, with no need to do a conversion from beeps to time. Dwell determines how long an electrical charge is sent to the solenoid valve for each shot. Dwell will affect both velocity and air efficiency. The dwell range runs from 5 to 30 milliseconds, with the default value at 12 ms.
The Eye Sensitivity setting does not actually adjust sensitivity, it adjusts a small delay. This value sets how long the Virtue software must wait from the time the a ball breaks the infra-red beam in the breech until it fires the Shocker. The reason for this setting is that the Eye assembly is not at the very bottom of the breech, so a ball first breaks the beam when it is only partially fed. The setting of this value can be decreased when force-feed loaders are used, because a ball will be fully seated more quickly after breaking the beam than with gravity fed loaders. Its range is from 1 to 50, with a factory default of 5.
AMB or Anti Mechanical Bounce is a setting which works with the Virtue Software’s logic to detect and discount trigger activations that happen not due to a pull on the trigger, but due to mechanical vibration, or recoil from firing. This setting is adjustable from 1 to 10, and like the de-bounce value is important for semi-auto only play in leagues like the NPPL, where extra shots caused by mechanical trigger bounce can lead to player disqualification.
The Anti Bolt Stick value adds time to the dwell if the paintgun sits for an extended period of time between shots. This feature is a double edged sword. Sometimes, especially with spool valve based paintguns, the bolt and valve core can settle in place if still for too long. In essence their seals bind a little bit with the other valve components, so the first shot after sitting still for a while can have a lower velocity, because the bolt is stuck for a fraction of a second. ABS software fights this by increasing the dwell time if there is a long enough break between shots. The downside is that if the conditions are right, and the bolt doesn’t stick, ABS can potentially cause a hot first shot in a string. Especially in the NXL, where players velocities are monitored in-game with radar guns, overly aggressive ABS use can lead to penalties. The Virtue’s ABS function is programmable to add from 1 to 20 additional milliseconds on the first shot after an extended wait between shots, so that it can be dialed in to do its job properly with any particular bolt and lubricant combination.
The Maximum Rate of Fire setting is a cap, that can be set to 21 values ranging from uncapped, to 22 balls per second. When unlimited the Shocker will be able to fire as fast as the selected mode, eye logic, and dwell and debounce values allow, while the selected cap rates will limit ROF to the chosen value. In comparison to the stock board in which a rate of fire cap must be calculated from the dwell and ROF timing values, setting a specific rate of fire restriction with the Virtue software is much easier. The Max Rate Of Fire setting is of course over-ridden when the 15-ball per second dip switch is set on the board.
The final point of adjustment for the Virtue software is the LED menu, it allows the choice between using both the power button LED and the LED array down on the board, just the power LED, or just the LED on the board. For scenario players hitting the field at night who don’t want their grip to turn into a light show, selecting just the power button LED, which will be covered by their hand much of the time would be a wise choice.
In use, the Virtue board experienced no problems. The enhanced modes, while not legal at most paintball fields made it very easy to rip out high rate of fire strings, while the eye logic gave no problems with feeding paint. To get a better picture of what goes on with the different modes the Virtue equipped Shocker SFT was connected to a waveform recorder, and a finger mounted pressure sensor was used to record pressure on the trigger for comparison to voltage sent to the Shocker’s solenoid. In this way graphic traces were created of each of the Virtue firing modes. While recording the traces paint and air were not used, instead the Eye was turned off and aside from the firing mode, all settings were returned to the factory defaults.
The semi-auto mode performed as expected, with a traditional one shot per trigger pull.
In PSP Ramping, the software began adding shots while the rate of trigger pulls remained relatively steady.
With NXL ramping, the software began firing bursts which lumped together looking like full auto after the first semi-auto shots were fired. As long as action kept happening on the trigger, it kept shooting as fast as it could.
In ramp mode, shots were added, but only when the trigger was being pulled often enough.
Auto Response very clearly delivered two shots per trigger pull.
Full auto was ripping like a machine gun.
Breakout mode showed its unique pattern – full auto for the first trigger pull and then ramping from there on out.
The Virtue Board for the Shocker proved
to be an easy to install upgrade. Not only did it add new firing
modes to the ‘gun, and provide excellent trigger performance, but it came
equipped with more adjustability than the stock board, and easier adjustment
as well. The simple use of dip switches for both the tourney lock
and 15 bps cap further ease setup of the board for 15 bps capped events.
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