Friday, 27 April 2012

Rally Course Design using Microsoft Excel

This month you will discover a special interview...something different from the others interview...An interview with a Microsoft Excel “master“ Charles Shultz. Chuck is a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer and the author of the Rally Obedience course map design program . An excel program that will be used for Rally-O judges for designing the courses. He's from the USA and he's involved in Obedience , tracking and Rally Obedience .Read this special interview :D

Can you introduce yourself and tell a little bit about your background? 
 I live in central New Jersey, USA. I've owned Labrador Retrievers since 1990, when I started Obedience training. I began Tracking in 2003 and have been breeding since 2005. I've titled my Labs in Tracking, Obedience and Rally in both the USA and Canada. I have Engineering degrees from Penn State and Stanford Universities and I am a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD).

Tell as about your start in Rally Obedience
Back in 2002, I got my first Rally title. I thought the concept was great-a very interesting variation on what we already were doing in Obedience. At my first Rally trial (offered by the APDT here in the U.S.), the map I was handed by the judge was just horrible. Hand-drawn and barely readable. As I went to more trials, the maps improved. But right away, I knew that this had to change. Not only was it unfair to make the competitors try to read illegible course maps, but there was no way a judge could look at their map and be sure they didn't miss a rule about course set-up.

From where comes the idea of ​​creating Rally-O courses map in Excel?
I had done a lot of work with Microsoft Excel, so around 2003, I put together an Excel program that did a pretty good job at creating course maps, along with score sheets. It used the AKC 2001 rules and signs. It even created VRML files that would allow someone to take a "virtual walkthrough" of their course. Then 2005 came along and the AKC changed some of the signs and rules. At that point, I got emails from people asking me if I was going to update Excel to work with the new signs. And the same thing happened in 2008. When it happened again in of 2012, I knew I had to fix the whole mess. Each time the rules or signs changed, it was too much work to update and test the program. Plus, I was only able to program one registry/one set of rules at a time. A couple of other people created Windows programs for building AKC rally courses and they ran into exactly the same problems. Others used Microsoft WORD or PowerPoint, which was fine for drawing the course map, but it couldn't automatically create a list of signs.

So at the beginning of 2012, I wrote down the data elements I thought were needed by the Excel program to understand a set of Rally rules and signs. I had worked with XML files - they allow you to organize and store data-and I knew they would be the right approach to solving this problem. So, I created a file format - I  call them Rally Rule Set, or RRS files - and I documented that at . I then set out to create an RRS file for the AKC 2012 rules. Right now, there are a handful of RRS files, located on  along with the signs for those registries and Excel files. With the help of some others, we've got signs for a few more registries and I'll soon be working on RRS files for those.

And the beauty of this approach is that just about any programming language supports XML. That means that anybody can build a course design program using these RRS files. Programs are needed for the Mac and for mobile devices like the iPad and Android. I am making the RRS files available to anyone who wants to build with them. I also created an XML format for saving a course that's been created. If each of these programs adhere to that standard, then it would be possible to create a course on a PC and email it to a Mac or an Android, or whatever. That's where we need to be.

What state is this development in?
I've never trained in agility, but I "think" the Excel program could be made to create agility courses, too. The signs would be much different than in Rally, but since the program can read in any set of signs, that shouldn't be a problem.

Meanwhile, the Excel program is not quite done yet. There are a few more features to add and plenty of software bugs to find. Even so, it should be possible to build AKC 2012 courses right now. Right now, there are only English-speaking registries involved. But, I'd like to recruit all registries that offer Rally, so I've been thinking about how to make the text that you see on the worksheets and the pop-up forms change to another language. I can do that with a web form. Allow someone to enter translated text, press a few buttons, then your Excel course builder works in your language. Something like that will take a while, but it certainly is a possibility.

what I must do If I want to use this program?
Anyone who is interested in this topic can join our Yahoo list at . 
If you are an official at a registry, a judge, an instructor or even a competitor and you'd like to help create a version of this Excel program that works with your set of rules and signs, you probably want to join this group, There, we also talk about features we'd like to see in the program and problems we find in the programming or the RRS files. It's an English-speaking list and it would help if your registry has a rule book in English.

What's your vision of Rally-0?
Here's my vision of Rally in the not-so-distant future:
I show up to a Rally trial and I set up my chair and supplies, then I crate my Labrador Retriever. I sit down and pull out my mobile device - a full-sized, touch-screen tablet. I press a buton to check in with the stewards, then I watch an early class for a while. A half hour before my walk-through, my device tells me that my track map is available. So, I bring that up and I start looking it over. I might play a slide show of all the signs. I might look up an exercise description or maybe a rule. Then, I decide to watch an avatar and his dog walk through this course. That clarifies how to do a couple of the exercises, so my Lab and I go off to practice.

As we stand outside the ring waiting for our turn to go in, the steward scans my ID pin (something that replaced arm bands a while back) and the microchip in my dog. As I enter the ring, the jump heights are automatically adjusted for my dog. I see the judge is using a similar hand-held mobile device to score the event. We make our run and the score appears on the big screen above us. I don't see it, but all of this info-our score and our IDs- are sent to the registry, who verifies that this qualifying run completes our title. When it comes time to pin the class, titles are presented right along with the placement ribbons and other prizes.



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