December 19, 2015

Leo Bodnar SimSteering2 Read-View



There is a distinction between toys and serious toys. However, the latest iteration of Leo Bodnar's SimSteering Force Feedback System falls into neither camp. That's because it's precision equipment for professional use! Simply put, the best @#$%^&* wheel money can buy!

The Green Elephant In The Room

Let's get it out of the way quickly because it's an important factor, but also not that relevant. The SimSteering Force Feedback System is the most expensive sim wheel you can buy today and starts at around $4,000 USD, and that doesn't even include the steering wheel! Why is this not relevant? Because you should know what they say about having to ask...

Price isn't always a determining characteristic of quality and features, but in the case of racing simulation hardware, there hasn't yet been a market segment that shops for style over utility. Hence, it's safe to assume that if the wheel costs this much, it's not because its encrusted in Harry Winston diamonds, but because its cost is derived from the quality of its components and development.

Leo Bodnar Electronics

If you've been around the PC sim racing scene at any time in the past couple of decades and don't know who Leo Bodnar is, get out now! ...no, no, seriously, stay. I was only kidding. Just don't let it happen again.

Leo Bodnar, and his small team have been designing electronics for the sim market for a long time. His name and brand have become synonymous with quality. The team is comprised of only three people: John Beeson, Pete Brown, and of course, Leo Bodnar. Leo designs and develops all of the electronics and firmware in-house. John handles sales, support and testing, and Pete is in charge of assembly and mechanical design.

Their shop is based out in Silverstone, UK, just outside of the actual race track. They have been working closely with racing teams, including F1 drivers and have created and delivered some very high quality and unique simulation hardware over the years.



They have been shipping steering systems commercially since 2008. Originally, the systems were shipped as DIN rail mounted hardware intended for control cabinets to racing teams and professional centers. After discovering that some people were getting their hands on these systems and using them at home, in 2013 they launched the SimSteering product line to make their system packaging more suitable for casual consumers.

Naid Naydenov & Crimson Simulation

Unfortunately, you can't just walk into your local Best Buy and try one of these wheels out. Also, it may be a bit difficult for you to travel directly to Silverstone to visit Leo and his team to get a first hand experience even though they would very much welcome you to do so. With the recent influx of direct drive wheel solutions over the past two years, it's also no longer an easy decision to just shell out for an online order for such equipment without knowing exactly what you're getting into.




Fortunately, if you happen to live on the East Coast of the US, you can walk yourself over to Crimson Simulation and meet with Naid. He will let you try his, and that's exactly what I did.

Located in Norwalk, CT, Naid runs Crimson Simulation, a sim center where anyone who is serious about real or sim racing can experience really high end simulation peripherals in person.

Naid has been independently building and designing racing simulators for enthusiasts and professional racing teams for many years. His research in hardware components and extensive experience with some high profile teams has led him to opening up his sim center to the public.

As a customer, it's an excellent way to educate yourself about the different hardware options, test them out in a proper configuration, and get a good feel for the equipment before shelling out the big bucks. On top of that, you'll receive training and connect with other like-minded individuals.

Aside from being extremely knowledgeable on all racing things real and simulated, Naid is also a distributor for many of the high end simracing gear, so customers can buy what they try directly from him. In other words, this is no arcade!

Naid was so generous when I paid a visit to him to try the SimSteering2 that he actually let me take it home for a few days so I could play with it. The least I can do for him is tell everyone about it and give him this plug for his incredible sim center.

One last disclaimer, This is NOT A Review!

I only had about 4 days in total to play with the SimSteering2 system, so it's hard for me to say that I've learned everything about the wheel and explored every last feature of it. However, my experience with it was significant enough that I still want to share it with you and welcome you to read my impressions and view some pictures and videos...a read-view, if you will. I'm also not going to go over how the system is packaged and what the unboxing experience was like because I didn't receive it in a box, but rather carried it home already assembled in a taped up Newegg carton. I'm also not going to go over the specs of the motor because you can read about them at www.leobodnar.com/shop and because I don't have to type them out and worry if I quoted them correctly.

SimSteering Force Feedback System For Professional Use

So what exactly do you get from this SimSteering System, that has Force Feedback and that professionals use? You get a motor, a controller box, a safety switch, and a pair of cables that make you think twice before you reach for them. That isn't exactly a complete system because without a steering wheel it's kind of useless.

You have to supply a wheel rim, an adapter for the wheel rim, a mounting solution, and wheel button plates all separately. The system offers a minimal bare starting point, so the possibilities of how the wheel is be mounted, and the types of wheels you can use are really up to your specific needs. On Leo Bodnar's site you can certainly purchase a recommended adapter, mounting clamp, and some very fancy and professional grade steering wheels.

Before acquiring such a system, my recommendation is that you would have to do a bit homework and figure out what exactly you would need, how you would mount it, and whether or not the recommendations make sense for you.

For most cases, the recommended steering shaft clamp and mounting adapter will suffice and are of great quality. This will at a minimum allow you to use any type of standard racing steering wheel and mount the wheel to most types of rigs.

The wheel motor is fairly compact and can can be mounted in virtually any direction. The cable outlets on the motor can also be oriented in different positions. This makes planning easy and flexible.

There is no electrical connection for a wheel button plate from the drive shaft to the wheel, so running any sort of wheel button plate will require you to have a dangling coil cable.

The wheel also comes with a safety stop switch. It plugs into the controller box, and the wheel will not function unless the safety switch is connected. Why would you need a safety switch? Read on to find out.

Version 2

Not too long ago, the SimSteering System was updated to version 2 and introduced some notable updates. The only way to tell the difference between the new version and the previous version from looking at the system is that the controller box has a new label on the back featuring a big number 2.

John Beeson was kind enough to explain to me some of the technical details and updates to the SimSteering system.

The SimSteering system features a Kollmorgen brand motor with a custom developed controller box. As John explains,
We tested almost all of the motor brands available on the market during original system design, and we still continue to do tests now. We chose the motors that offered the most powerful, smooth, and reliable design in a compact size. Space inside a cockpit is at a premium, so these motors are perfect for the job. 
The motors are assembled to our specification and the electronics in our control box are created specifically to match them. All of the electronics inside the control box, apart from the industrial power supply, is designed, assembled, and tested in-house.
The version 2 system is now available with three different choices of motors. The Kollmorgen AKM 52, 53, and 54. The difference in the motors is in their power bands with the 52 rated the lowest torque of 16Nm, and the 54 at the highest of 26Nm.

The SimSteering2 System features the latest in Kollmorgen motors which use Kollmorgen's patented SFD system based on a resolver instead of the traditional encoder. Understandably, if you're not familiar with the technicalities of electrical motors, you might be now scratching your head asking, "What the hell is that?"

Typically, in all sim racing wheels, one of the most important components is the encoder. It's a device that reads the position of the physical steering shaft and translates it into digital form for the computer to read. In principle, an encoder is simply a slotted disk which is mounted to the steering shaft. As the wheel turns, the slots on the disk are counted as they move across a sensor and are sent to the computer as position values. The higher the resolution of the encoder, or the number of slots it has, the more accurate and precise the reading is.

The Kollmorgen SFD system features a resolver, which unlike an encoder, is an analog device which functions similar to a Hall sensor. Instead of slots being counted, the device produces an electrical field based on the position of magnets. The important difference here is that it gives the ability for virtually unlimited resolution, or rather the resolution is only limited by the electronics that translate its reading into digital signals.


Without going into a further lesson on encoders and resolvers, there isn't necessarily a direct benefit of having one over the other, as both types of systems can deliver precise and necessary resolution. The resolver just happens to be part of the design in the Kollmorgen motor, and Leo Bodnar and team have evaluated it to be suitable for some of their new features. John explains further,
The new method of communication between the motor and the control box allowed us to implement new features that we wanted, and for other, mostly production, reasons. This has enabled us to improve simulation of physical inertia, friction, and damping to the level not available previously. 
With this we can now simulate parts of a vehicle that have not been possible before and cannot be simulated in software properly. We use several resolution levels in different parts of the system. Some use up to 100 times more than what is delivered to a PC.
In version 2, the Leo-Bodnar-designed controller box is also updated with new electronics and updated firmware to take advantage of the new hardware. This was particularly important for the new types of settings as John continues to explain,
Inertia is a particularly difficult effect to simulate since it needs extremely fine quality of position and accurate timing to extract acceleration. We use physical modelling of a steering system and regression analysis to avoid latency in processing. Previously we felt that the inertia effect quality was not good enough for enabling it.



As Tested

The SimSteering2 system I was trying out was equipped with an OMP Superquadro 330 rim. It featured a Sam Maxwell custom built button plate with a built in Siminstruments Dash display and paddle shifters by Martin Ascher. Of course, all crafted from pure carbon fiber. The wheel was mounted to the motor's adapter via a Holger Buchfink Q1R quick release system.

I make it sound so exotic, Zonda owners are getting jelly!

I had to drill a pair of new holes in my Obutto rig so I can bolt it to the mounting plate. At about 15 lbs, the motor was not as heavy to handle and fairly compact, which didn't make mounting much of a challenge.

However, as you'll soon see below, my rig wasn't quite up to the task of handling this wheel, as the forces generated quite a bit of flex in the mounting plate.

A Frame of Reference

About a year ago, I wrote this review of the AccuForce Direct Drive wheel. If you are new to Direct Drive (DD) wheels, you can easily read that article, substitute SimSteering2 for AccuForce, and call it a day.

At the moment, the AccuForce sits at the entry level of the commercially available DD wheel market, and the SimSteering2 system at the very advanced end. Since the AccuForce has been around for a year now, chances are that more people would own one and have a better idea of what a DD system feels like. If I were to use a non-DD wheel as a frame of reference, such as a G29, Thrustmaster, or a Fanatec wheel, as nice and popular as those wheels are, the difference is so vast that relaying my impressions would be completely useless and do no justice.

This isn't a comparison to say which wheel is better or worse, but to give you an idea of what the gap in the commercially available DD world looks like, and perhaps give you a better idea of what it is that makes Leo Bodnar's SimSteering System so special.

Since I know that some of you know that the size and weight of the rim affects the feel, to ensure I got a clean impression, I mounted my existing AccuForce rim to the Bodnar system. Yes, I know, a disgrace to sim-racers across the world, and Sam Maxwell is shaking his head with disgust. How could I do such a thing!? Well, I was already used to the rim, and I also didn't want to put any extra wear and tear on Naid's super nice OMP rim, and it was all in the name of "objective" observation. Good enough excuse?



Now, For The Good Stuff

Given my limited time with the wheel, I mostly focused on driving in iRacing. It is one of the most advanced simulations on the PC today and its FFB outputs, physics engine, and track surface modeling are really highlighted by high end hardware such as this. I briefly tried a few other sims, but did not spend nearly enough time with them to get a proper impression.

Smoothness

Now, close your eyes and think silk. That's how smooth this wheel felt! To illustrate this point, I sat in the pits stationary and very slowly turned the wheel to the left and to the right. For the first time I felt like I was actually turning a rubbery wheel against cold pavement! There was no extra feedback, no feeling of notches, and no cogging of any kind. The feeling was progressive and perfectly related the twisting action of the sticky rubber against the pavement.

Normally what I had felt with other wheels in this scenario was some level of notchiness, or rather small steps, or even bumpy waves, as I would move the wheel. Even with higher end belt driven wheels, the feeling never felt quite right. Even with the AccuForce, there was still some small and subtle feeling of noise, as if there were sand grains in the wheel shaft. Yes, even with the AccuForce set to 100% smoothness, this wheel was noticeably smoother. In the SimSteering2, the "noise" was just gone! It really felt like there was a mechanical connection between the wheel and the sim rather than a digital one. The wheel felt dead when still, and force feedback from the steering progressed with resistance as the rubber of the tires twisted against the virtual pavement in a very real life-like manner.

This level of smoothness is not easy to imagine unless you have actually experienced it. That's because for all practical purposes, all wheels when turned feel relatively smooth. You only notice the smoothness of this wheel because it lacks the feedback noise of what all other wheels have at a minimum. It's sort of like being used to a constant background humming noise that you don't notice until someone turns it off, and you get surprised, and think to yourself, "Wait a minute, why did it get so quiet all of a sudden?"

It might seem impractical to talk about smoothness of the wheel while steering the wheels of a stationary car, however it did illustrate one very important quality of the wheel: It's ability to produce a crystal clear FFB signal from the software! All of this smoothness, or rather, lack of signal noise, translated to some exceptionally clear, detailed, definitive, and nuanced feedback when the car was in motion.

All of the bumps in the racing surface and how the virtual tire reacted under load came through with clarity and in a natural way. The feeling was so natural, that I forgot that I was holding a steering wheel of a peripheral, and just felt as if I was driving on a real road. Driving down a bumpy track felt so real, that my expectations were perfectly matched up with what I was seeing. It's as if I was no longer saying "Wow, this road is so bumpy that my wheel is shaking", but rather "Of course this road is bumpy, I felt it!" There was a whole new level of subtlety and correctness that the FFB exhibited with this wheel. There was no drama and no overly intense feedback. There was just the car, the road, and me.

Now, enjoy over 20 minutes of mediocre driving on one of the smoothest tracks, with one of the smoothest cars. Normally this would have been a mind numbing exercise for feeling out the FFB of any other wheel, but with the SimSteering2 system it ended up feeling quite right.


The Slide Catcher

Last year I wrote about how you could catch almost every slide with the AccuForce wheel because of its Direct Drive nature and ability to respond. This year, with the SimSteering2 system, make that every single slide! It's hard to explain how that can be, but it felt as if the SimSteering2 had even quicker response, and with a smooth delivery of strong and nuanced forces, made handling the car at its limit far more intuitive than before.

Just to point out here, I did test the SimSteering2 and AccuForce wheels back to back to make sure I wasn't imagining things. I became so proficient with the torque wrench, bolting and unbolting the wheel bases, that I reached a personal record of 3 minutes and 42 seconds for my fastest swap. The tire model in the iRacing build had changed since the last time I reviewed the AccuForce, so I didn't want to base my observations from previous runs. I can quite confidently say there were very clear instances where I would surprise myself at being able to save certain slides with the SimSteering2 than when I was using the AccuForce.

I noticed that the main difference was in the amount of wheel swing I was performing when counter steering, and the amount of recovery I was doing. I wasn't doing it intentionally, but I was making a much bigger and quicker counter steer swings with the SimSteering2 and recovering a bit less than with the AccuForce. I was doing it because the feedback I was getting from the wheel was giving me such ques. For a big counter steer, the wheel would get really light, and maintain its lightness without getting the feeling that I was fighting something in the wheel along the way. The lightness was coming in just at the right time, and almost before I would react. When recovering the wheel, it's as if the wheel was telling me, "Keep going, keep going, wait, okay, that's enough", which prevented me from over correcting. It really felt like I was connected to the car in a much more meaningful way.

I don't know exactly what feature or attribute of the wheel contributed to this, but when it came to catching slides, some really insane stuff was happening that I couldn't believe. It also very much reminded me of the way my real car behaved when going into some drifts during some of my local autocross events. It just felt right, and I was doing it without thinking.

The feeling was definitely new to me in iRacing, and I immediately went back into my AccuForce profile in Sim Commander to try and see if I can fiddle with enough settings to try and replicate it. While some settings like Foundation and Rear Traction Loss helped me get close, ultimately, it was no cigar.

Here is my favorite combo that really takes a FFB wheel through its paces, the Lotus 79 at Bathurst. Make sure to note the insane save at 4:55.

Force Feedback Range & Bumps

The AKM 52 motor seemed to deliver plenty of force for relaying a wide range of FFB effects. When I would hit a curb fast enough, there was enough force delivered through the system that would literally rip the wheel rim out of my hands. At the same time, every subtle and minute nuance was felt on the track surface. This was especially useful when I would steer through a high load corner and think I was about to clip in FFB, but instead ended up receiving even more feedback!

The forces ramped up only when they needed to. In fact, most of the time the wheel felt fairly light and more inviting to me when turning into a corner. Until I hit a curb that is, and insanity ensued. When the big forces got delivered under big impacts, they got delivered like Pizza at the iRacing office before a release of a dirt version of the Nurburgring, by the buttload.


Going over bumps was a very intense experience with the SimSteering2 wheel. Depending on the car and track combo, at certain times, the wheel delivered almost disorienting levels of feedback. For example, take a look at the way I had to wrestle the wheel when going into T1 and T17 with the C-Spec RUF at Sebring below. The car exhibited some hopping, and paired with the bumpy track, made for quite the wrestle-mania experience. In fact, at one point through T1, the hopping became so bad, it literally caused me to spin from the jolting feedback from the wheel.


Despite the ability for the wheel to deliver some intense feedback, overall the wheel was fairly easy on the hands and did not get me tired over a long period of driving.

Since the wheel delivered such wide range of torque, for the first time I was able to really appreciate the caster setting in the car's setup. While I had felt the difference in most FFB wheels I've owned, with this wheel I could really feel the difference in caster changes even when making minor adjustments. The setting didn't just impact the level of forces I was receiving, but transformed the very way the car handled for me. It significantly helped me in being able to deal with some of the larger bumps from hitting curbs on the track, without sacrificing the feedback from the subtle and small bumps on the racing surface.

I also decided to have a bit of fun in Live For Speed to see how well the wheel felt when drifting. While LFS doesn't have as advanced of a physics engine like iRacing, it's tire model is very forgiving and friendly for sideways action. I decided to start with an in game FFB strength of 10 out of 100, which ended up being quite fine and pretty fun. Then I decided to see what would happen with FFB strength of 20, which ended up being a not such a great idea. I didn't bother trying anything higher as I figured I would probably would have reached more for the emergency button than the paddle shifters.


The emergency button functioned quite well. When depressing it, it would lock into its pressed position and immediately cut the force feedback effects from the wheel. It did not disrupt the connection between the wheel and the sim at all. I was still able to control the car, just without any force feedback effects. With an untwisting action, the emergency button would release, and the force feedback would immediately resume.

It was a really great feature to have in some of those moments where the car would get stuck into the wall and the wheel would go bonkers by oscillating rapidly from left to right. I also learned that a non-round wheel with any sort of edge on it could be really painful in such a situation. Ouch.

Startup & Configuration

The startup experience of the wheel is worth noting, only because nothing special happened. That's right, when I would power up the wheel, the rim did absolutely nothing! Why is that so amazing? Normally when you power any wheel with an encoder, which is almost all other wheels, some calibration takes place in order for the wheel to determine the location of its center. However, since this wheel uses a resolver, and because of a property of how resolvers work, the wheel always knows what its center is. This was very much a welcome benefit for me.

The configuration of the wheel was about as basic as it could get.

Upon first time installation of the driver software, I opened it, looked at it, closed it, never to look at it again. Okay, I looked at it once more again to experiment with some settings for the purposes of this article, but after that I really never looked at it again. In fact, the experience was so basic that I even forgot to take my own screenshot of the settings window, so here is someone else's.



As you would expect, the settings window featured settings for turning degree range, force scale, friction, inertia, damping and bump stops. There was no slider for setting the turning radius, because the wheel could physically turn indefinitely in either direction, or at least it reached a numerical boundary greater than the electronics would allow. There was also a setting for choosing the center of the wheel. This is important because it allows you to position the motor in any orientation you like. This gives you plenty of flexibility for mounting and choosing from which direction to route the two big cables coming out of it.

As far as the friction, inertia, and damping settings, I had mine set at 5% friction, 20% inertia, and 20% damping. I tried changing my values out of curiosity so I could see what would happen and at least be able to talk about them here, but I did not feel a big difference in the wheel. In fact, the differences felt fairly subtle to me, and the wheel felt pretty good in all cases. It was more or less a way to really fine tune the feedback from the wheel. As a result, I didn't mess much more with them, and I never bothered looking at the settings again.

One interesting thing to note is that iRacing has a special mode for wheel vendors that allows them to bypass certain filters in order to get cleaner and more raw FFB data. Apparently the SimSteering System doesn't take advantage of this. In fact, John confirmed this by explaining,
We don't do anything special with the iRacing FFB. It's the regular data that is outputted to all wheels and we do not use any plugins to modify it in any way. 
We believe that software developers should remain in full control of user experience.
The fact that the wheel had such basic configuration and that it felt amazing to drive with right off the bat, made it about as close to plug and play as I have ever seen.

Currently, Leo Bodnar and team are working on an updated version of the software which will expose more adjustments and some more interesting refinements specifically to take advantage of the updated electronics.

Noise

Shh... can you hear this? Did you hear the noise this sentence made? Because it's louder than the wheel!! Noise was literally non-existent in the SimSteering2. Slow movements, fast movements, it didn't matter. Not a single peep, hiss, fuss, fuzz, or zuzz came out of the wheel. It was also a bit eerie, because it seemed like the wheel was off the whole time.

Heat

The topic of heat often comes up when talking about industrial motors. The Kollmorgen 52 is designed to operate in temperature at around 120 degrees Celsius, or 248 Fahrenheit. While the motor didn't actually reach this kind of temperature, it did get hot enough to be uncomfortable to the touch.

This may not be necessarily obvious, but could be an important aspect to consider depending on how and where someone might intend to mount it. After my test sessions, it took more than forty five minutes for the wheel to cool off back to room temperature.

At no point during my extended uses did the wheel ever feel like it lost strength because of heat. In fact, it was very consistent in how it delivered forces. I only mention the heat because its there, it's noticeable, but it doesn't actually impact the performance of the wheel. It's just supposed to be that way, and there is a nice yellow sticker to tell you so.

Stats For Nerds

Just for the obligatory wheel check comparison, I gathered data produced from David Tucker's Wheel Check tool. Since this chart is open to a lot of misinterpretation, I'm going to fully explain it, hence the wall of text that follows. Please keep in mind that the wheel check tool was not initially designed for handling high end DD wheels because of how it does its measurements. As a result, I've only focused on the relevant part of the data which is about the first half of the entire test.

The test sends out a DirectX force value from 0 to 10,000 which maps to each individual wheel's ability to spin up based on its torque rating. 0 being the least amount, and 10,000 the most from a dead stop. After 300 milliseconds, the tool reads the position of the wheel measuring how far it turned. The position is also in DirectX units ranging from 0 to 10,000 and maps to the total turning range set on the wheel. The assumption here is that all wheels were mapped to a 900 range, hence 10,000 = 900 degrees. Since each wheel produces torque differently, and each wheel's ability to spin up varies, this chart must be taken with a grain of salt. The important thing here is that a more powerful wheel will cause the wheel to travel further under a given force input, so it will produce a steeper slope.

The interesting thing to interpret from this chart is to note where the slope of each wheel's plot starts to take off. Meaning, after how much force did each wheel start reporting a change in position.

For the SimSteering2 the plot shows that the wheel took off immediately from 0! This means that the wheel didn't need to overcome anything internally after it received the first instruction to move, and able to produce movement in response to the slightest and smallest force instructions. By comparison the AF wheel also reacted to the smallest of forces, but for the first few inputs the slope produced isn't as steep. I'm not sure why that is, but it certainly does report distinct values immediately after 0 force.

The consistent slope of each plot indicates relative linearity, or rather how well the wheel repeatedly traveled to a certain point given certain amount of force within the 300ms time frame.

You can also see that both direct drive wheels are in a completely different league than the rest of the non-direct drive wheels in terms of their ability to respond to small forces, and travel greater distances due to the amount of torque they pack. The rest of the wheels start to report a change in position only after much higher force inputs because they need to overcome their internal mechanics and also because they are not as powerful.

This chart is useful for determining if you need to configure your sim to output some minimum force to compensate for any lack of response to small and subtle forces. It also makes this article look more scientific, even though the data and measurement process are anything but.

What is clear though, is that specifically for the SimSteering2 System, you don't need set iRacing to add any additional minimum force to its FFB output because it's very good at responding to the smallest of forces.

Just for the record, at this time, the SimSteering2 System does not employ any rotational speed limits or torque limits. Leo Bodnar personally explained to me that,
We do not enforce any limits at the moment because there are infinite number of ways to impose them, and we do not have a coherent reason on how and why we need them. V2 firmware is still being developed in certain areas so it is not fully settled yet.

Lasting Impressions

Last year when I first experience a DD wheel with the AccuForce, it was hard for me to imagine how any DD wheel could be better, and that if there was a difference, it would be marginal. As with any product there always comes a point of diminishing return and cost becomes exponential when trying to perfect the last 10%. However, in this case, the difference between the direct drive entry level AccuForce, and the professional level SimSteering system, the difference is anything but marginal. The available range of torque it can produce, the subtlety and smoothness of the FFB delivery, the speed of the wheel, and its way of making everything seem so natural, sets it in a league of its own.

At this point, having experienced how this wheel feels, I can tell you that no stats, torque numbers, or any chart would change my mind about how amazing and realistic it is to drive with. To me, it has become the benchmark for any sim steering wheel. When Naid came by to take it back, I couldn't help myself but be all like...



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