EWU Computer Science students hack vintage pinball machine, win bonus points.
Each Fall quarter, energetic Computer Science professor Paul Schimpf shares his love for old pinball games in a course entitled “Embedded Real-Time Control,” aka “Pinball Class.”
Using a colorful “early digital” pinball machine called Mata Hara ( from 1978!), STEM students learn the basics of programming software and build skills in hacking retro games, “real-time control,” skills they can extend to other projects and products.
Students plug in laptops to update the CPU with their custom code. When the ball rolls around, switches are thrown; they figure out how the machine works on their own. They use the coin and credit buttons to scroll the playfield lamps, then create digital maps of how the game responds.
“The ‘80’s pinball games actually present the biggest challenges,” he says. “They have limited capabilities. For instance, it puts out only 190 volts, which is only enough to light up one digit at a time. Students write code that makes the numbers light up so fast it tricks the eye into thinking its seeing a full display.”if you take a photo, you will only see one digit.”
They also control game logic like scoring and Bonus Points. They trigger updated sound and music via the SD card slot and ATTiny microcontroller. Schimpf also upgraded the CPU. “I took out the original CPU and put in an Arduino Mega 2560,” which he says is easier to modify.
Pinball Class presents challenges they aren’t used to with modern computer games. The many software tasks, from the solenoid-fired bumpers to controlling the lights, make Pinball Class a popular class at EWU Computer Science. Schimpf hopes to increase the number of machines they use.
The professor has a bigger idea he’s toying with: he hopes to collaborate with the VCD Students (Visual Communication Design) to create an EWU branded game. “EWU Football,” he says, his eyes growing wide with excitement. “We could have the red-turf field.” They could sell the game to alumni and fund more student-made games like the pinball machine.