Pong Wars: eccentric games projects at Dorkbot
Posted at 12:06 on 12th December 2008 - permalink

Engineers are a peculiar bunch. Anyone seeking proof of this need only attend a local Dorkbot gathering. Billed as “people doing strange things with electricity”, Dorkbot meets are informal, sometimes ‘open mic’ gatherings of likeminded hardware hackers, held every few months in cities around the world, which provide a platform for artists and engineers (and various combinations thereof) to talk about their more creative and unusual projects.

The London chapter’s Christmas event, held last night at Limehouse Town Hall, showcased an impressively broad range of contributions, including flying an illuminated UFO over Gdansk, an experiment to ascertain if a person was gay by measuring their brainwaves (really), and even a slide-whistle playing robot.

Of course, such efforts to derive amusement from electronic hackery also result in some things that can be classified as games (or at the very least software toys). Two regular Dorkbot contributors are particularly interested in the interactive arena: Tim Hunkin and James Larsson.

Tim Hunkin (cartoonist and erstwhile presenter of Channel 4’s The Secret Life of Machines) has spent the last few years building a collection of electro-mechanical and video-based attractions for his amusement arcade on Southwold Pier.

Hunkin’s ideas tend to be unconventional and satirical although with few exceptions they’d be more accurately described as art installations or mildly interactive rides rather than actual games. This time, in accordance with the evening’s loose theme of ‘Sleaze’, Hunkin showed a buttock-measuring machine, an autofrisking booth (for people who suspect themselves) and his latest creation – a housefly simulator.

James Larsson‘s presentations are interesting for different reasons – even by Dorkbot standards the products of his imagination tend to be rather strange. In 2006 he unveiled the seminal Leather Fetish Pong, an implementation of the classic two-player game in which players control the paddles by gently squeezing sensor-equipped thigh-length boots.

Larsson’s leadership in the field of creating the most improbable system for playing Pong was shortlived however, as the following year Iain Smith presented the less pervy but more energetic Cyclepong (which is exactly what it sounds like).

With the gauntlet thrown down, this year Larsson unveiled plans for the last word in absurdist Pong implentations, the “nuclear option” that he hopes to never have to build: Sheep Shagger Pong. (“If their Pong gets on the Gadget Show, I’m going to build a Pong that gets on Crimewatch!”) Thankfully the game (complete with lifesize – rumble-equipped – model sheep controllers) only exists on the drawing board for now.

Larsson did however bring along something that the attendees could play (which was even within the bounds of taste and decency) – Incandescent Conkers. This game was played by taking two incandescent filament lightbulbs and hooking them up in series to a microwave oven transformer, with the current being regulated by a sensor which was activated by vigourously striking a toaster with a riding crop. (It was at this point that I started to wonder if I’d accidentally walked in on a live action version of Earthworm Jim.) Whack the toaster to send a ridiculously excessive jolt of power through the bulbs, and whichever bulb survives longest without blowing is the victor.

The mechanic of violently thwacking a toaster to produce proportionally intense flashes of light is surprisingly exhilarating. In fact, many of these type of Dorkbot projects suggest that there is a lot of untapped potential in using physical and mechanical actions as input for games, beyond the fairly narrow range of motion controls we’ve so far seen enabled by the Wii Remote, or the scattering of specialised peripherals used by Guitar Hero and its ilk. Hopefully we’ll see more developers experimenting in this area in search of the next big super-accessible hit – just so long as they leave the sheep out of it.

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