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Tabletop Pong: More Fun to Build Than to Play

by Lambert Varias
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The Evil Mad Scientists are at it again, flexing their brains and soldering stuff in their lab-or-a-to-ry. Their latest creation still does not make them evil or mad, just creative, resourceful and geeky. They’re trying to make a real world version of one of the oldest video games, PONG. Did they succeed? Yes and no. Read on to find out.

tabletop pong 1

Before they came up with the working prototype you see above, the Evil Mad Scientists did a brief analysis of what the hell PONG really is: it’s “a game somewhere between pinball and ping pong: Two players each have a single knob that controls the position of a paddle along a short track.” So they got a couple of tracks, and laser-cut plywood pieces to make two paddles, which would be moved back and forth by a timing belt.

tabletop pong 2

“Using the paddles, they bounce the ball back and forth and try not to miss the ball, lest the other player score a point. The paddle surfaces are curved, so that the ball reflects in different directions depending on the position of impact.” For the curved paddles, they attached a quarter-section of a 1-inch thick PVC pipe to the plywood pieces.

tabletop pong 3

Hardware nerds will notice the pusher solenoids attached to each plywood piece. They’ve been modified and installed with a spring so that they’ll bounce back. The solenoids are needed because the third element of PONG is the pair of powered paddles: “the paddles are powered, so that the ball keeps a fairly constant velocity between the two sides, and the speed gradually increases as the game is played.”

tabletop pong 4

The next element of PONG is the playing field, which “is level and has a dotted line down the middle, and the scores are displayed on either side of that line.” So they made the field, and created a score wheel out of engraveable plastic:

tabletop pong 5

Finally, the top and bottom walls of the PONG playing field are “springy”, so that the ball can bounce off of them. To achieve the elastic wall effect, the Scientists glued beryllium copper finger strips (yeah, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about anymore either) along the border of each wall. For final touches, they added a rubber grip to the knobs, and of course got a ball – in this case, a 1-1/4″ steel ball bearing.

tabletop pong 6

I imagine that was a fun afternoon! Scrounging for materials, laser cutting, hacking and modding, sawing and drilling, and just plain nerding out with their hands. That’s what they live for. But what about tabletop PONG itself?

That was freakin’ pathetic, and the Scientists knew it. They forgot about the fourth element of PONG: the level playing field. That ruined everything. Also, either the force exerted by the solenoids was too weak, or the ball was too heavy. Bottom line is, that prototype doesn’t look fun to play with at all.

tabletop pong 7

I know that the Evil Mad Scientists will tweak their design until they come up with something worth playing, so before you check out their full walkthrough and Flickr photoset, let’s try to help ’em out and give them suggestions okay? I’ll go first: make the playing field a bit larger, and come up with a way to automate the scoring; maybe you can install an IR detector on the left and right edges (that’s the only way to score anyway, when the ball goes past the opponents’ side) and motorize (or better yet digitize) the score wheel. And maybe use a ball and/or surface made of different materials to see what the best combination would be like. Finally: Air Hockey. That’s what PONG is like.

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