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The Arcade Fire(side)

by: SilverTech

At SilverTech, we work hard, but we also play hard. After an intense week of coding, strategizing, and hitting the phones, we all take a break for Fireside, our weekly get together for beer, popcorn, and games. While there are some of us that like the IRL games, table tennis, shuffleboard, and cornhole, there are others, like myself, that geek out over the classic arcade games we have scattered throughout the office (my personal favorite is Arkanoid, which requires you to enter a state of zen while keeping your cat-like reflexes on high-alert).

Well, we have just stepped up our game, literally, with the addition of a giant gaming wall that has just been loaded up with more than 400 games and rigged with two wireless PS2 controllers. Though I love to play, I have no idea how any of this works. So, we reached out to our Internet of Things (IoT) engineer, Shawn, for a breakdown of how everything was built and how it all works.

Take it away Shawn.

Tech Specifications of the Build

Our giant arcade system is built very similarly to the large advertising signs you might see on the side of the highway or on a megatron at any sports arena. Our particular system is set up using 150 different LED matrix panels (see Figure 2). Each panel has 512 multicolor LEDs arranged in a 16×32 orientation. With a little math you can calculate that this many panels gives us a resolution of 240×320 or 76,800 LEDs to send a picture to. This many LEDs might sound like a lot to you, however, compared to your standard monitor that has on average over 2,000,000, it really isn’t that much. So, why did we use this number of pixels? The panel was constructed to this resolution because that is the resolution many of these vintage arcade games were originally built for, so it matches up perfectly.

Each of these LEDs needs to be driven with the correct value from our video source, however, it isn’t as simple as just connecting up a single connection. The collection of LED panels has been divided into four different sections. Each section is then wired to individual receiver cards with a parallel ribbon cable (see Figure 3). These cards are what actually tells each LED what color to display using shift-registers built into the back of each individual LED panel. However, the cards still need a signal source. The source comes over a standard ethernet cable from another board known as the “sender card.” This sender card is the brains behind the whole operation. We connected to this card and programmed it with the specific layout of panels that are used and then specified how to drive them correctly. Once the sender card knows where to send the signal, there is a DVI connection on the card itself that it captures its source content from. 

Previously, the system was run from a regular desktop PC running an arcade emulator which has all since been removed. Now the system is run from a dedicated game board that is running a custom version of Linux specifically built to emulate these vintage games (see Figure 4). These particular boards are built to actually retrofit original arcade game cabinets to allow them to play more than just one game, but it has enough expandability to make it work perfectly for our needs.

Thanks, Shawn. So cool! I can’t wait until next Fireside for the chance to give it a go. It’s like all of my childhood dreams come true, playing video games at work!!