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Inventing a skyscraper console: How a professor is bringing Pong to Philadelphia's Cira Centre

On a random day about five years ago, Drexel University professor Frank Lee drove past Cira Centre and decided that he wanted to turn the 29-story Philadelphia skyscraper into a video game console.

Next Friday, April 19, Lee's vision of a playable building will become a public reality. Thanks to Lee and a dedicated team of coconspirators, Cira Centre will become the world's largest version of Pong.

"I was driving down Interstate 76 going toward Center City, essentially downtown," Lee told Polygon in a recent interview about a drive he'd taken five years ago. "I saw the Cira Centre building. This was at night, and the lights were lit. Those LED lights are embedded into the building — they're part of the design of the building."

West Philadelphia's first office tower was designed by Cesar Pelli, whose architectural prowess is on display in dozens of buildings from Abu Dhabi to London to Tokyo. Embedded into its structure, Cira Centre includes 1,500 decorative LED fixtures that illuminate the building's facade. Since its opening in 2006, those lights have been programmed to celebrate holidays, Philadelphia sports team accomplishments and more.

For Frank Lee, a random drive five years ago past Cira Centre's LEDs served as the inspiration for his upcoming Pong project.

"For whatever reason, I saw in my mind's eye ... Tetris shapes outlined by those lights, falling and twisting and rotating," he said. "That, for me, became the start of this long five-year journey to make this game."

Everybody knows Pong. It's a cultural milestone.

Atari's seminal video game will come to Cira Centre thanks to five years of work by Lee, co-founder and co-director of Drexel's Game Design Program. The technical wizardry wouldn't have been possible without recent help from Marc Barrowclift, a sophomore in software engineering, Gaylord Holder, a senior system administrator and computer science professor Santiago Ontanon. And the world's largest Pong console wouldn't be happeneing without the approval of Brandywine Realty Trust, the company that manages the building.

All but about six months of Lee's five years was spent trying to convince the company to let Lee get to work. It was a meeting earlier this year between Lee and Jerry Sweeney, president and CEO of Brandywine, that made the project possible.

Lee explained his reasoning to Polygon as he did to Sweeny. It begins with his history as a gamer, where he believes that Pong has always played a role.

"Pong is part of our culture," he said. "Pong lives in every game that came since then. If you get down the tree of the life of the video game, it will lead at the root to Pong. Pong was the first successful commercial game."

To Lee, the game's success as a commercial product is just one part of its importance.

"Given that, it's not just important in the game industry, it's important as a cultural milestone," he said. "You ask anybody — people who've never played Pong know Pong. Our parents and grandparents know Pong. They've heard of it, at least. Kids these days know what Pong is.

"Pong is part of our everyday accepted vocabulary. When I was designing the game, I was very specific in wanting something like that."

If he received permission to hijack a public landmark, Lee felt he needed to make more than a fun experiment for gamers. He needed to make it culturally significant.

"It was important to me to draw people in with a collective, shared consciousness, to have a game that people could immediately get and appreciate," he said.

"If I say, 'I'm building the world's biggest Pong, people get it. People get it right away."

So in early February, after four and a half years of trying to make it happen, Lee and his team got to work.

He knew it was technically possible, but he had no idea if they could make it happen in the real world, let alone in such a short timeframe. With a "no-string" budget, Lee said they began coding their version of Pong, figuring out how to control each LED through its specific IP address, making sure that disconnecting the lighting infrastructure from its original control system would work at all, figuring out if they could control latency to make playing Pong possible.

It wasn't a shoestring budget. It was a 'no-string' budget.

By mid-March, he felt confident that they could make the game work. Lee had discussed the Pong idea with Chris Wink and Brian James Kirk, founders of Philly Tech Week, an annual "week-long celebration of technology and innovation in Philadelphia," when the idea was just that. When it makes its public debut next Friday, it will be part of Philly Tech Week 2013.

Now that his five-year journey is coming to an end, Lee is clearly excited, both about bringing his idea to the public and about the way he believes it could expand the very concept of public art. After discussing other similar public light art projects, like the Bay Lights art project that adorned San Francisco's Bay Bridge with 25,000 lights, he points out that his dream of playing Pong on a skyscraper is based on a different approach.

"You know what the kicker is?" he asked. "The kicker is that those are installation art. That is, they've taken spotlights ... and LED lights and installed them on the Bay Bridge. They've installed external stuff.

"I consider my art project to be 'hack/art,' in the sense that we've taken an existing structure in space and hacked it to make art."

The next level of puzzles.

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