Category Archives: Gaming

The end of a Vegas institution?

Tim Arnold

Back around 2012, at UNLV, I taught a course titled “The Business and Technology of the Video Game Industry.” It covered a whole lot of history, from early board games played by ancient civilizations (Go, Royal Game of Ur, Mancala, Senet), as well as the history of digital gaming from Willie Higginbotham’s Tennis for Two at Brookhaven National Laboratory, to Atari and the forming of Activision, through to today.

We also talked about pinball. We talked about its image as something rebellious, highlighted by it being the anchor of the Who’s epic movie, Tommy, and its portrayal in popular media as the cause of all evil, to the implosion of the industry against the competition of home video game systems.

On the last day of the class, we took a field trip to the Pinball Hall of Fame and Museum, a stalwart icon of Vegas, and a non-profit museum that donates hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to good causes. You could even intern there to learn the art of repairing and maintaining pinball machines. I gave everyone one dollar to be sure they could try at least one machine, but of course they were welcome to spend their life savings if they so wished. It is Vegas, after all.

The museum is a wonderful place. Sometimes dark and quiet, but often ringing with the glorious electronic sounds of pinball as well as the familiar noises of classic arcade machines, from Pac-Man to Asteroids and beyond. There’s even air hockey and some dancing puppet machines.

PBHOF

PBHOF

And a couple of days ago, I learned it may be closing for good. Owner Tim Arnold, who has repaired some of my own pinball machines including the very difficult to maintain Bride of Pinbot suffered a heart attack a few years ago and is now looking for osmeone to take over. But there are caveats, hoo boy are there caveats – you have to be able to repair the machines, and because it’s a non-profit you have to work for free.

If you were paying a million dollars a year you’d still have trouble finding someone with the skillset to repair those machines; their electro-mechanical nature and the fact that neither they nor their parts are manufactured anymore makes them very challenging to maintain.

If this closes, it will be an immeasurable loss. It is often identified as one of the best off-strip things to do in Las Vegas, and it isn’t that far away from the flashing lights, and anyway, it provides its own. Pinball itself is fast becoming a lost craft, although some companies like Stern still kick out themed machines.

If you have the opportunity, please visit before it’s gone forever. They’re hard to find, but they’re unforgettable to experience. And if by some grace of G-d you’re skilled in pinball repair and willing to work for free, well you should stop by in that case too.

Conquering some Psychonauts of my own.

(Crossposted to theexperiencebar.com)

Now here’s a story for you. I was cleaning up my desktop the other day, removing all the now-unnecessary detritus that piles up over the span of a few months – in this case an academic quarter – in the form of icons, folders, file fragments, installers, you know the sort of thing, when I discovered a folder filled with screenshots simply titled ‘Psychonauts.’

It took me a minute to remember why this folder was here, and then I recalled that I had purchased it during a Steam sale, adding it to the 150+ backlog I already had, but this was no ordinary purchase, and this was no ordinary game. It was a test.

I know what you’re thinking: “Uh, Psychonauts was released in 2005. On the Original Xbox. You’re just getting around to it now?” Well, yes and no. You see, completing it wasn’t just a game achievement for me, but a personal one as well. I’ll address that in a moment.

What just happened?

In case you haven’t heard, there are competitions to see who can solve a Rubik’s Cube the fastest. It’s called cubing. And there are sites where you can learn about it and pick up new techniques (such as the Fridrich Method) and advice, such as the importance of keeping your cube lubricated. Seriously. There’s even official Rubik’s Lube. The people who do it refer to themselves as cubers, and the activity of solving a Rubik’s Cube as cubing. And they are fast. Very fast, with some solving it in under five seconds.

There’s even a World Cube Association and they have regulations on how a cube must be scrambled.

Why am I bringing this up? Because as is or will be the case with everything eventually, they were all just bested by a robot. A robot that can solve a Rubik’s Cube so fast the eye can barely register it. In under one second, .887 seconds to be exact, the cube is turned from a random mishmash of colors to a thing of six-sided, solid color beauty.

It was done using an interesting process, in which two open-shutter cameras took a picture of three sides of the cube, an algorithm on a connected laptop worked out the solution, then passed that solution to an Arduino controller that executed the previously-determined solution. It did this by anchoring the center square of each side with an arm, while also using that arm to spin its respective side. It sounds far better if I just paste the description from the YouTube page:

Prior to the world record attempt a WCA-conform modified speed cube was scrambled with a computer generated random array and positioned in the robot. Once the start button was hit two webcam shutters were moved away. Thereafter a laptop took two pictures, each picture showing three sides of the cube. Then the laptop identified all colors of the cube and calculated a solution with Tomas Rokicki’s extremely fast implementation of Herbert Kociemba’s Two-Phase-Algorithm. The solution was handed over to an Arduino-compatible microcontroller board that orchestrated the 20 moves of six high performance steppers. Only 887 milliseconds after the start button had been hit Sub1 broke a historic barrier and finished the last move in new world record time.

What’s truly amazing is that because it still utilized a multi-step process that handed off functionality two separate times, the time could still be significantly reduced! Watch the video, then watch it again because you’ll miss the actual solving-the-Rubik’s-Cube part. It’s quite incredible.

 

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