Emily Guendelsberger Emily is City Paper's arts editor. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club and other fine publications.
Frank Lee: He doesn’t give a damn.
That’s not just a silly pun: The dude will not be deterred. Some people, when they hear a grand-scale idea involving months of hard work for a couple hours of transcendent glory — like “Pong on the side of a 29-story building,” in this case — immediately say, “Oh hell yeah!” Just as many people, though, if not more, respond, “…What? Why?” People of the first type rarely convince people of the second to hand over the keys to one of their building’s computer systems on the argument “Because it will be awesome.” It took five years, but Lee managed it: A lucky 150 people drawn from a lottery of 1,100 will get to play Pong on the Cira Centre on April 19 and 24 as part of Philly Tech Week. And, frankly, it looks pretty awesome.
The controllers are set up on a Schuylkill-facing terrace of the Art Museum, half a mile away. At a recent test run, the speakers that will eventually blare the bloop of a bounce and the digital sad-trombone of a miss were still in the planning stages, but the game sounded very familiar anyway. Remove the soundtrack, and a group of guys playing Pong on a building across the river sounds exactly the same as a group of guys playing Halo on Versus mode: trash talk, laughter, groans of defeat, shouts of victory.
The idea came to Lee while driving down I-76 in 2008. Before long he was calling people he knew who might know someone connected to Cira Centre owner Brandywine Realty Trust. “Because I figure once they hear the idea, I’ll get a call the next day, right?” Lee laughs, as his students battle it out nearby. “It’s so obviously great! You don’t even need to describe it: world’s biggest Pong!”
In 2010, Lee finally managed to get a meeting with someone at Brandywine who let him check out the lighting system, in part, perhaps, so he’d stop asking about it. “I said, ‘Look, if I could determine that there’s no way I can control the lights, then it’s a moot point, I can’t make a game, I’ll go on my merry way.’” But Lee was encouraged by what he found.
The building’s lights were installed between floors about 10 feet apart in a grid. “There’s this system that looks like a cube,” Lee holds his hands about 2 feet apart, “with an Ethernet cable coming out to the controllers of those lights. … The key part of that is each of those lights is on its own little IP address, and you basically send commands to it from its own private network.” He realized it would be possible, then, to unhook that Ethernet cable and plug the lights into his own system.
“So I went back and I said, ‘In theory, it’s possible.’ And [the Brandywine rep] thought about it, and he said, ‘You know, Pong is an old game. Why would anyone care?’” Lee pauses to let that statement sink in. “I was flabbergasted! I tried to convince him that people would care because it’s Pong — Pong is a cultural milestone. Everyone has heard of Pong! People who have never played Pong have heard of Pong, because it’s such a core part of our technology history.” That first attempt was a nonstarter, but Lee wasn’t giving up.
See, in 2008, he had also begun another project that he says was actually easier to get off the ground: Lee co-founded and co-directs Drexel’s interdisciplinary video-game-design program, which, after its first year, has consistently been ranked among the top 10 such undergraduate programs in the country by the Princeton Review. In July 2012, Lee and four students went to Sydney, Australia, for the finals of Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, where the Drexel team’s MathDash mobile app for kids took first place in game design. The win resulted in a congratulatory meeting with the president of Drexel University — who happened to be good friends with the CEO of Brandywine. Needless to say, Pong came up in conversation.
After a bunch of emails and a 20-minute meeting only about three months ago, Lee finally got the go-ahead. “And once the top person says yes, everything falls into place.”
Most of Lee’s students, some of whom helped with the project and are loudly trash-talking in the background, grew up with the PlayStation 3. “They don’t have the nostalgia. But I’d put this game up against any other game. As you play it, you feel that tense engagement, right?” The howls of defeat and laughter erupting behind him back him up. “The competition: That’s universal.”
Fri., April 19 and Wed., April 24, 8 p.m., free, Philadelphia Art Museum terrace, 2600 Ben Franklin Pkwy.
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