Frank Lee aims to turn the Cira Center into a game of Pong. A dry run is scheduled for Thursday night. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
By Jeff Gelles, Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted: April 11, 2013
Headed for Center City on a sluggish Schuylkill Expressway, an ordinary driver's eye might wander to the dramatic lighting on the glass-faced Cira Centre alongside 30th Street Station. One night it's the Phillies logo. Another it's a pink ribbon for breast cancer.
Back in 2008, Drexel computer scientist Frank Lee found himself imagining something else in the Cira's matrix of colored LED lights: a massive display for a video game. Nearly five years later, his vision is about to become reality, as more than a hundred people get to play what's billed as the "Grandest Game of Pong on the Planet."
Lee plans to put his game through a dry run Thursday evening, the latest test before the main event: Giant Pong from 8 to 10 p.m. on April 19, to mark the start of Philly Tech Week, followed by two more hours April 24.
Players will mostly be chosen through a lottery - you can sign up for a chance through 5 p.m. Friday at ph.ly/pong. They'll play from the south terrace of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with a clear view of Cira's north face over the river.
If all goes as planned, Lee hopes to challenge Mayor Nutter for the first electronic duel, accompanied by a live band playing what he calls "classic arcade music." If you don't know what that means, tune your mind's ear to Mario Brothers or Donkey Kong on your kids' video-game sets.
But Pong? Puzzlement at his choice was one of the first reactions Lee got after he initially floated his vision to Brandywine Realty Trust, Cira's owner. And he was more baffled by that than by resistance to, as he puts it, some "random faculty member saying, 'Let me come in and hack your building,' "
To be sure, Lee first envisioned Cira as a canvas for a more colorful game, Tetris. But he calls Pong an example of "the pure primal elegance of game play and competition" - not to mention perfectly suited for the ultra-low-resolution display that the Cira could easily become.
"The feedback I got was, 'Pong is kind of old. Why would people care?' That floored me. Pong is like a cultural icon. It was the first commercially successful video game - the game that launched an industry," he says.
Lee, 43 and anything but some random faculty member, knows his gaming history. He's co-founder and co-director of Drexel's highly regarded Game Design program, and a student of gaming - a universal cultural phenomenon that he says has been traced archeologically as far back as 3500 B.C.
He also likes to think big. He has a plan for drawing 60,000 Eagles fans into a game on the mondo-monitors at Lincoln Financial Field, and another in which all Philadelphia could compete in a game based on Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Still, Giant Pong has put his skills to the test. First there was winning support from Brandywine, which said no after he finally got into the building in 2010 and made his first pitch.
Lee's credibility was boosted by support from Drexel's president, John Fry, and from Christopher Wink and Brian James Kirk, co-founders of the Technically Philly blog, which sponsors Philly Tech Week. They saw the chance to turn Giant Pong into a high-profile event.
Lee won final approval in January from Brandywine CEO Jerry Sweeney. Only then was he able to confront the key technological challenges of turning the Cira's light system into a low-res, 23-by-20-pixel, game display.
For instance, he knew that each of the 460 LED units on the Cira's north face was Internet-addressable, but he didn't know if the commands were encrypted - and, if so, whether the lights would work with the ordinary Philips controller offline.
Now, all systems appear to be a go. The paddles, shown in outline, will be two pixels wide by four pixels high. The ball will be two by two.
And anyone driving the Schuylkill during the gaming hours, or with a view of the Cira's north face, will get to marvel at Lee's vision come to life.