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5:18 pm
Sun April 21, 2013

Philly Turns Skyscraper Into Video Game Screen For Tech Week

Originally published on Sun April 21, 2013 6:23 pm

When it comes to technology, Philadelphia is no Silicon Valley. And the organizers of the third annual Philly Tech Week say it's not trying to be.

To kick off the weeklong celebration of the local tech scene, organizers turned a skyscraper into an interactive light display Friday night. The Cira Centre, a 29-story building, became perhaps the world's biggest video game.

Frank Lee is the man behind this gigantic version of Pong. He's a professor at Drexel University and the co-founder of the school's Game Design Program.

Spectators gathered about a half-mile away to watch from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Eyes fixated on what was about a 400-foot-tall "screen," a lattice of LED lights on a wall of mirrored glass serving as the "pixels."

Lee says the vision for his tech-art mashup came when he was driving by the building one day.

"Other times I passed by, I didn't really think too much about it, but this time, in 2008, when I was passing by, I saw Tetris shapes rotating and falling. And that began this long journey to make this game," he says.

Five years later, his vision has morphed into the giant Pong video game.

A few hundred people gathered Friday night to watch gamers actually face off in an arcade classic that was older than most in attendance.

About 1,000 people had entered an online lottery for a chance to play. The first pair of winners stepped up to the joysticks. The game began, complete with vintage sound effects.

The old-school joystick panel was connected to a laptop, which was connected to a 4G hotspot, which was linked wirelessly to the computers that control the building's lights.

Darren Davis, 17, won the friendly match-up. He says playing a video game on a skyscraper was pretty cool.

"To be honest, taking my hands on the joystick, it was pretty amazing. I actually really liked it," says Davis, a high school junior by day, and a game developer by night.

If the idea of Tech Week is to encourage Philadelphians to up the ante, then it worked on Davis.

"It definitely is inspiration to make me want to top this, because I know I can," he says.

Organizer Christopher Wink says inspiration like that is the whole point. Wink runs the local tech blog that's organizing Philly Tech Week — Pong is just the kickoff to a slew of 100-plus tech-related events.

But Wink says the game, which made a static skyline interactive, is also a symbol of the momentum he's hoping to build around Philly's growing tech scene.

After dozens of competitors squared off on the face of the skyscraper, the video game was shut down for the night. But the opportunities for tech-induced wonder aren't done yet. Round 2 of Pong is on for Wednesday.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

When it comes to technology, Philadelphia is no Silicon Valley, and the organizers of the third annual Philly Tech Week say it's not trying to be. However, to kick off the weeklong celebration of the local tech scene, organizers have turned a skyscraper into an interactive video game. From member station, WHYY, Zack Seward reports.

ZACK SEWARD, BYLINE: So we're on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum...

FRANK LEE: Yup.

SEWARD: ...looking across the Schuylkill River. What are we looking at right now?

LEE: We're looking at the Cira Centre which is a 29-story building that'll soon be the world's biggest video game.

SEWARD: That's Frank Lee. He's a professor at Drexel University and the cofounder of the school's game design program. He's also the man behind this gigantic version of the video game Pong. About a half mile from where we're standing, a lattice of LED lights on a wall of mirrored glass is serving as the pixels on what you might call a 400-foot-tall screen. Lee says the vision for his tech art mashup came when he was driving by one day.

LEE: Other times I pass by, I wouldn't really think too much about it. But this time, in 2008, when I was passing by, I saw Tetris shapes rotating and falling. And that began this long journey to make this game.

SEWARD: Five years later, his vision has morphed into the giant pingpong video game. A few hundred people gathered Friday night to watch gamers actually face off in an arcade classic that was older than most in attendance. About 1,000 people entered an online lottery to play the game.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tickets 30 through 40 over here.

SEWARD: Two of the winners step up to the joysticks. The game begins, complete with vintage sound effects.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Three, two, one.

SEWARD: The old-school joystick panel is connected to a laptop, which is connected to a 4G hotspot, which is linked wirelessly to the computers that control the building's lights.

FRED GETTING: Look at that. And left paddle might take it. Yes, it does.

SEWARD: Fred Getting(ph) is a theater director and teacher in Philadelphia. He's also a pretty decent color commentator.

GETTING: Oh. Oh, he wins. Left paddle wins, five to three. Pong. There you go.

SEWARD: Seventeen-year-old Darren Davis was the winner of that friendly matchup. He says playing a video game on a skyscraper was pretty cool.

DARREN DAVIS: To be honest, taking my hands on a joystick, it was pretty amazing. I actually really liked it.

SEWARD: Davis is a high school junior by day but a game developer by night. The idea of tech week is to encourage Philadelphians to up the ante, and it worked on Davis.

DAVIS: It definitely is inspiration to me. Make me want to top this because I know I can.

SEWARD: Organizer Christopher Wink says inspiration like that is the whole point. Wink runs the local tech log that's organizing Philly Tech Week. Pong is just the kickoff to a slew of 100-plus, tech-related events. But Wink says the game is also a symbol of the momentum he's hoping to build around Philly's growing tech scene.

CHRISTOPHER WINK: When you look at a skyline that is the embodiment of infrastructure, then it can move as a symbol for what Philadelphia can do. We can make Philadelphia whatever we want it to be.

SEWARD: After dozens of competitors squared off on the base of a skyscraper, the video game was shut down for the night. But the opportunities for tech-induced wonder aren't done yet. Round two of Pong is on for Wednesday. For NPR News, I'm Zack Seward in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.