• 12.04.12

Hacked Pinball Machine Turns Your Games Into Ink Drawings

Yes, tilting is still cheating.

Typically, all you can expect from a game of pinball is, at best, a bonus ball or two, or, at worst, an overwhelming urge to smash the thing up nice and good with a baseball bat. But with Sam van Doorn’s self-built machine, players are guaranteed to walk away with a nice memento of the encounter: a poster of their game, created before their eyes as they whack an ink-dipped ball around the paper board.


Van Doorn, a graduate student based in the Netherlands, created the machine for his graduation project. He had a vague idea to make some sort of computer printer that would “combine control and chaos,” he says, when inspiration came in the form of an entirely different type of machine. A relative had been trying to get rid of an old ’70s pinball unit, van Doorn explains, and one of his roommates convinced him to bring it to their house. Only after fixing the relic up and playing a few rounds did the artist realize it was the perfect vessel for delivering the chaos he was looking for.

Van Doorn and his roommate conferred with a local collector of vintage machines about pinball electronics and collected a number of sets of flippers for testing. But putting the thing together was relatively straightforward compared to the challenge of finding the right ink for the job. In his initial testing, van Doorn found it was a little like the porridge that was always too hot or too cold. “If the ink was too thick, it would stick to the paper, so the ball wouldn’t move smoothly,” he explains. “But if the ink was too thin, it would simply slide off the ball and you would have to dip it very often.”

Ultimately, he managed to concoct a mixture that was just right, employing an ink used commonly in lithography projects. It stays on the ball for hours, van Doorn notes, so players don’t need to continually re-dip during their sessions–“a great improvement in game play.”

But the finished machine, dubbed Styn, achieved an even greater compromise of control and chaos than the creator had initially expected. It quickly became clear that the style of each individual player had a significant effect on the aesthetic qualities of his or her poster.

“Some people shoot the ball hard and fast,” van Doorn explains, “which makes it leave less ink on the paper, while some people play slow, which makes the print much more graceful.” Looking at the various products, one can instantly identify some strategies and tendencies: Some players clearly favor the right side of the board, others the left; some rely on the lowest set of flippers, while other players manage to keep the ball pinging around up at the top.

While the finished posters are indeed a nice reward for a user’s sustained concentration, they’re only one of the ways in which the custom-built machine departs from its frustrating forebears. Van Doorn’s machine doesn’t require any quarters to play.

See more on the project page.


[Hat tip: Colossal]