Pongmechanik is an art project of Niklas Roy (www.cyberniklas.de). You can find a list of exhibitions here.

The following text explains the project:

Black box vs. showcase

When Konrad Zuse began building the first computer in 1935, the world was a different place. The relentless advance of digital tecnology had not yet begun, mechanics ruled the day. So it is no surprise that Zuse's first computer was a mechanical computer. The computer worked without electricity, it could be operated with a hand crank. With later machines, Zuse replaced individual parts with used telephone relays, (first the arithmetic unit, later also the memory).

A relay is a rather simple electromechanical component, which can have two states. It is thus ideally suitable for binary data. In addition, the workings of a telephone relay are openly visible and comprehensible to pepople without extenxive technical background. The self-taught Zuse did not have an electronics background. But he had great powers of creativity. Thus, the relay was the natural building block for his computers.

Zuses Z4
Contrary to today's computers, Zuse's machines did not hide their interior workings behind sheetmetal cases, but presented it in a showcase. The switching of the relays was visible through glass cabinet doors, and the associated clicking was loudly audible. Computations developed a physical presence; one could literally experience the computer when working.

Today's computers are designed as black boxes, as a system, which cannot readily be examined or understood. One can derive some of its behaviour by observing the inputs and outputs, but the actual workings remain hidden. I do not want to say that everyone could understand how Konrad Zuse's computers worked, but it was possible to watch and follow the job in a certain way.

From abstraction to realism

In 1972, Nolan Bushnell brought the first Pong to market to tremendous success. The handling of the extremely abstract and independent digital version of a tennis play was to be understood captivatingly fast, and the play happened on a televsion screen in real time - which so far had only served to illustrate reality.

Over time, video games developed further mostly in one direction: The virtual reality produced by the game becomes closer to what we are accustomed to from television. The difference between a Playstation soccer game and a TV soccer game is alreay small, and getting smaller with each new generation of game console. A look back shows, how first color, then pseudo three-dimensionality, and "genuine" three-dimensional illustration was finally achieved. The development of sound ran in parallel: The monotonous beeps of the early days yielded to full Surround sound.
Pac Man

Nevertheless the interfaces remained largely unchanged. The game is still steered with a joystick, whose form does not have anything to do with the game; the play still happens as a two-dimensional illustration on a screen, and progress is limited more realistic graphics.

Still, this progress appears to enhance the gaming experience. There are far more modern games played than old games. But pioneering games such as Pac Man or Pong achieve a new status: They are symbols of what defines a video game.

The Pongmechanik -
Fascination with the original

The contrast of these two developments moving in opposite directions is interesting: On one hand is there the computer, which extracted itself from its physical operational roots to a gray box with invisible workings. The circuits in it are so small and work so fast that computation is completely separated from our perceptions. On the other hand the development of video games tries to go the opposite direction with its uses for the computer: The video game wants to separate itself from its abstract roots, and enter the phyiscal world.
Pongmechanik is an electromechanical conversion of the classical game Pong. And instead of more realistic graphics, it ever accurately to reproduces the original Pong. The user is hardly changed. However the game breaks open the Black box: What takes place in the computer, becomes again perceptible and comprehensible.

Pongmechanik is an absolutely physical game. The game is realized electromechanically, and essentially consists of four elements:
A relay computer, the mechanical movement with collision detection, the display and the acoustic components.

Element 1: The relay computer controls the game. It consists entirely of used telephone relays, no semiconductors such as transistors or microprocessors were used. Contrary to modern electronic components, all operatins are visible and audible with the relays.

Element 2: The movements of ball and racquet, as well as the collision detection take place in a metal chassis under the glass cover. Each moving game compoent has a mechanical counterpart, which is moved by electric motors. When these parts collide, contacts are closed and the relays in the computer switch the direction of rotation of the motors.

Element 3: The movement of the mechanical parts is transferred via strings and guide pulleys to the display. The display consists of two closely spaced glass plates. The playing field is painted on the lower plate. The ball, represented by a white plastic square, is moved between the two plates by black string. The raquets, represented by two white plastic rectangles, are moved by string on the upper glass plate. The score is shown by rotating discs visible through openings in the playing field.

The sound
Element 4: The sound is produced by two wooden sound blocks, which are struck by the core of two solenoids. The computer controls both solenoids.

Together, these four elements produce an exact copy of the classical Pong.
But there is more:
The game is brought to a physically understandable and comprehensible level. Added to the game is the fascination of a comprehensible mechanism. The classical video game inspires two players. Pongmechanik additionally pulls otherwise indifferent spectators into its spell. They have the liberty to investigate the mechanics of the game in detail.

Many thanks to Matthias Wandel for translating this text.