If you want to get something audacious done, it often takes a lot of time, a lot of passion and a lot of friends. That’s how Dr. Frank Lee is finally making good on a years-long mission: playing Pong on a University City skyscraper.
Sometime in 2008, Lee was driving on I-76 toward Center City.
“I saw the sparkling lights on the Cira Centre,” said the director of Drexel’s prestigious game development program. “I had seen those lights many times before without thinking too much about them, but that time it was different.”
He dreamed of using the individual lights that cover the 430-foot University City skyscraper to play famed early video games — Tetris, Snake, Space Invaders and Pong. And he set about trying to make that a reality.
As announced tonight, the third annual Philly Tech Week Presented by AT&T will kickoff on Fri. April 19 at 8 p.m. with Lee leading a Cira Centre Pong tournament from the steps of the Art Museum. The claim is that it’s the world’s biggest video game — besting a Guiness Book-vetted effort in Kansas City last year and differentiating from a major 2001 projection in Berlin.
Enter yourself into the lottery to get a chance to play at ph.ly/pong.
Tell us you’re coming Fri. April 19 at 8pm on Facebook here.
In 2009, he thought more about the process and logistics and began reaching out to Brandywine Realty, the company that owns and operates Cira and the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce, where he had supportive contacts. By April 2010, he prepared a short three-page proposal [PDF] and began meeting with relevant players, but support for the big dream fizzled.
In early 2011, as plans for the first Philly Tech Week were coming together, Lee met with anyone who he thought could help — groups like Breadboard, the City of Philadelphia and others, including this reporter and fellow Tech Week co-organizer Brian James Kirk — to pool their efforts to garner the kind of support necessary to make the project come to light.
"I had seen those lights many times before without thinking too much about them, but that time it was different."
Turnaround time for April 2011 was deemed too tight, but that’s when the stars began to align.
- In July 2012, a group of Drexel students won the Microsoft Imagine Cup, an international gaming contest, which put Lee in front of his university president John Fry and Lee told him about his dream for Cira. Fry offered his support.
- Then in September 2012, the Association for Public Art and internationally recognized Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer unveiled ‘Open Air,’ among the largest public light shows in the country’s history to the Ben Franklin Parkway. Aside from modest debate about the impact of the light in the nighttime sky, the art display was widely celebrated. That was an even larger interactive public arts display on the Parkway, so Pong seemed downright attainable.
Later that fall 2012, Philly Tech Week organizers circled back around with Lee and decided to put all their effort into one last dash to make the world’s biggest video game happen, using the week as a platform, deadline and framework and the new top level Drexel support and ‘Open Air’ example as a foundation to argue for success.
With Lee’s blessing, Tech Week organizers pulled an outright lobbying effort, reaching out more formally to sources, relationships and friends in leadership at the University City District, the University City Science Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, Leadership Philadelphia, the Chamber of Commerce, the Mayor’s Office of Culture and the Creative Economy, GPTMC and WHYY, whose board chairman is Brandywine President Jerry Sweeney, among others.
Those groups offered their support for the project, which helped win Lee a meeting with Sweeney and his IT team, where he got approval in January 2013 to try. The initial technical test proved the concept was possible.
“This is the first time we’ve had an interactive light display at Cira and we hope that the event will inspire the imagination and creativity of our growing technology community in Philadelphia,” said Sweeney in a release.
Along the way, Lee said he received “incredible” support from Drexel. He partnered with Drexel computer science system administrator Gaylord Holder and computer science student Marc Barrowclift to build out the application that drives the games using Cira’s lighting infrastructure. He also received advice and technical support from Drexel computer science professor Santiago Ontanon.
On March 15, Lee quietly led a full test with his team, playing Snake, Pong and Space Invaders on the north side of the Cira building, beautifully viewed from the steps of the Art Museum. During the 2013 Philly Tech Week presented by AT&T, Dr. Frank Lee, after more than four years of dreaming of the project, will play Pong on the side of the Cira Centre with thousands of his closest friends.