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Pong Over Philly: Dr. Frank Lee Transforms Cira Centre into Classic Arcade Game

pong poster
Image courtesy of Drexel University.

April 4, 2013 — The video game that started them all will come to life on Philadelphia’s largest array of LEDs in a visual spectacle that is sure to inspire wonder while plucking at the heartstrings of nostalgic video gamers throughout the city. On the evening of April 19, Cira Centre’s 83,360-square-foot, north-facing wall will be transformed into the classic arcade game Pong to open festivities of the third annual Philly Tech Week presented by AT&T from April 20-27.

Dr. Frank Lee, an associate professor in Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design and co-founder of the Drexel Game Design Program, is the man behind the bouncing ball. Lee, who co-directs Drexel’s nationally recognized gaming program, had a vision of turning the building into his personal game console. With some help from Technically Philly, Brandywine Realty Trust, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Knight Foundation, Lee’s dream is becoming a reality for all of Philadelphia to see – and play.

“This is something I’ve been envisioning for quite a while,” Lee said. “Not only is this something that’s just fun for anyone who’s ever played a video game, but it’s also a uniquely interactive art installation. One of the main goals of this event is to inspire wonder and creativity in anyone who sees it, especially kids.”

The steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum will serve as the living room for the large-scale video game. Participants will stand, arcade-style controller in hands, to battle it out in a Pong game of epic proportions on the Cira Centre’s north-facing wall that rises 401-feet over 30th Street Station.

Lee and his colleagues at Drexel, Gaylord Holder, Marc Barrowclift and Dr. Santiago Ontanon, wrote the software that interfaces with Cira's Color Kinetics program to control the 1,514 LEDs affixed to the building's shadowbox spandrels - about one quarter of which will be used to create the game.

Installed with the building's opening in 2005 to give the Cira Centre a distinguished illumination and enhance its aesthetic, the lights have become part of Philadelphia's iconic skyline. They reflect the attitude of the city - in Eagles' green and Phillies' red - and serve as a luminescent memorial during cancer awareness months, holidays and events that affect the entire city.

"We are delighted to partner with Drexel University on this project and participate in Philly Tech Week," said Gerard H. Sweeney, President and CEO of Brandywine Realty Trust. "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."

The game is a recreation of Pong, the first video arcade game to reach mainstream popularity after its release in 1972. It is a tennis-style game with a pair of rectangular paddles that move vertically, one controlled by each player, to volley a ball back and forth in an attempt to make the opponent miss it.

The community Pong tournament will begin a week of events and discussions that celebrate technology and innovation in Philadelphia. Now in its third year, Philly Tech Week - which is organized by Brian James Kirk and Christopher Wink, the cofounders of local technology news site Technically Philly - is an annual week-long celebration of technology and innovation in Philadelphia.

"This event, at the intersection of arts and technology, displays the imagination, spirit and determination of a city's technology community," said Kirk, who, along with his partner Wink, worked with Lee to lobby for support for the effort. "We're proud to have helped bring together these and many other great partners during Philly Tech Week, in the spirit of collaboration."

The Tech Week kick off Pong tournament will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 19 at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, after the museum's regular Art After Five program. It is free and open to the public. Those hoping to be one of the limited number of Pong tournament players can register for the chance by signing up online at Ph.ly/Pong before Friday, April 12 at 5 p.m. Lottery winners, along with those who find a "Golden Ticket" at the Tech Week Preview event and a select group of participants from local youth science, technology, engineering and math education groups, will be alerted before Wednesday, April 17.

An additional Cira Centre game event will be held on Wednesday, April 24 at 8 p.m. also on the Art Museum steps. For more information about the more than 85 other events happening during Philly Tech Week, visit http://phillytechweek.com

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