Along with doing dumb things with old cars, I also sometimes like to do dumb things with old computers and video games. Occasionally, I can convince someone to let me parade these things out in front of a lot of people. That’s why the Indianapolis Museum of Art will let you play Pole Position with an actual car this summer. Let me explain.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art has an exhibition called Dream Cars coming this summer that looks to be fantastic, and I’ll be doing a few events in conjunction with that — a lecture, some workshops teaching how to hotwire a car and/or break out of a car trunk, and, most excitingly, an installation that will go in the museum’s large outdoor amphitheater: a massive screen playing an authentic 80s-era 8-bit home computer version of Pole Position that you control by sitting inside an actual car, and using the car’s actual controls to play the game.

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I’m including the proposal page I sent here so you can see generally what I mean. I’ve sort of done the opposite before, making a video game controller from some car parts, but this is the first time I’m turning a whole car into a controller.

Now, one of my big interests in doing this kind of work is using original, archaic hardware. Sure, this could all be done incredibly realistically with modern computers and accelerometers and stuff, but I’m not interested in that. I want to wildly aggrandize the crappy, the lo-fi, the blocky, blurry, pixellated glory of these bygone eras in our culture. That’s why I love the idea of blowing up that old 160x192 pixel screen to a colossal 45 feet in height — which will make each pixel about the size of a business card.

And the idea of filling your entire view out an actual car’s windshield with that pixellated driving landscape, that seems to me like it would be a lot of fun. It would be the opposite goal of a modern driving simulator, where a computer is trying to make you believe you’re driving in reality — I want you to feel like you’re immersed and driving in the limited world of an 80s (technically, late ‘70s) Atari computer.

So that’s what I want to do — now I need to figure out how. The good news is that the how really isn’t all that complicated. In fact, I did my first proof-of-concept test today to see how it’ll all work, using my Beetle as the controller for the game. Here’s how I did it.

First, you need to break down exactly what you need the car to control. These old 80s home driving games were really quite simple, and the inputs you can give the car are just steer left, steer right, brake, shift high, shift low. That’s it.

And, on these Atari versions, the game was usually played with a simple digital joystick. So all I need to do is to remap the on/off switches of that joystick onto a car’s actual driving controls.

Today’s test was for the most complex part: the steering. The brake I’ll just wire up as a contact button under the pedals, and I’ll do some simple throw switch connected to the shifter for the high/low controls — I have a small switch wired up for that now. But for steering, I want the player to use the actual wheel, and it has to feel like a normal car wheel — so how do I turn that into an on/off contact?

The answer is that I make a really, really crude and crappy version of a Wiimote. Essentially, I’m wiring up a pair of simple tilt sensors — well, really switches, since all they can sense is Tilt or Not Tilt. I wanted to use mercury switches from old thermostats for this, until I realized thermostats haven’t used them for years and years. Oops. I guess people don’t like mercury as much as I thought.

Instead, I used simple tilt switches, which are basically tiny balls in tiny cans. Tilt one way, contact is made; tilt another, it’s broken. Easy!

So, I just need to mount the tilt switches to the steering wheel, connect the contacts for the brake and shifter, and get all those on/off inputs into the computer. I’m doing that part via this breakout box I made from an old relic of Atari’s educational ambitions: the AtariLab system.

AtariLab was a product Atari sold to schools to let kids use Atari computers for science experiments. These products came with a little interface box to connect to the Atari computer’s game port, and would let you connect thermometers and light sensors and stuff.

I found that with a little bit of rewiring of these boxes, you can turn them into a basic controller port breakout box, giving easy and direct access to all the pins on the port. So, I have a common ground and wires from all the individual controls. It’s really remarkably crude and simple, but the result feels much more involved than it has any right to.

So, today, I quickly and sloppily wired up the system into my car — specifically the steering controls, which is what I most wanted to test, laid a monitor on my windshield, and gave it a go:

... and, look at that, it works! It needs some position and sensitivity tweaking, sure, and, of course, on the actual installation in the amphitheater, I’ll be hiding the wires and control box and computer in whatever car we end up using there, but, like I said, this was just the first test.

I think it’s already pretty fun. I’m hopeful that when that screen image fills up your entire field of vision outside the windshield, and you’re cranking that wheel to avoid the blocky cars and the oddly blank billboards, this should be a pretty fun and engaging experience. We’ll find out, I guess!

The exhibition opens May 1, and my Pole Position installation will likely go up a bit later in the summer — July or August or so. I’ll keep everyone updated.