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Back In The Day....
Video game artists used to draw everything -- people, animals, you name it -- with a sheet of graph paper, a few colors, and a couple frames of animation. In spite of these limitations, they created some of the most iconic and nostalgia-packed imagery of the late 20th Century, the very symbols and mascots of the video game generation.
Out of necessity grew an enduring visual art style. No longer limited by resolution or power, some game designers still choose pixel art today instead of smoother, glossier options. Why? It's abstract, vibrant, nostalgic, and LEGO-like in its architecture. It stimulates our imaginations, and surprises us with artistic creativity. It draws comparisons to pointillist painting and stained glass, and I say it deserves a frame.
What Is Game Frame?
It's like a digital photo frame for pixel art, but way cooler. Each pixel is projected by a powerful LED though a mesh chamber and onto a sheet of white vellum. Colors are strictly isolated, and a black overlay sharply defines the grid. Since there is no global backlight, the visual effect is like a mix of traditional movie screen and OLED. It's quite unique.
Thousands of images & animations can be stored on SD and played back automatically according to your taste, configured by two buttons on top. You may want to find some classic video game sprites, or draw your own in your favorite editor. Graphics are just regular BMP files, common on both Mac and PC, and installing them is as easy as copying a file.
To get you started, Game Frame comes packed with over 40 brand new animations from the Godfathers of Pixel, eBoy.
The hardware is Arduino-based, and the complete source code will be released once shipments begin.
Who Am I?
I enjoy the intersection of technology and the arts. A year ago I made a box of pixels much like the one in this Kickstarter, just intended for myself. I showed it on Tested, and the reaction was so positive I decided to crowdfund it. First I had to replace the Raspberry Pi guts with Arduino to simplify the interface and scale back the cost, design a sturdier frame, and source a prefab LED grid. With all those problems solved, I'm ready to build a Game Frame for all my pixel-minded brothers and sisters.
This is also my second Arduino-based product. Last year I launched another LED kit called Airfield with a friend. If you're super into pinball like me, check it out.
From Pixel To Bitmap
I had the idea for Game Frame after playing an iPad app called Midway Arcade, a virtual arcade with neon game artwork hung on the wall. After searching fruitlessly to buy something like that in the real world, I decided to make it myself.
In its earliest stages, Game Frame was a mess of wires on a breadboard, and could display only four pixels. The hardware evolved into a printed circuit board with big "through-hole" components, and later to use smaller surface mount parts. Consequently, my soldering skills leveled up. The final PCBs will be professionally assembled in China, but I needed to make sure the boards worked, and this gave me the welcome excuse to buy new workbench hardware. I even made my own solder paste stencil.
As the code evolved, the Arduino memory limit proved a major challenge. With only 2KB of RAM, it was initially impossible to display 256 pixels. (Nerdy bits: 512 bytes to buffer SD and 768 bytes to buffer LEDs leaves 768 bytes for all variables!) To get my pixels, I had to abandon the official Arduino SD library and use SDFat, its more mature and efficient cousin. The first 16x16 sprite that ever displayed was Mario, and while he wasn't animated yet, I certainly was, dancing around my work space.
(I must also credit the Adafruit Neopixel library, written by Phil Burgess and the open source community. This project would not exist without the shoulders of these giants.)
The frame itself is pretty close to the original materials and vision, although the hidden mesh that isolates light to each pixel almost caused me to abandon the project. Early prototypes used 30 sheets of crisscrossed paper, but this was time-consuming to construct, flimsy, and prone to heat problems. To my great relief, I found a partner who could machine the part from solid plastic. This was a major turning point.
I also ordered several switches from Asia to test their look & feel. Originally I was thinking the pricey black aluminum buttons I've chosen would only go on the clear coated Game Frame, but they're so pleasing that I have to include them on every one.
The engineering challenges have been rewarding, but I am most proud of my partnership with the artists at eBoy. I already owned their book, and have one of their posters framed in my living room. When I first contacted them months ago about drawing the art for Game Frame, I hoped only for a gentle, "Thanks, but no thanks." Given their busy schedule designing advertising campaigns and massive Pixoramas, I never expected the level of enthusiasm I received. They loved the prototype I sent, and working with them to design the logo, menus, and graphic content has been a dream come true.
How Does Game Frame Work?
Images are stored on SD, and everything is controlled with two buttons on top. During playback, the "Next" button simply advances to the next image, while "Setup" takes you into the menus.
Pressing "Setup" repeatedly advances through the four menus, while "Next" steps through the options for each one.
Brightness: Choose from seven brightness levels to suit your room.
Playback Mode: Sequential plays images in the order they were written to the SD card. Shuffle plays images in a random order. Pause also plays images in a random order but stops animations, in case they become a little distracting.
Timer: Dictate how long each image should display before moving on to the next one. There are 8 options that range from 10 seconds to infinity.
Play: You can't call it a Game Frame without including a game. See if you can beat this Breakout clone. It's not easy! You can even design your own level by replacing a single graphic on the SD card.
As for the images themselves, they are simply 24-bit BMP files. (I'll provide instructions for converting files to the correct format.) They get dropped into a folder on the SD card named whatever you like, and given the file name 0.bmp. If you want to create an animation, simply add more graphics (e.g. 1.bmp, 2.bmp, etc.). Game Frame will loop the images at a default speed until the timer expires, and then move onto the next image set.
Advanced animations are also possible by placing a text file called config.ini alongside your images. This unlocks the option to set the frame rate, toggle looping, and hard code the next image for playback. It also lets you move your animations, so you can create a 3-frame walk cycle that actually walks across the screen. There's even support for filmstrip files where graphics are stacked above each other in one long, high-resolution image. Using this method you can achieve a film-like 24fps refresh rate. 16x16 video, anyone?
Finally, images aren't limited to 16x16. You can pan across much larger images or animations, and in any direction you wish.
The Pledge Rewards
Every reward tier gets the complete art package designed by eBoy (currently over 40 animations). You'll receive the raw graphics used for Game Frame plus enlarged animated GIFs for easier viewing on a computer screen.
Black threads screened with a delightful eBoy-designed pixel version of the Game Frame itself. You'll choose your size once the Kickstarter is funded.
Soldering required! Never heard of Make Magazine or Maker Faire? This kit probably isn't for you. It includes an assembled PCB, the LED board (optional), a power adapter, and SD card filled with artwork. In order to make it pump pixels, you'll need to connect switches for power, "Setup," and "Next" to the PCB solder pads. (Frame and switches not included.)
This is the main event. It includes everything in the Maker Kit, plus all of the frame components and switches, assembled for your pleasure. Just unbox and plug it in. Add additional art by copying graphics to the included SD card.
Clear Coated Game Frame
I'll take additional time after assembly to apply three layers of clear coat to the frame's four sides. This gives it a slightly darker, reflective, smoother finish. The unfinished wood looks great, but this extra protection is a little easier on the hands and eyes.
Clear Coated Game Frame + eBoy Pixel Portrait
Pixèl de résistance. The mad geniuses at eBoy will take a photograph you provide and hand pixel an animated portrait to include on your Game Frame! Your eyes will blink like a photo straight out of Harry Potter, or your glasses will shimmer with pure 8-bit ecstasy. Will they paint you? Your significant other? Your cat? (Sorry, no revisions.)
- March 9: Kickstarter concludes.
- March 10: FCC Verification begins.
- March 21: Kickstarter funds delivered.
- March 24: FCC Verification concludes. Code freeze. PCBs, LED boards, frame parts, SD cards, and T-shirts ordered.
- March 31: Begin wiring harness builds & SD duplication process.
- May 5: PCB, LED, & frame parts received. Build process begins. Rate is 300/month.
- June 2: Ship first 300 units.
For subsequent months, the build rate of 300/month will continue until all units are shipped. In all cases, units will be shipped according to backer date.
Risks and challenges
I have discussed all of the details with my partners, and everyone is ready to go. I have budgeted spare time to account for unanticipated delays, and limited the time-intensive rewards to a reasonable number. The code and hardware are pretty much done with the exception of a couple performance tweaks I want to make.
This said, I know from experience that not everything will go according to plan. For example, one wildcard is FCC verification. I have a testing facility lined up, but if the unit fails for any reason I will have to make adjustments and resubmit. That could add a couple weeks to the schedule.
I can only promise that this project will have my full attention. I know from backing projects myself that you want and deserve good communication. I promise frequent informative updates, and if a problem arises you'll know the details and game plan.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (30 days)