Like many things retro, pinball has made quite the comeback. Since the early 2000s, there has been a staggering level of growth in the number of pinball competitions and players globally. Forbes Magazine reports that, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association, there were 50 competitions across the globe in 2006 with 500 players, but by 2017 there were almost 4,500 competitions with over 55,000 players. (Forbes, Dec. 26, 2017)
In tandem with the renewed interest in mechanical pinballs is the growth in the virtual or digital pinball community and industry. Cabinet maker and self-taught electronics engineer David Gilmore is one such virtual pinball enthusiast. Gilmore marries his classic cabinet making skills with electro mechanical knowledge and robotics skills to produce digital pinball machines.
Rather than using thousands of mechanical moving parts, Gilmore’s full sized pinball cabinets, complete with a hinged back-box, DMD, lock-down bar and digital plunger, contain computers and screens. So unlike traditional pinballs, there are less issues owing to mechanical breakdown and wear and tear, and players have the capacity to enjoy hundreds of pinball tables on the one machine.
‘Its pinball, but not as you know it,’ says the 43 year old father of five. ‘My digital pinball machines look and feel remarkably like the old school mechanical machines, but with the benefit that you won’t get bored playing the same game over and over!’
The manufacturing of mechanical pinball machines is a complex process, and over the years many pinball companies have come and gone due to the high costs of production and ongoing mechanical problems causing them to fail.
The production of digital, or virtual pinball machines is not entirely new— a growing DIY community around the world has been building such machines for some years. If you lack the computer and cabinet-making expertise to make such a DIY project feasible, however, then Gilmore’s business Retro Play was designed with you in mind. Gilmore combines traditional pinball cabinet making methods and designs from the fifties and sixties with new technologies to bring renewed vigour to the old classic game.
What makes Gilmore’ machines special, though, is not just the slick, professional finish of the cabinets themselves, but the pinball feedback system inside which gives the whole machine a more authentic pinball “feel.”
Gilmore explains, ‘I use 8 real 12 volt mechanical solenoids inside the cabinet, just like you would find in an electro-mechanical pinball machine. These solenoids are wired to a robotics board which is driven by the computer. So when you press the left flipper, for example, the left flipper solenoid fires to produce the audible familiar sound of a solenoid firing inside the cabinet. Likewise, when the ball inside the game strikes bumpers or slingshots, the corresponding solenoid operates.’ In addition, Gilmore uses 4 tactile vibration speakers to produce in-game mechanical sounds and sensations, like the drop of a coin, or the vibrations of the ball on a ramp. Gilmore describes it as being similar to the “rumble feature” on an Xbox. ‘The tactile speakers transmit mechanical vibrations through the wooden cabinet,’ he says, ‘so you can actually “feel the ball moving around the play field.’
M. Ozanian, ‘Playing Pinball’s Big Comeback’, Forbes Magazine, (online), Dec 26, 2017, accessed April 30, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikeozanian/2017/12/26/playing-pinballs-big-comeback/#1a8e668441a5