Godzilla multiplied by Arcade Games plus McDonalds divided by Pepsi Max plus StepMania equals Tom Tilley
Thomas Tilley
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PVC Water Pipe Tron Controller

2007


Australian Tron movie poster
Source: MovieGoods

The year was 1982 and alongside the hand-drawn Millennium Falcon blueprints on the wall of my bedroom was this movie poster (see left) for the movie Tron. One of the classic scenes in Tron is the light cycle arena - essentially a glorified 3D version of the snake game you find on mobile phones but with futuristic motorcycles instead of snakes.

Jump forward 25 years into the future to Thailand, 2007. Here there are so many motorbikes that people need to customise them so that they can find them again when they park at the local shopping centre. Many of the accessories people use to customise their bikes are adorned with popular Japanese cartoon characters like Doraemon and Ultraman. From the geeky origins described above it should come as no surprise then that when I saw a pair of custom Ultraman motorbike handgrips my first thought was let's build a controller for playing GL-Tron.

If you haven't seen it here's the original light cycle scene from Tron:





GL-Tron screenshot

GL-Tron is a free, open source game that faithfully re-creates the above scene with up to four players steering their very own 3D light cycles. Riders can choose between a first-person cockpit view (which actually makes you feel like you have been strapped to the front mudguard) or an external third-"person" view. To play the game you use two buttons to turn left and right respectively, two to look left and right and one button that can be used to give your cycle a temporary speed boost.

Bamboo is one of Thailand's most versatile and abundant natural resources for building things while PVC water pipe is most probably the most versatile and abundant of Thailand's un-natural resources. We measured the length of the handlebars on one of the Honda motorbikes that are so common here and then cut a piece of 15mm (1/2") PVC water pipe to the same length - approximately 72cm (approx. 28"). The picture right shows the rest of the parts used to make the controller:

PVC water pipe, buttons, a mercury switch, wire, pipe glue, and Ultraman motorbike handgrips

The four buttons are the (frustratingly unreliable) buttons that were originally used in the first version of my Bug-zapper Guitar Hero controller. Perhaps the only thing more frustrating than missing a note during a screaming guitar solo is to miss a split-second turn and smash straight into a wall in your light cycle! The bottom half of a black project case can also be seen in the bottom left-hand corner of the image. The other half of the case is hot-melt glued to the back of the bug-zapper guitar.

A pocket-knife was used to rout out the center of the two pipe-diameter adapters so that enough of the 15mm pipe could be inserted for secure glueing. The length of PVC pipe was then cut into three sections, glued and holes were pre-drilled for the buttons.

It's a little hard to see in the image above but there is also a mercury switch (from our usual source) shown just below the red button. This was glued inside one of the pipe-diameter adapters to provide a boost switch - see the image below right. To boost you needed to rotate the entire length of the controller rather than just one handle but it was still a fun touch.

The completed handlebar assemblies The glance and turn buttons on the left handgrip The mercury switch glued inside the handlebar

Having already hacked a USB joypad for our wooden DDR pad and patching a 25 pin D-SUB connector into the buttons meant that hooking the controller up to a computer was straightforward. We simply needed to connect our light cycle controller wires to the appropriate pins on a male 25-pin D-SUB connector. The computer would then recognise our button presses as if they came from the joypad. It was then just a matter of configuring the appropriate key settings in GL-Tron to match our wiring choices.

The completed controller is shown below. The only mistake (apart from using unreliable buttons!) was that the mercury switch was mounted upside down relative to the center hole for the wires. This meant you needed to hold the controller with the wires protruding through the top or the mercury switch would stay permanently on. This was only a minor annoyance.

The completed PVC water pipe Tron controller

So that you could be truly immersed in the digital world of Tron we borrowed a friend's data projector and built a rear-projection screen using some butcher's paper, a clothes rack and a length of yet more PVC pipe. The would-be electronic gladiator lay on an office table with the rear legs collapsed and their arms hanging over the end. For their added comfort the table was covered with a sleeping bag. Speakers were placed on either side of the rider's head and the table was positioned so that the screen filled their field of view with a first person cockpit perspective of the game.

My son playing GL-Tron using our immersive setup The rider's view of the game from behind the player

Other Projects

You may also be interested in reading about REAL-Tron or some of my other projects, many of which use hacked controllers, PVC water pipe, and/or mercury switches:

hacked joysticks PVC water pipe Guitar Hero TRON/motorbikes mercury switch
PVC Water Pipe Tron Controller
PVC Water Pipe Tron Controller
Asteroids Cabinet Fish Tank
Asteroids Cabinet Fish Tank
Wooden DDR Mat
Wooden DDR Mat
Everyday uses for PVC water pipe
Everyday uses for PVC water pipe
Bug-zapper Guitar Hero Controller
Bug-zapper Guitar Hero Controller
PVC Racing Cars
PVC Racing Cars
Virtual Pinball
Virtual Pinball
Halo Motorbike Helmet
Halo Motorbike Helmet
Multiplayer Guitar Hero
Multiplayer Guitar Hero
Bamboo Racing Cars
Bamboo Racing Cars
REAL-Tron
REAL-Tron
Terminator Xeyes
T-800 Terminator Xeyes
Plasma Pong Table
Plasma Pong Table
Voting Machine
Voting Machine
Blossom Motorbike Helmet
Blossom Motorbike Helmet
Coffee Grinder Puzzle Bobble
Coffee Grinder Puzzle Bobble
Stormtrooper Motorbike Helmet
Stormtrooper Motorbike Helmet
TRON Handheld POV Display
TRON Handheld POV Display
Countertop MAME Arcade Cabinet
Countertop MAME Arcade Cabinet
Lollybot
Lollybot
Payap Pinball Machine
Payap Pinball
Spacewar! Controllers
Spacewar! Controllers
Gundam Motorcycle Helmet
Gundam Motorcycle Helmet
Mega Game & Watch Octopus
Mega Game & Watch Octopus