Steve Lambert

wrote a book!!!

Making of Simmer Down Sprinter

Is this possible?

I somehow came up with this idea for creating a video game that would be controlled by the players relaxation. I loved the idea, but I had no idea how (or if) it was even possible. In January of 2006 I started talking to people that knew more about electronics to see what they thought. The answer was generally, “yeah, I suppose it’s possible, but…” and that’s when I would start taking notes.

I heard more than once, “you’re probably going to want to use Max for this.” My first thought, “Ok, who is Max?” It turns out Max is a programming language/software that allows you to do… well, almost anything. “Note to self, learn Max.”

Luckily, I was doing graduate work at UC Davis at the time, and Bob Ostertag happened to be teaching a workshop on Max with a handful of students. I found that since I had a very good idea of what I wanted to do with the program, learning it was much more directed and easier than had I dived in with no direction. I also had a deadline, which is motivating.

The Video

I started shooting video at Toomey Field at UC Davis with lots of help from cameraman/filmmaker/musician and neighbor, Jeff Pitcher. We would go out there in the breaks between archery and track practices and get shots in. There were other people running on the track at the same time, so we would wait till most of them were on the other side of the track, then shoot me running a turn, and then take a break. Sometimes we got the timing off:

running with runners

I was a runner in high school – which was over 10 years ago now. For some reason I thought I could just pick up and do it again, but apparently it doesn’t work that way. 85 degree heat, me out of shape. It was not easy.

Not to mention being out there in my “costume” shooting a series of stretches for an hour in different outfits made me feel like a huge fraud as real runners were huffing their way around the track over and over covered in sweat.


It didn’t take long for me to realize I was in a bit over my head. I have minimal experience with electrical engineering. I’ve fixed wiring on some vintage vespas and installed a new rotor on my ’71 bmw motorcycle, so I knew enough to know I did not know enough. Oh yeah, I’m at a university. There’s people all over the place that study all kinds of things. A few weeks earlier, a professor from the Electrical Engineering Department had contacted me about the Emma Goldman Sign. Soon enough he had helped me round up some undergrad students who knew what they were doing!

Their first recommendation was to buy a Relaxomat – which is a biofeedback sensor made in the 80’s in West Germany. We ordered them up from ebay, got some beer and some pizza, headed to their lab and got started with the operation.

electronics labRelaxomat

The Relaxomat measures Galvanic Skin Response. Our modifications changed the range that could be input and scaled the output of the sensor.

Programming the game

I had never really programmed before. I guess I wrote some things in BASIC on an Apple IIe when I was 11 or 12, but besides that and HTML, that’s it. I think the fact that I was able to learn Max and program this game in 6 months is a testament to how easy Max is to use.

I knew I would be using Max along with a Making Things Teleo unit to get the analog sensor data into the computer. The core of the program would be having the input from the sensors speed up or slow down the video. Luckily I was able to do that fairly quickly. I shot a dummy video of me running outside that I could practice with. Then I got 2 going at the same time and added some code that would figure out which screen was in front. As soon as I got the sensors controlling the speed, I had to make the meters. When I got that done, I was so proud I had to take this picture:

test running program

Once I had working models of the GSR sensor and a basic temperature sensor from the electrical engineering students I got to work on the programming. For testing purposes, I stuck the contacts into a cardboard box, and then ran the sensors into my laptop. This was the short lived Simmer Down Sprinter: The Home Game.

home game

Below are some image of Max patches I was working on in February 2006. They have all been since abandoned for better versions or entirely new methods. In fact, they are a bit embarrassing if you know anything about Max. Eventually I will get some screenshots of the finished program up here.

sensor switch patchchroma key patch

Ultimately the challenges with the programming were creating a sequence so when the coin drops, x happens, then y happens, etc. Also, keeping the two players screens sync-ed, interpreting the incoming data and how it changed the game, averaging the GSR and temp inputs, preventing simple ways to cheat the game. Anyway, there were a lot of details. If you want me to bore you with more, just email me.

The Hardware and Cabinet

I began collecting hardware early. I found two JVC 27 inch televisions on craigslist. Ordered the Teleo unit. Found a used Dual 1ghz Apple G4 at the UC Davis Bargain Barn. I found a coin door (where you put the coins in) through Pinball Geeks in Sacramento. Then there were the countless little things. It seemed like I was ordering detail stuff or making trips to the hardware store everyday for the last month before the game was done.

I had some ideas of how to build the game based on some research on people who build MAME cabinets. I didn’t know this untill recently, but apparently there are lots of people who build their own arcade cabinets. By looking through these I learned some interesting tips as well as some mistakes to avoid.

It also helped that I am the son of custom cabinet makers and grew up in a woodshop. Luckily, my folks were able to have a look at my drawings before hand, make some recommendations, and boost my confidence. Initially I had gone to an arcade with a giant sheet of butcher paper and traced the side of a game I liked the shape of. Using that shape, I created a life size profile drawing of the side of my game and started to plan the structure. Fast-forward…


Because of the elaborate plan I made for the cabinet and the fact that I could work full days without stopping, I thought the building would take 4 days, at most 10. In the end it took 1 month. Oh yeah, and I took breaks to program.

May 4, 2006 – the frame.

frame with top
May 5, 2006 – added the platform for the TV.

may 7
May 7, 2006 – building out the seats.

may 8
May 8, 2006 – adding floor, correcting seat width.

may 11
May 11, 2006 – The MDF dust settles and it’s starting to look like something.

may 13
May 13, 2006 – added sides of seat and armrest.

may 16
May 16, 2006 – more seat panels added, marquee, sides attached.

may 21
May 21, 2006 – we begin priming.

may 22 cab
May 22, 2006 – first of many coats of black paint

may 22
May 22, 2006 – installing T-molding.

Oh yeah, the Graphics

I knew early on who I wanted to work with on the graphics, my old friend Richard Miller. Richard has been nice enough to work with me on some past projects, answer my graphics questions, and even set up a few guitars. We emailed back and forth a bit, him asking questions and me sending stills from opening sequence of the Six Million Dollar Man, images from Tron, pictures of the original Track and Field video game cabinet, Bruce Lee movie posters, etc. In the end his graphics came out awesome. A perfect blend of classic video game and red state vs. blue state political campaign.

Back to Building

Using a large format inkjet printer, I printed the graphics onto my new favorite media, adhesive vinyl. Essentially it’s a giant sticker. You can’t imagine how much concentration it takes to lay a 3 foot by 5.5 foot sticker down without wrinkles. One top of that (literally) goes another 3 foot wide sticker in the form of an adhesive laminate that protects the print and makes the surface look nice and plastic-ey.

May 25, 2006 – Some graphics on and the cabinet and seat joined.

My favorite part, the flooring. Purchased from a company actually called Global Industrial. I couldn’t help but think of GloboChem.

may 25
May 25, 2006 – wired the lights for the marquee. The graphics are printed on backlit film.

May 29
May 29, 2006 – installed in the gallery, still needing wiring, tvs, set up, etc.

may 29 2

Questions? ETC.

If you want any more information about Simmer Down Sprinter just contact me and I will get back to you. If you’d like to play it, sign up on my mailing list and you will get updates on where future shows will be – bring quarters! Also, I am always looking for places to exhibit the piece. And, yes, Simmer Down Sprinter is for sale.

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