Date: 27th May, 2012
We don't normally cover pinball emulators or simulators here at Pinball News, as we much prefer playing the real things. But when we heard of a plug-and-play system which allows a virtual game to use some real pinball hardware, we just had to investigate.
The hardware in question is the dot matrix display (DMD) and it can now be integrated into Visual Pinball emulations thanks to this PinDMD board from software developer, Russell Pirie.
The 2.2" x 1.1" board plugs into the USB port of the computer running the Visual Pinball/PinMAME/VPinMAME software and, by using a modified DLL file, the game's DMD animations are sent to the board through the USB connection.
Anyone who has ever disconnected or reconnected their DMD will recognise the 14-pin connector on the right hand side of the board, and it is here that the DMD's ribbon cable connects.
If the DMD is of the 5V LED or 12V variety then it can simply connect to the PC's power supply for it's required voltages. If it's one of the gas plasma types, things get a bit more complicated with the need for -110V, -98V and +75V supplies, but a PinDMD power supply board to provide these voltages in under development.
Traditionally, a third LCD monitor is used to show the DMD animations in VP/VPinMAME cabinets, but these never have the same brightness as a real DMD and often only use a small part of the screen, wasting the unused area. The PinDMD removes the need for that third monitor and a graphics card output to drive it.
The PinDMD board has another trick up its sleeve too. In addition to showing DMD display frames, it can also replicate an alpha-numeric display on the DMD.
Russell created the PinDMD system after working on similar DMD technology for a different application. He told us, "I had a 192x64 plasma DMD (used on Baywatch and 3 other Sega pinballs, but most commonly used on the Williams DotMation slot machines) and I was using it for a personal slot machine project I was making - converting an old IGT cabinet into a DotMation slot machine using my own custom hardware. I already had the display hooked up to an FPGA and code to stream frames to it, and thought it would be really cool to stream the frames from pinMAME. After I got it working I thought it was so cool that maybe other people would like to do the same (although I later swapped to a much cheaper ARM LPC2103 microcontroller to run the DMD)."
The current production board is capable of producing three different shades plus black, as used on nearly all regular-size DMD displays until the SAM system increased that number to eleven plus black starting with World Poker Tour in 2006. However, a second version of the board is also being developed which will handle far more shades. Russell told Pinball News, "I'm currently working on pinDMD 2 which will go back to using the FPGA and a much faster high speed FTDI USB controller. This new version will be able to handle 4/16/32 shade custom animations and much higher frame rates with a very fast refresh rate, (but it is a while off yet)."
He has already sold more than 80 PinDMD boards and enthusiasts are actively including it in their cabinet builds, even though that wasn't the plan when Russell started selling them. "My intention was for the board to be used with a DMD sat on people's desks, but I soon came to realise people wanted to use it for there video pinball cabinets (which at the time I had no idea people where building). Using a third graphics card / LCD monitor to emulate the DMD caused the game to slow down and stutter. My board removed this third graphics card and LCD monitor and made the pinball machine even more authentic by having a real DMD in it. You don't get more realistic than the real thing! The community loved it and there is a 60 page thread on vpforums.org about it."
You can find out more about the PinDMD and order one on the product's website at pinDMD.com. The costs is £52.38 ($82.06, €65.54) plus shipping.
© Pinball News 2012