Arena Play

April 2015 / Market Street Prototyping Festival (Pro Bono)

San Francisco’s First Six-Sided Ping Pong Table

Arena Play was born out of San Francisco’s first Market Street Prototyping Festival – a three-day experiment where 50 public installations were placed out on 6 blocks of Market St. A design proposal submitted by a small group of Gensler designers was selected out of the hundreds of submissions.

Arena Play was created to provide a universally accessible engaging experience on Market Street. The idea of street games emerged, and ping pong was the obvious winner. We began throwing interesting curveballs into the mix to represent the quirky yet cutting edge feel of San Francisco—most notably, the hexagonal shape.

The intent of the six-sided table was to encourage 3-on-3 gameplay, but until it was tested out on Market St., we had no idea how effective it would be. There is no sideline of Arena Play. If you walk up to the table, you’re already in the game. It was remarkable watching complete strangers invite each other to join in—and how easy it was for people standing by to break out of their comfort zone. The energy was contagious. People rarely walk along Market with a party of six, which meant most every game played was among strangers. Some decided to stay for hours and invent their own rules. I even saw new friends exchange numbers after playing together.

Arena Play was outfitted with a considerable amount of unexpected technology. The table is built with 96 individually addressable channels of LED lighting. Embedded sensors in the translucent tabletop pick up vibrations of ball bounces to illuminate the lights in sync with the gameplay. An announcer-style voiceover narrates the game, calling out the score and pumping up players with witty messages. The entire experience is pulled together with a soundtrack of high energy throwbacks synced with the scoring of the game.

We built out a number of additional features that came very close, including live tweeting game scores an automated ball hopper triggered by tweets.

I took on a multitude of roles on this project. I was responsible for the technology and fabrication of the tabletop. A true labor of love, the entire table was fabricated in my garage over the course of 4 months. I designed and built a ton of custom circuitry to control the lighting and audio predictably and securely. The table uses an Arduino Mega as the main logic controller, connected to two Arduino Unos to control lighting. A Raspberry Pi controls all of the audio.

After the Market Street Prototyping Festival, Arena Play was featured as a main exhibit at AIGA’s SF Design Week. It was also featured at Burning Man 2015. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has built a slightly smaller spin-off version of the table, which is currently being featured at the Prototyping: Place exhibition. There has been talk of an Arena Table 2.0 in the works.

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