There’s a certain charm to the old-school mechanical flipboard displays that were most commonly used to display arrival and departure times at airports and train stations for decades. There’s a good reason they weren’t used for much else, however, as this attempt to play Tetris on one of the displays demonstrates.
Flipboard displays (also called split-flap displays) work by spinning a stack of printed flaps to reveal letters, numbers, and other types of iconography. Each one is not unlike a pixel, just much, much slower, which is where the challenge of using a flipboard display for something that requires a high refresh rate comes in.
The flipboard elements used here can almost instantly switch from solid white to solid black because those flaps sit right next to each other. But they can only spin in one direction, so to go from black back to white requires each element to make a full rotation through every single letter, number, and symbol they can display. It can do that relatively quickly, but nowhere near as fast as the pixels on your smartphone’s screen can. That’s problematic for a game like Tetris where quick reaction times and repeated movements are crucial to successfully stacking those blocks.
The folks at Oak Foundry, a Philadelphia-based engineering firm that builds interactive products and installation but is best known for its mechanical flipboard displays, set out to turn one of them into a wall-sized playable version of Tetris. The company succeeded, but that mostly depends on how you define success.
Is it playable? Yes, with a wireless Super Nintendo gamepad in hand you can play a very basic version of the game, with its earworm soundtrack replaced with the satisfying mechanical sound of hundreds of flipboard elements spinning. But you’ll probably need more patience and focus than you’ve ever dedicated to a video game before. The limited refresh rate of the flipboard display means there’s a ghostly trail of spinning letters following each piece as it descends that looks very distracting, while the large gaps between the rows of animated elements make it tricky to visualise the tetromino stack and where the next piece needs to go. It’s a neat hack for hacking’s sake and a reminder that some dead technologies are better left dead.