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MIT Completes "Holy Grail of Hacks," Turns Green Building into a Game of Tetris (bostinno.com)
110 points by emarion on April 21, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 36 comments

This was done at Brown in 2000 (albeit in monochrome):


Woz even showed up to play it:


I was part of the team that worked on this way back in the day, and it was a blast. It was a bunch of soldering, running wires, trying to debug all the issues, etc. And then everything came together and it just worked.

Woz showing up was the icing on the cake, and it was definitely one of the highlights of my college career.

I was a middle-schooler and my parents took me to play. I recall a bug where if you rotated the square quickly enough it would travel upward. Someone (maybe Clara?) whipped out a patch and recompiled.

No idea who'd have done the patch, it was really a team effort. I forget the exact number, but there were 20+ contributors over the course of the project. And by the time it was up and running a lot of us were crashing due to the long hours. I only vaguely remember the first night it fired up, since I had gone home to sleep after a long shift and someone came back to tell me that it was finally working.

Awesome to hear from someone who got to play it!

I created an account just for this: I dated Clara's sister for 7 years, and I still run into her brother occasionally, from the other side of the country.

Pointless post is pointless.

Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands) did it in 1995 ;-)


Seems to run faster too, and use the existing lighting.

And it was done before that in 1995 at Delft University, as the article mentions. (I saw it there!). Playing Angry Birds on the side of a building would be more with the time.

Thanks, I was about to post this (my friend's laptop is the one they used for the controls). Go Brown!

Wow. I'm 2 blocks from that building atm. This is great.

I can imagine Woz sitting there thinking, "I can do this in 2 chips, 8 transistors and ..."

That's very cool and playful, but "Holy grail of hacks" seems a bit overwrought. I don't want to be a naysaying jerk, and the whole thing is cool, but . . . is this harder than it looks?

The Caltech Rose Bowl prank of 1984 seems much harder and had a greater audience.


They had to break in to the Rose Bowl stadium, design and build special boards to take over the scoreboard lights, and break back in to install the boards. The control of the board during the halftime break in the Rose Bowl game was done by RF link. This was in 1984, when hardware was much more finicky and expensive.


Or the 1961 Great Rose Bowl Hoax that inspired it, which might not be as high-tech, but is to me even more satisfying because they tricked an entire crowd of UW fans into unwittingly cheering for their nerdy and ignored school.


They even made the first few compromised banners subtle enough that the crowd kept going with it until the finale where they wrote "CALTECH," an unmistakable prank.

Another note about the 1984 prank. The Pasadena police and the Rose Bowl organization, which is a fusty old group, were not amused with the surreptitious entry of the Rose Bowl building. They threatened to charge the pranksters. One of the senior Caltech faculty (Carver Mead?) offered to pay for legal defense if required.

A more detailed story is here: http://today.caltech.edu/today/story-display?story_id=11464

I was a student at MIT in the early 90s and Tetris on the Green Building was considered the "holy grail of hacks" back then. Definitely a major accomplishment, particularly with color and also lots of props to Brown for getting there first!

I still don't quite get it. Presumably the story is more interesting than "we got permission and used lots of wire", but the first couple of pages of google results don't really explain how.

IF they got permission, well, it makes it a whole lot easier. The hard part would be covertly entering every room of a building and leaving your control system and hoping not to get caught.


haha, great response. This whole dialogue reminds me of a Louis CK line: "Everything is amazing, and no one is happy."

Could you explain? I've seen MIT do similar 'hacks' in the past with various patterns in the windows ('SOX' for the 2004 World Series is the only one I remember off the top of my head). Nothing was this elaborate, but I imagine that the hard part is actually setting up the system to coordinate the actual lights turning off/on.... and it seems like they've had that for a while.

I've seen one of the modules. There seems to be wirelessly controlled custom PCBs in each window.

Polish students show such demo every year on their P.I.W.O. display. It has a 10x12 resolution and supports 4 colours using 8 light bulbs in every window. There is also animation editor available for download and an ongoing contest for the best animation.



Were the building administrators in on this? Or was it really a "hack"?

I'm assuming there must be some central computer controlling the lights, either than or they attached something to / modified each light switch?

The lights in the windows are custom fabbed PCBs, completely independent of the building lights.

I can't find anywhere that details if this hack was done with permission from the various occupants of the building. If they had to break in to every office on that side of the building to install the equipment the hack becomes even more impressive.

Certainly not the first time students have hacked the Green Building's lights (i.e. http://hacks.mit.edu/Hacks/by_year/2011/flag_on_9_11/).

The 9/11 hack was the first test of the same lights used for Tetris.

Looks similar to the "Mikontalo Lights" project in Finland. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ril6OYSKD3A

Naturally I gotta plug the CCC's Project Blinkenlights: http://blinkenlights.net/

The player in the video is frustratingly awful.

Can someone explain how the system communicates from a high level?

Is there any video of this? The colored lighting is really cool.

yup, just found it on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAIPUGO1iko

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