Photo: Stern Pinball
Photo: Stern Pinball
As IEEE Spectrum reported at the end of last year, pinball is having a revival, driven in part by the shift to e-commerce, which is turning erstwhile big-box retail stores into cheap real estate for family entertainment centers. Modern pinball machines, with enhancements like upgradable software, are vastly more sophisticated than their electromechanical ancestors. Stern Pinball is in the vanguard of this renaissance, making home and arcade versions of many of its games. The latest title available in a home version is the US $4,500 Star Wars Pin, based on comics artwork and models inspired by the original movie trilogy.
Photo: Randi Klett
Classic Microprocessor Kit
Wichit Sirichote is a professor at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology, in Bangkok. He’s also the maker of a terrific line of single-board computers based on classic CPUs such as the 6502, Z80, and 8088. Prices range from $85 to $175, depending on the CPU. They are bare-bones machines designed for learning and protoyping, but they are very flexible: You can upload code through an RS-232 port, plug in a standard LCD character display directly using an onboard connector, and add other custom hardware via a bus-expansion slot. Sirichote wrote his own monitor software for the boards that lets you, for example, examine the contents of CPU registers, and extensive documentation is available.
Photo: Educational Insights
Musical Tesla Coil Kit
It’s not going to win awards for the quality of its sound, but it is a crowd pleaser. OneTesla’s $400 Musical Tesla Coil Kit can be driven directly by a MIDI-enabled instrument or play a MIDI file. The frequency of the notes is used to modulate the output of the coil with a square wave, producing buzzing notes and impressive sparks over half a meter long. A smaller version is also available for $230.
Doppel is worn like a watch, except you wear it on the inside of your wrist rather than on the outside. A rotating weight inside creates a rhythmic vibration. The purpose of the $280 wearable is to improve focus and reduce stress, by using rhythms that are faster or slower, respectively, than your normal resting heart rate. (The accompanying smartphone app measures your heart rate when you place your finger over your phone’s camera lens and looks at changes in the ambient light that gets filtered through.) It did help reduce my anxiety levels somewhat, but I found it worked best with deliberate mindfulness techniques, so if you’re not already familiar with those, your mileage may vary.
Piper Computer Kit
Minecraft is already used to introduce children to writing software. The $300 Piper Computer Kit, aimed at 8- to 13-year-olds, extends that idea to hardware using Minecraft: Pi Edition. Kids first assemble the wooden case and plug together the basic components of the kit, which is based on a Raspberry Pi and comes with its own screen. While the kit includes a mouse, there is no keyboard. Instead a breadboarding module is provided, which can be used to, for example, wire up buttons to control events in Minecraft through a series of game levels.
Photo: HarperCollins; MIT Press
If you’re looking for a nonfiction book to give, try one from the Platform Studies series from MIT Press. These books describe influential platforms in the history of digital media, examining how the specific technical details and hardware capabilities of each platform (or, in academia-speak, “affordances”) shaped the software that ran on them and how that combination in turn affected the industry and wider culture. The most recent 2019 title (The Media Snatcher) dissects the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 console. The highlights of the series so far for me are Racing the Beam, about the Atari 2600, and Minitel.
In the fiction department, Spectrum’s recommendation is Fall, or Dodge in Hell (William Morrow, 2019) by Neal Stephenson, author of the cyberpunk classic Snow Crash. Fall is a sequel of sorts to his 2011 novel, Reamde, but it can be read completely independently of Reamde (and is in fact a much better book). Reamde is an entertaining enough technothriller, but Fall is Stephenson at his best, weaving together deep philosophical questions against the background of a compelling vision of the future (a chapter featuring a journey across an America that’s been utterly fragmented by competing social-media feeds is plausibly chilling). In Fall, the lead character awakens in a digital afterlife, in which his first order of business is to create a universe to live in.
This article appears in the December 2019 print issue as “2019 Holiday Gift Guide.”