Pinball AI and Mechatronics
Pinball machines are complex, mechatronic systems that combine many core topics from electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science in order to create an interactive and immersive experience. Playing pinball is also a remarkably complex task which requires a great deal of skill and strategy despite the deceptively simple input of just pressing a right or left flipper button. Therefore, pinball machines represent a perfect test application for the development and implementation of cutting-edge machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. This broad range of topics and interesting application make pinball machines an ideal teaching vehicle for engineering education in the fields of automation, robotics, and AI. As part of these efforts Stern Pinball has donated over $20k in pinball hardware and parts. We are utilizing these parts for the development of several courses as well as research testbeds.
In these projects, a motion tracking camera is used to provide positional information to an AI controller which is directly linked to the flipper mechanisms within a pinball testbed. Preliminary results generated by our current graduate students using a test pinball machine are shown in Figure 1. In this figure, the current location of the pinball is indicated by the yellow circle and the previous track is indicated by the red trail. The AI algorithm then develops a control strategy for activating the flippers to make particular shots and developing an overarching shot strategy to maximize the score. Beyond the novelty of using a pinball machine as a test application, these graduate student research projects address several fundamental and cutting-edge research questions within the AI, Control Systems, and Tracking community. All of which have real-world counterparts in numerous DoD and civilian applications. The skills developed by students working on these projects will prepare them for jobs in the AI and autonomous systems fields, which are in high demand from regional employers such as Kroger, GE, Amazon, and AFRL. Pinball machines simply provide an interesting, self-contained, and relatively cheap teaching platform and test application.
Students working on these projects have the opportunity to work on a range of possible projects. These include hardware design, programming, playfield construction, 3D modeling and prototyping using lasercutters and 3D printers.