The idea was as obvious as it was spectacular. Media all over the world reported on it: the boring wait at the crosswalk for the signal to change is now a thing of the past.
Traffic-light game devised by HAWK students makes waiting time fun
The short video clip with an absolutely real-looking simulation of the game was the beginning of a development story that took almost two years. Technical obstacles, safety issues, development costs, the search for partners and the business start-up – all this and more is what Sandro Engel and Amelie Künzler now have behind them.
The city of Hildesheim, the HAWK and the two students will now be activating the world’s first prototype of StreetPong for a test phase of four weeks at a traffic signal in front of the university:
In the following, please find information on these topics:
- StreetPong – the game
- How the idea was born
- Setbacks, successes and perseverance
- Challenges – and how they were dealt with Safety
- Red tape
- Where we go from here
StreetPong – the game
StreetPong makes waiting at the crosswalk for the signal to change more fun. The game is played while the light is red for the waiting pedestrians: a touch screen is mounted on two signal posts opposite one another. It is operated with your finger. Modeled after “Pong”, the computer game that has long since become a classic, there are two bars on the display, with which – moved with your finger –a ball can be batted back and forth. You get a point for every time your opponent misses the ball. In other words, this is a classic game with a new look and, perhaps most surprising, in a very different environment. Another charming part of the game: the opponents meet completely spontaneously and randomly, without knowing each other.
The idea for the project was first visualized in 2012 in a short video clip, in which the situation was simulated to look very life-like. In actual fact, the video presentation was a perfectly crafted synthesis of animation and real images. The simulation was developed on the computer and projected onto the traffic-signal buttons filmed with a green screen.
The worldwide response with a total of more than five million clicks on the video were convincing proof of what fertile ground the idea had fallen on:
- About half the people in the world know what it is like to wait at a traffic signal for the light to turn green
- Games like Pong have been around to pass the time as far back as anyone can remember
- No one has ever had this idea for traffic lights before
- Strangers come together randomly to play the game and have an opportunity to get to know one another
… How the idea was born
The idea for the game was born in a seminar entitled “Urban Interaction Design”, given by Prof. Stefan Wölwer in the Faculty of Design at the HAWK University. There were a number of different topics to choose from in the summer semester of 2012. Holger Michel and Sandro Engel decided in favor of the field of “Urban Interaction”, which looks for ideas that combine design, technology and public space. Sandro Engel, who always grew impatient when waiting at a traffic light, had the brilliant idea. Student Amelie Künzler jumped onboard to implement the idea, while Holger Michel devoted his attention to his Master’s studies.
… Setbacks, successes and perseverance
A personal report by Sandro Engel and Amelie Künzler: “We had an idea that travelled around the world, that got a positive response around the globe and inspired millions. We wanted to take off with an idea that is so simple. We thought it must be easy to put into practice! Touch screen in the button, a couple of wires, you’re done!
It was early on that we already found partners who wanted to help us breathe life into this idea. But then, all of a sudden, we weren’t getting anywhere. “We sell safety, not fun!” This is what we heard from all sides. Suddenly, there was not only concern about the safety issues, but about barrier-free access and the feasibility of the business model as well as the general marketing of such a product. One door after another closed in our faces. Financing was not approved, partners refused their support, our technician at that time gave up after working with us for only nine months.
No partners, no financing, nothing more than the idea. With the help of the HAWK, we had already been able to have the touch screens produced, but we didn’t have anyone who wanted to help us develop the electro-technology and install it with us in a traffic-signal button. “We sell safety”, that’s what we heard again and again.
Thanks to talks and lectures, however, we were still getting encouragement. And a wave of enthusiasm washed over us on the internet as well. After a six-month break, we decided: the show must go on! One more try – otherwise, all the other hard work would have been in vain and the project dead and buried for good! But at least we would know that we’d tried everything!
So we got back into the project and drew up a new plan. We put out our feelers, attended tradeshows, among others, also for traffic engineering, in other countries and got in touch with other cities and communities. All this was done in what you could call our “free time” so that by the end of the month, money was usually short and we were always very happy to see the complimentary buffets at the tradeshow booths. After a time, all the energy we had invested suddenly turned into positive, concrete feedback.
Companies approached us and were interested in our work, wanted to know how the project was coming along and offered us their help. Our perseverance seemed to be paying off – and we were finally moving ahead again!
Soon, a core team made up of technology development, button manufacturing and signal engineering crystalized. Together we now want to test the prototypes in field trials and show everyone ‘out there’, particularly those who doubted us, that anything is possible with perseverance, hard work and a lot of willpower.
Meanwhile, after two years since the project launch and not even six months working together with the current partners, the first real version of StreetPong will finally be there at the traffic lights. A great birthday present right on time for the traffic light, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year! Happy birthday, dear traffic light!”
StreetPong is designed to stop people from crossing the street when the signal is red. That’s why it will only be possible to operate the new button when the light is red for pedestrians. This means that it is necessary to intercept the traffic-light signals without causing any malfunctions. In addition to reliable technology, a vandalism-proof face-plate for the screen is an absolute must. This is primarily designed to protect the screen and the technology inside, whereby the glass must also be shatterproof so that, if it is broken, there is no danger of injury to passersby.
The legal requirements for installations used in public places in Germany are extremely strict. Everything is regulated. From the width of the sidewalk right on up to the requirements a traffic-light button has to and can meet. As a result, we had to adapt the technology to meet all these requirements.
The concept behind StreetPong is an innovation, which means it requires a completely new development process. For the prototype that we have installed now, it was already necessary to make tools and to design, etch and produce printed circuit boards. The assembly was done by hand, which is very expensive. Machines to produce the vandalism-proof touch screens had to be specially adjusted for the one-off pieces and the button face-plate had to be redesigned for a number of different reasons.
In addition, there were other unexpectedly high costs. Such operating expenses as travel costs to visit customers, tradeshows or other events, materials like business cards and flyers for public events and for partners or customers, office supplies and much more totaled up to a significant sum.
In order to get started somehow, we submitted applications for financing with the HAWK in Hildesheim, among others. Thanks to an approval from there, it was possible to cover the costs for the development and production of the screens. Then we needed the right partners to support the further development. A Hildesheim company, Pengutronix, assumed the development of the electro-technology for the prototype. Thanks to our cooperation with Langmatz, it was possible to support the electro-technology and manage the production of the new face-plate. The daily operating costs, which we had underestimated, were financed privately.
A development like this not only costs money, it also takes a lot of time. Time during which no money can be earned nor other projects or other courses important for the study program can be pursued. As a result, we were forced to take as few courses as possible and postpone other projects that had been planned. The Bachelor theses of both team members were written and passed successfully parallel to the project and they were not about the topic of StreetPong. Despite their time constraints, both team members received very good final marks and earned their Bachelor degrees.
Since a business model also had to be developed on the basis of this fixed idea, it was also necessary to write business plans and applications, competition entries and get the daily business done “along the way”. And then there were business presentations, the website and much more ... there’s not a lot of time to do much of anything else.
StreetPong is a completely new innovation that required its very own technological development and had to be combined with an existing system. This technical system, a traffic light, is designed to provide for the safety of everyone involved in road traffic. Intervening in this system is not an easy thing to do.
The system is not designed so that signals can be intercepted, let alone new ones fed in. The whole thing is automatically shut down at the smallest malfunction or even when the power drops by only a few milliamperes. That’s why it was very difficult to find out how to intercept the signals indicating the status of the traffic light. But it was the only way to develop a safe, suitable visualization for the game and other applications.
In addition, there are other strict requirements that had to be met to protect the system from vandalism and adverse weather conditions. That’s why it was important to find a touch screen that is safe, is able to withstand extreme fluctuations in temperature and fits into a traffic-light button. The last requirement limits the choice because these special screens are not available off the rack at less than seven inches.
Another important point was assembling the touch screens, the baseboards they are mounted on and the technology already existing in the traffic-light button. In this case, it was particularly the space available, unusual connections and common data exchange between the two systems that played a significant role.
Difficulties were also caused by the fact that it is not possible to trim down the already existing functions in an installed button. This means that there still has to be enough room to accommodate everything that is added to the button as new. The limited space available also presented a big challenge for the power consumption with respect to the large transformers and heat generation or thermal power.
After a long, extensive search, we found the only solution to the first problem in the new button made by Langmatz. Thanks to a new type of integrated HDMI output port, it was possible to use protocols to read out the different traffic-light phases without intervening in the system.
The solution for such a small, vandalism-proof touch screen was a custom-made solution that had to be specially produced for the prototype. A chemically hardened, three-millimeter face-plate, the touch panel and the screen are also all glued together (optically bonded), which required additional tools and expensive work steps.
The development of the computer unit, the mounting of the vandalism-proof screen on a specially adapted baseboard and the connection with the traffic-light circuitry made a groundbreaking new development necessary, whereby our own printed circuit boards had to be etched, assembled and soldered – always with an eye to ensuring smoothly functioning software. The many years of experience of the developers at Pengutronix proved to be a great advantage to StreetPong here.
In order to solve the space problems and fit the existing and new technology into the traffic-light button, the face-plate had to be completely overhauled. Thanks to the CAD data supplied by Langmatz for the current button, it was possible to redesign and enlarge the cover and fit it with mounts for the new technology. The connection to the lower part was made at the same time. The first prototypes were then produced in 3D print.
It turned out that the communication between the buttons had to be wireless since not every traffic light is equipped with data cables nor can they be retrofitted. That’s why we decided on a high-frequency wireless connection. This guarantees enough bandwidth to transmit the game information and also offers a strong signal so that enough data gets over to the other side of the street even when there is a lot of heavy truck traffic.
In addition, a light sensor adjusts the brightness of the touch screen to the ambient light. This saves power and increases visibility. Since the game is also supposed to be played when it’s dark, the screen should be much darker at night than during the day so that the players are not subjected to excessive, unpleasant glare.
The development of the technology was decisive for the implementation of the project and frequently caused internal ups and downs for all those involved. There were often issues and times when it seemed like the project would fail, but in the end it was possible to successfully master all of the technical challenges.
StreetPong – the team
Sandro Engel, 27, comes from the greater Frankfurt a.M. area and completed his Bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design and Digital Media at the HAWK Faculty of Design in Hildesheim. He has always been interested in the graffiti and street-art movement, so he had already established a special relationship to urban space at an early point in time. He originally launched the StreetPong project together with Holger Michel.
Amelie Künzler is 26 years old and comes from Verden (Aller). She is currently working on her Master’s degree at the HAWK Faculty of Design in Hildesheim and previously completed her Bachelor’s here in Product Design. Shortly after the start of the project, she got onboard with the StreetPong team. Since then, she has been driving the product development of the traffic-signal button forward, from design right on up to production.
Along with Sandro Engel, she is part of the management of the company Urban Invention.
Holger Michel also studied at the HAWK Faculty of Design in Hildesheim in the Bachelor program when he launched the StreetPong project with Sandro Engel. Unfortunately, after starting his Master’s, Holger had to leave the project due to time constraints.
… The cradle of the project
HAWK key data
The HAWK University for Applied Sciences and Art Hildesheim/ Holzminden/Göttingen offers 20 Bachelor’s and 14 Master’s programs in six faculties in Hildesheim, Holzminden and Göttingen. A total of approximately 5300 students are currently enrolled at the three locations. The President’s Office and administration are located in Hildesheim. The university’s total budget amounts to approximately € 57.4 million. The HAWK employs 178 professors and 388 other staff members.
HAWK Faculty of Design – Digital Media
The HAWK Faculty of Design, with its approximately 700 students, is located on the HAWK Hildesheim campus. It offers nine different fields of study in the Bachelor program for design, including Digital Media. One of the subject areas in the field of Digital Media focuses on Interaction Design under the direction of Prof. Stefan Wölwer. Independent of the input and output media, this is where concepts and applications for mobile phones and multitouch walls are developed, along with websites and software interfaces.
HAWK plus Gründung is the HAWK formation initiative and was created to serve students in all fields of study. It offers concrete qualification programs for students who want to enter into the world of self-employment by forming their own company or by taking over a family business. Business start-ups are actively supported by HAWK plus on the basis of a number of different measures, such as coaching and assistance in submitting applications for financial aid. StreetPong is also supported by HAWK plus Gründung.
StreetPong – the Partners
HAWK in Hildesheim
The StreetPong project started at the university in one of the courses. That’s why the HAWK Hildesheim is an important, reliable supporter of StreetPong. In order to promote and drive forward the project, the university provided specialist know-how, contacts and a not insignificant amount of financial aid.
City of Hildesheim
The city of Hildesheim is located approximately 30 km southeast of Lower Saxony’s capital city, Hannover. It has a population of 100,708 and is home to two colleges and a university. Thanks to its tradition, but also to its openness, Hildesheim is a creative city. As a result, there is still room for innovative ideas between the half-timbered buildings and the open landscape. The city supported the project right from the beginning and the employees in Public Works and Parks assisted the team wherever they could. The city provided a traffic light for the prototype and financed the mounting of the StreetPong prototype.
Hildesheim Marketing GmbH
The city marketing activities in Hildesheim have been bundled in Hildesheim Marketing GmbH since the beginning of 2008. Up to 50 employees promote the attractiveness and image of the city. Hildesheim Marketing GmbH supports the StreetPong team in its communications with local politics, in questions of publicity and establishes contacts to other cities.
In 2013, the team had the opportunity to speak at the conference of the National City and Town Marketing Germany (BCSD – Bundes City- und Stadtmarketing Deutschland) and received an award for the best contribution.
Pengutronix was formed as one of the first embedded Linux companies in Germany in 2001. Embedded Linux is an embedded system with an operating system based on a so-called Linux kernel. A kernel, also known as an operating system core (or system core, for short), is the central element of an operating system – in this case, the Linux operating system. Pengutronix supplies professional services for everything that has to do with using Linux in industrial applications. The hardware and software for the StreetPong traffic-light button is being developed under the direction of Pengutronix. Since this company is based in Hildesheim, travel time is short and they are able to provide lots of help.
Langmatz GmbH is a company located in Garmisch-Partenkirchen; it develops, manufactures and sells innovative systems for the markets of energy supply, telecommunications and traffic engineering. The company, which was first formed in 1963, employs a workforce of 300 and has three buttons with different properties among its approximately 450 products in its product line for traffic engineering.
The traffic-light button, on which the specially developed face-plate is mounted, comes from Langmatz. This company is an important partner in the development of the face-plate, the convergence of the technologies and the production of the prototype.
As one of the leading German companies in signaling, SWARCO Traffic Systems GmbH specializes in the planning, conception and realization of intelligent, innovative traffic management systems.
StreetPong – where we go from here
The world premiere of StreetPong is just the beginning. Now, after two years of development, the prototype can be used to collect data on this uniquely new concept for the first time and drive forward a decision on mass production.
A traffic-light button that is ready to go into mass production can provide a platform on which a wide variety of different applications (apps) can be installed. A crowd-funding campaign is current in progress to provide financial support for the implementation and further steps towards a final product.
HAWK Press Office
Sabine zu Klampen
Hildesheim Press Office
Dr. Helge Miethe
Since StreetPong has not yet gone into series production, it is currently still a custom-made, one-off product. For more information, please contact Urban Invention / Sandro Engel and Amelie Künzler.