This project began when The Barbarian Group did some work for trade with Griffin Technologies. In exchange for some Barbarian made banners, Griffin sent back product. I asked for 100 Powermates and within a couple weeks, they arrived. Aaron Hatcher, one of our interns at the time, was given the task of finding a way to get Processing and the USB controlled powermates to talk to each other. After a great deal of head scratching, he found a way to allow Processing to receive input commands from the powermate knob, and also to send a number from 0 to 255 to the powermate to control the brightness of the internal LED which gives the powermate its characteristic glow.
An 8×8 grid of powermates was hooked up to a single Mac G5 tower through a daisy-chain of 21 four-port USB hubs and 6 power strips. I now had a low-res (8 pixels by 8 pixels), low-color (256 shades of blue) monitor whose individual pixels were an input device for itself. Now what.
The first project made with the new Powermate grid was a noisy mess. Each powermate can be turned left or right and I used this input information to not only control the brightness, but also to control the frequency of a sine wave tone associated with that particular powermate. What you are left with is 64 overlapping sine wave tones which, combined with a nice set of speakers with a good subwoofer, can create a fairly intense wall of noise. Can range from incredibly annoying to incredibly soothing. Later versions included a series of scales which would allow the sound to take on particular flavors, such as American Jazz or Middle-Eastern. And with some assistance, a beat generator was added to give the sine wave tones a bit of rhythm.
Later, I was sitting around, staring at these devices, and wondering what I should make next. I picked one up and was turning the knob absent-mindedly, and it brought back memories of playing pong with paddles as a child. I made a game of pong. Not a particularly good one. Because of the low resolution of the display, even if you leave your paddle stationary, you still have nearly a 50% chance of returning the shot.