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PEOPLE: Randy Perlow of ColorDMD

When Ted Turner decided to colourize some of Hollywood’s classic black and white films, cinephiles were outraged. Film reviewer Roger Ebert labelled the move towards colourization “vandalism”, and further stated, “What was so wrong about black and white movies in the first place? By filming in black and white, movies can sometimes be more dreamlike and elegant and stylized and mysterious.” Nobody was this upset when Randy Perlow and Chris Enright waged an all out war on monochrome pinball displays. By installing one of their ground-breaking ColorDMDs, you too can eradicate the drab orange dots from your gameroom. ColorDMD has full colour support for eleven different Williams/Bally/Midway titles, while the Sigma option allows you to add nearly 100 different colour hues and various effects to spice up the dots in any WPC/WPC95 or Stern Whitestar/SAM system. I had a chance to ask ColorDMD founder Gary Perlow a few questions about the business, the hobby and the Canadian spelling of colour.

Credit Dot: How long has ColorDMD been in business?

Randy Perlow: ColorDMD Displays LLC was formed in January 2012, and our first product (a multicolor display for Attack From Mars) was released in April of the same year. The only members are Chris Enright and myself. I invented the the hardware/software that drives the ColorDMD and also manage the business. Chris designed the mounting hardware, has colored most of the games we support, and was responsible for test and assembly of our earlier runs.

The work for ColorDMD started much earlier in the summer of 2009. An early prototype was flipping by the Fall of 2009 but it took longer to integrate it inside the backbox, and longer still to reduce it to a form factor that could be shared with other enthusiasts. By September 2011, we had a pre-production display that was similar to our current display and this was the unit that we demonstrated at the Pacific Pinball Expo and Chicago Expo.

CD: How did you first identify this need for not only replacement displays, but replacement displays with colour support?

RP: To be honest, I was never really sure a need existed. I was inspired by some other projects I had seen and was looking for a fun project where I could contribute something back to the pinball community. A color display was the only idea I could come up with and I was curious why current games were still being built with monochromatic dot matrix displays.

The project really started as a challenge to see what could be done with current technology and what the impact might be. I hoped it would be cool and something people would be excited about, but didn’t really think about it from a business perspective until much later.

CD: Where are you located and what are your facilities like? Just a couple of guys in their basement or something more elaborate?

RP: We’re based in San Clemente, California and design from our homes. For over a year, we used Chris’ garage for final assembly and test but have since contracted that work to a local manufacturer.

CD: Fish Tales is the most recent game to get the full colour treatment, and it joins a list of ten other titles with full colour support. What is considered when selecting a game?

RP: We have joked that we pick them out of a hat. The truth is that about half the games were chosen based on the games we had in our collections. Others have focused on “A-list” titles that seemed to be highly requested titles and good candidates from a business perspective.

This year we have started to add additional developers to help build our library of multicolor ROM titles. Many of these titles are being chosen based on developer selection, complexity, and suitability to our hardware coloring engine.

CD: What is the process of getting dots coloured for a specific game? Lots of testing?

RP: The first step is to try to capture all the possible animation frames a game can generate.

We need to see the final frames produced by the game which often include layered animation, text, and scoring data. There’s no easy way to do this without playing the game and exercising the right switch sequences to show all the animation. It takes a deep knowledge of the game rules, and time, lots and lots of time.

The next step is bringing the sequences into the computer where we try to develop strategies to uniquely identify each frame, and generating complementary color data. We don’t store any of the actual game images… only the complementary color data. When the game is played, the hardware engine attempts to recognize each input frame and call up the color data that corresponds to the current frame. This step is a combination of artistry and problem-solving.

Then we export the data to a display and test in the game where we’re looking for sequences we may have missed or are not being recognized and colored properly. We’ll then continue to iterate until we stop finding issues to correct.

CD: I suppose it would be fair to revisit this question given some of the recent trends in the hobby: how do you avoid copyright issues given the images use are adding colour to?

RP: We don’t store or distribute any copyrighted artwork in our color ROMs or display hardware. If you paged through them, they look contain rectangles or amorphous blobs of color that bear little to no resemblance to the original artwork.

All the original game images are generated by the game, and coloring is done on the fly. The end result is similar to holding a multi-colored gel film over a black and white display.

CD: How connected are you with the pinball community at large?

I’ve been collecting pins for about 7 years, and have been active on RGP and Pinside during that time. Besides ColorDMD, I helped complete the emulation of the Micropin for PinMAME and recreated the lost “brain board” for the original Flicker solid-state prototype game, which was Bally’s pioneering entry into solid-state games. I compete (poorly) in the Orange County Pinball League and have attended many pinball shows over the past four years, and given multiple seminars on ColorDMD.

Chris is the founder of the Orange County Pinball League, nearing its tenth year. He has been active on RGP, Pinside, and the prewar pinball forums. Chris is highly regarded by pinball parts distributors and has been responsible for reproducing rare plastic and metal replacement parts that have been otherwise impossible to find.

CD: There was a time when you had trouble keeping these things in stock! Are you still having issues keeping up with the incredible demand? It seems like a good problem to have!

RP: We build in runs that are often aligned to the introduction of new products. We typically have displays in stock through most of the year but there may be an occasional month where we run out of inventory before a production run is complete.

CD: Buying one of your ColorDMDs is cost comparable to buying a more traditional uni-colour DMD. How do you keep the cost so low?

RP: Given the extended multicolor capability of the ColorDMD as well as it’s versatility (custom color selection and display effect), we think it’s a good value. Our pricing is primarily based on our manufacturing BOM, and we have tried to provide these at the lowest cost we can and still meet business needs and return on our time.

CD: Your online store lists twelve “unique” products to buy. Am I right in assuming this is all the same hardware just loaded with different software?

RP: That’s correct. All the ColorDMDs on our site today utilize the same hardware platform with different firmware. The firmware is easily installed with a USB flash drive and can be changed at any time. The only other difference is that the SIGMA display for SAM/Whitestar platforms ships with different installation cables suited for those platforms.

CD: When the product was first released, the displays were locked to a specific game. Why the change?

RP: As our library of supported titles grew, it became too difficult for us and our distributors to stock individual titles. Customers were also asking for capability to move their display to a new game if/when they sold their original game. We decided the best solution was to open the platform.

CD: You offer installation support in the form of videos, and the installation itself looks pretty straight forward. How close is the ColorDMD to being “plug and play” right out of the box?

RP: It’s pretty close. We tried to make it virtually “plug and play” but it’s not exactly so because our display is a different height than the original DMD display and draws low voltage from the power driver board instead of the high voltage video board. Most customers tell us it’s about a ten minute install.

CD: How close are we to seeing full colour dot programming for Stern games?

RP: We’re targeting release of a Stern multicolor title before the end of 2014.

CD: Do you see your product being compatible with the “new old games” being released by Planetary Pinball Supply?

RP: We’ve had some high level discussions with Planetary about supporting their new releases. They have a few options they are exploring, but we’d love to see this happen.

CD: Would there be a market for multi-colour or colour-changing text in earlier alphanumeric games?

RP: Possibly, but that’s not a focus at this time. The technical requirements are quite different than our current platform.

CD: Is there any indication that there would be a market for producing those extra-large Sega DMDs used on Baywatch, Batman Forever, Maverick and Frankenstein or the extra-small ones used on earlier games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

RP: We receive a few requests per year to support the large Sega DMDs. Most of the requests have been from people who have a line out on their current display and are looking for a cheaper alternative than a new plasma. The small screens we use aren’t wide enough to fill the larger speaker panel window on these games. We would need to shift to a larger 17” panel and manufacture a new mounting bracket.

With the added cost, our display would likely be at least as expensive as the plasmas that are still out there. As long as original continue to be available for these games, we’re treating it as a lower priority than other projects but it could be something we offer in the future.

CD: Will you eventually add colour to every Williams DMD game? Even Popeye Saves the Earth?

RP: That’s a great goal but we’re taking it one project at a time, and listening to what the market tells us. We’re also hoping that by broadening our developer program, we will be able to provide support for a much larger library of games than the high-priority titles that people are asking for.

CD: I’m not an owner myself, but its something I have to ask…when will support for Twilight Zone be released?

RP: I can’t provide a date for any specific title, but I can say that Twilight Zone is one of the hardest games for our engine to handle. We’ve been taking on easier titles and building up the feature set of the engine to handle some of the more difficult animation sequences. If/when we think we can do it justice, we do plan to release a multicolor ROM for Twilight Zone.

CD: We may be approaching a point when DMD screens will be eradicated from pinball machines altogether. How has the DMD held on for so long and what are you thoughts on the backbox LCD/LED display?

RP: This is a great question and one that I asked before starting the project… why are games still being built with DMDs? Trying to fit another display technology into a legacy platform isn’t easy. The added information needed to display three colors instead of one requires significant improvements in processor power, data storage, and throughput. If image resolution and color depth is to be increased at the same time, this places an even higher burden on the processing and storage requirements.

With the ColorDMD we insert powerful processing in a place it was never meant to reside… between the DMD controller and the display. While we have achieved very good results, it’s a difficult process and not one that’s well suited to the design of a new game. The better approach is to modify the processor and video display system of the game to handle the added requirements. This is costly and risky and a large reason it has taken so long for color displays to be integrated in new games. It is also more expensive and time consuming to generate high resolution content for these games.

Incorporating a high-resolution screen in the backbox is overdue and opens up new possibilities, but it will take some time (and a few games) for manufacturers and designers to figure out the best way to make use of the extra screen resolution and area.

CD: What is on the horizon for ColorDMD? New technology? New directions? New releases?

RP: We have a lot of active projects now but I’m not ready to reveal any of it! A lot of it is related to things that people have been asking for, but we still have some tricks up our sleeve and hope to unveil a few surprises before the end of the year!

CD: What games currently reside at the ColorDMD HQ or in your private collection?

RP: I currently own a LOTR, TRON, MM, WH2O, IJ, and a bartop Micropin. Chris has an AFM, MM, SS, TZ, Metallica, and SC. This gives us plenty of material to work with, but when needed, members of OCPL often step up and provide access to their collections.

CD: And finally, does it bother you that I’m using the Canadian, or British, spelling of “colour”?

RP: No, I love it! It’s funny but when I sought a name for the company I was looking for something clever that was immediately recognizable and identifiable with our product. It wasn’t until after the release of our first title, that I realized I had picked a name with an alternate spelling in many parts of the world! Thankfully Google is more clever than I, and people have been able to find us!

You can visit ColorDMD displays are available through their website or from purveyors of fine pinball supplies, like Bay Area Amusements in the United States and the Pinball Palace in the UK. Eleven titles are currently have full colour support: The Addams Family, White Water, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Attack from Mars, Medieval Madness, Cactus Canyon, Monster Bash, Scared Stiff, Theatre of Magic and Fish Tales.

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PEOPLE: Nate Shivers of Coast 2 Coast Pinball

In roughly one year, Nate Shivers become a very public figure at the forefront of this growing niche hobby. Host of the prolific Coast 2 Coast Pinball podcast, Mr. Shivers ignored the “One A Month, And Only If We Feel Like It” schedule of most pinball podcasts, and decided to record when news broke and when his schedule allowed…which turned out to be quite frequently. At his peak, he records three 45-minute shows per week. At publishing, Shivers is just sixteen episodes shy of an even hundred, and has done so in just about 52 weeks. You do the math. Based in San Diego, California, Shivers is a travelling guitar salesman (sounds like a job your grandpa should’ve had) and uses his frequent travel to hit pinball hot spots across the country, like Modern Pinball in NYC and the Silver Ball Museum in Asbury Park, and attend high status pinball shows, like the Midwest Gaming Classic and the Texas Pinball Festival. He has scored interviews with nearly every boutique manufacturer in the industry and even Gary Stern himself, but the heart of his show lies in the one-man opinion/commentary format the show usually follows. No matter, you can expect Mr. Shivers to consistently deliver a show with interesting content and high production values, whether he is recording from the comfort of his San Diego home or from a hotel in Syracuse, NY. He has a lot to say about pinball, and it seems we, the community, are eager to listen. I was lucky enough to be able to exchange e-mail correspondence with Nate earlier in the week, and conduct a brief interview with him. Credit Dot: Coast 2 Coast Pinball isn’t your first foray into the podcast arena. You have alluded to it on past episodes, but what is your history with the medium?

Nate Shivers: I had a podcast in the early to mid 2000’s called ‘The Tin Can’ with a friend of mine. I was living in the Baltimore area, and he was in Texas. It was just a general topic/comedy type show that we started out of boredom. We did a weekly episode on and off for a couple years. I also did college radio at Arizona State, so I have always been drawn to the radio/podcast world.

CD: I’m assuming Clay Harrell’s TOPcast was a big influence?

NS: I have listened to every TOP episode. I love hearing the history of the hobby from the designers. The early shows are not as compelling to me, as they really go down the rabbit hole of tech/repair which is not my forte, but I love that they were doing the show LIVE, and taking calls. You have to have an amazing amount of knowledge to field tech questions on the fly and actually be able to answer them right away. Clay is amazing like that.

CD: Are there any other figures inside or outside of the hobby that influenced what you were trying to do with Coast2Coast?

NS: The show is called “Coast 2 Coast Pinball” as a tip of the hat to Coast 2 Coast AM which was hosted for years by Art Bell and now by Greg Noory. It is a syndicated radio show that I grew up listening to late at night on AM radio when my family would go on road trips or I would travel with my dad. The show focuses on the paranormal, extraterrestrial life, and other “strange” topics, and I just love it. Art Bell was my favorite, and I loved his rapport with his listeners.

CD: I’m not an expert in this area by any means, but what is your hardware/software setup like for recording?

NS: More basic than most think… I use Reaper as the software, and either a nice condenser mic or a headset type mic when I am travelling. A little post editing with compression, eq, and reverb… That’s about it.

CD: I have chosen to “write”, while you have chosen to “record”. What are the similarities/ differences advantages/disadvantages between the two opinion mediums?

NS: I can just run my mouth for hours on end… It flows very easy. When I write, I tend to go back and edit over and over, which slows me down. I love podcasts as I can multitask with them… I can drive and listen, work on a pinball machine and listen, etc. I don’t have tons of time to just sit and read right now. I think writing may stand the test of time a bit better. When you do a podcast, you can easily date yourself.

CD: In the show, you refer to your “notes”. Are these pen and paper notes in a notebook? What are the advantages to using this medium to shape your thoughts?

NS: I have this college ruled composition notebook that acts as my “notes” for C2C. The first 40-50 episodes each have two full pages of notes… tons of writing, mostly hard to even read… but I wanted to be super prepared. As the show has started to cover more news, and my travels, I have leaned on the notebook a lot less. I still write the episode number on top of a new page every time, but some pages are totally blank, as I don’t need notes to talk about things as they are happening. Some episodes, especially when I go deep into a production year or a specific game are just wall to wall ink… as I need all the info right there.

CD: Start to finish, how long does it take you to produce one 45-minute episode?

NS: Notes can pile up for a day or a week… just random thoughts or bullet points I want to remember to touch on. Then I can bang out and episode from my first mic check to the upload of the podcast in about 2 hours. Sometimes I will spend longer on some dumb comedy attempt for the end of a show than it took to record the whole show. I thought it was very important from the start that the recording/editing process be as turn-key as possible, that way I could do shows really whenever I had something to cover.

CD: You introduced your podcast into an already crowded field, with shows like the Pinball Podcast and Spooky Pinball dominating the landscape. Were the formats of existing podcasts influential in the approach you took? What sets Coast2Coast apart from the rest?

NS: All I knew for sure when I started episode 1, was that I wanted a show that was shorter than what was out there, and that could be done multiple times a week. I personally don’t mind the long formats that others use on a monthly basis, but I knew I couldn’t do a 2+ hour show more than a few times a month, and it wouldn’t be as likely that someone would listen to a complete show if it was really long. I also wanted to cover news, happenings, and events as they happened, and not a monthly overview, which also just felt better in a 45 minute show. Some weeks I have done 3 shows, sometimes one show in 10 days. Not having a co-host or anyone else adding content has made that possible. I also worry sometimes that people will just get sick of one dude talking and talking and talking about the same stuff all the time… but so far, so good.

CD: There seems to be a real camaraderie between pinball podcasters. Is there a competitive spirit between you guys or is it all hugs and rainbows as it appears?

NS: I think everyone wants a bigger, more exciting pinball universe. So in that regard, I think it behooves all of us doing a podcast or a website or a blog to support each other and help our listeners find the other people adding content to the pinball hobby. I am sure there is a bit of a competitive vibe here and there… Anyone who keeps a show going for more than a few months, must want to be good, and do better work each time out, so you naturally listen to others and compare a bit. Luckily, it’s only pinball, and we are all just doing this for the fun of it, and nobody’s livelihood depends on their podcast.

CD: How much of a fanboy were you when you got to talk to industry heavyweights Gary Stern and John Popadiuk?

NS: Hmm. I respect these guys a ton. I appreciate their work immensely, but having worked in the guitar business for all these years, and meeting some of my childhood heroes in a work setting has really mellowed me out on the “fanboy” front. Gary Stern reminds me of Hartley Peavey the owner of Peavey Electronics… very similar in personality and demeanor. He is a businessman. The designers are much more like artists or musicians, and when you meet a guy who ends up being a really NICE guy, or seems to still be excited about the whole thing, like a Popaduik, or a Steve Ritchie, it really makes you feel good about pinball in general.

Nate with some legendary pinball designers at this year’s MGC.

CD: With such high volume output, trying not to burn out or get sour on the hobby must be a real challenge. How do you combat that?

NS: It is such a source of joy and fun for me. I am a huge music/guitar guy at heart, but I have worked in that industry for the past 17 years! I wouldn’t say I have burnt out or soured on guitars, but I certainly don’t go visit music stores when on vacation! Pinball is still mysterious and exciting. I meet guys who are selling their collections off because they bought everything they wanted and it just doesn’t have the “shine” like it used to. I am in no danger of that. When I travel and see a machine lit up waiting to be played I still get into it. There are always games to try and buy.. games to fix up, and thankfully new games being designed and released! This hobby is filled with 99% good people, and that makes it very easy to stay motivated to contribute.

CD: What are the challenges in balancing work and home life with your high output podcast?

NS: Sometimes I just have to tell Theresa, “Doing a show tonight”… She gets it. She knows it is a creative outlet for me. I have played in bands since I was 12, and don’t now… So I need this show! Work is the tough one. We have times in the year when I am just slammed all day long, stay late in the office and getting ready for a road trip, and just don’t have the energy to record… But I get out on that road trip, and the quiet, sometimes lonely hotel room provides a fantastic place to get a new episode going.

CD: Your wife Theresa makes frequent appearances on the show, and is met with tons of positive feedback. Why is Theresa such a popular component of the show?

NS: Obviously this is a male heavy hobby. Many of us have tried with varying degrees of success to get the women in our lives into pinball. Theresa loves it… and she is a total performer and knows how to play a great role on the show. She is funny, smart, and gorgeous… so that all helps. I have had more than one email about how jealous a guy is that I have a girl in my life like Theresa who embraces pinball and enjoys it too.

CD: I had the idea a to do a “Pinball Wives” interview series. Perhaps we could glean more information about ourselves and our “collecting disease” if we talked to hobby outsiders that have to put up with it every day of their lives. What do you think?

NS: Maybe… I am so lucky in that regard. I am scared to hear what other women might say about us grown men and out big expensive toys…

CD: On the heels of a rather nasty, and completely unwarranted, post on Pinside by a classless troll looking to incite a war of words with you, can you share a few thoughts or feelings about being a public figure in this niche hobby, and the challenges/opportunities that it brings? I guess you have become one of those “pinball celebrities” I was asking about earlier?

NS: Loved it. For anyone to spend that much energy and effort to try and bring me down… I must have struck a nerve somehow. Likely it is jealousy, or insecurity on someone’s part that they themselves aren’t happy with where their life is right now, which is pretty sad, but I would rather incite a troll here or there than be totally ignored. Now, if someone ever said that to my face, you know, not behind the great protective curtain of Internet anonymity… we would have a situation. It has been a bit of a trip to have people just walk up to me at shows or arcades and know so much about me, but that is part of the experience of a long term listener to any thing like a podcast or a radio show… You get to know the person behind the mic. I feel the same way with certain authors, fellow podcasters, etc… I think people quickly realize how boring I am, and we just play some pinball.

CD: Speaking of Pinside, how active are you on the forum? It is an extremely helpful tool to connect the community but can also be a frustrating experience due to a handful of unsavoury characters. What are your thoughts?

NS: Yeah, the Internet is full of people looking for attention… I don’t take much notice. A guy like Lloyd the Great does more good in one day than any troll can do in a month, so it all works out. Donate to Pinside!

CD: Your “catalogue” of recordings may seem daunting to someone who has never listened before. Other than picking the newest episode and working back, can you share a few episodes that would serve as a good “jumping off” point for new listeners?

NS: I am the guy who goes back and starts at the beginning of podcasts when they are monthly or even weekly, but 80+ episodes is a ton! So I guess it depends on what you want… I think you can check out the BLOG on coast2coastpinball.com and look for tidbits that are interesting. The interviews will be sort of “evergreen”… So: Episode 38 “An Evening With Brendan Bailey or Attack of Junkyard Cats” Episode 40 “An Evening with Scott Gullicks or To the Top of Olympus” Episode 46 “Evening with Ben Heck or America’s Coast Haunted” Episode 56 “An Evening with Josh Sharpe” Episode 83 “An Evening with Clay Harrell”

CD: What are your favourite episodes that you have recorded thus far?

NS: I like the Texas Pinball Festival, the Midwest Gaming Classic, and then probably the Twilight Zone special of Episode 50 and the stuff on the Medieval Madness remake. I have never gone back and listened to an entire show myself, but those were the episodes I liked doing the most.

CD: Can you share some listener stats? How many average downloads per day do you get? What was your most downloaded episode?

NS: It’s a funny thing… The show has 3 main avenues for listeners… Direct from my podcast host, which I can track, Stitcher Radio, which I can track, and then the big unknown factor is Itunes… More people tell me that they listen on Itunes than the other two platforms… and I can’t track podcast plays/downloads on Itunes… so the total listener-ship is likely bigger than I realize. The Josh Sharpe interview was the most downloaded until the Midwest Gaming Classic shows. Looks like the interview with Clay Harrell will be the most downloaded if it isn’t already.

CD: What are your thoughts on the future of the hobby? Where will we be in five or ten years?

NS: I see it continuing to grow. A lot of people who grew up loving pinball, like myself are now settling down, buying houses, making better money and remembering their love of the game. Prices on older games seem to be normalizing a bit, and the new games coming out of late are excellent. Better local clubs and groups are going to help drive the location aspect, and obviously the “Barcade” scene is hot now. I don’t see pinball getting back to the levels of the two or three golden ages we have seen, but as more games move to the home buyer, I think that is okay.

CD: It is well documented that Twilight Zone is your desert island game, so I can’t ask the typical “favourite game” question. In that case, maybe you could share a few games you have never played that really interest you.

NS: I have played just about all the A and B list games, and I always seem to have one or two haunting my thoughts. Champion Pub is a game I want to own. I have a deeper love for Circus Voltaire now than ever before… As far as games I have actually never played…. Congo and Pinball Magic are the only two games in the Pinside top 100 that I cannot remember playing. So, that would be cool to do. Also, Big Bang Bar is sort of a thorn in my side, but I have a chance to play one coming up this summer!

CD: To close out the questions, are there any future plans you can share about the direction of Coast2Coast Pinball?

NS: More video. I would like to do a monthly Video show… sort of what PAPA is doing with their Road Show, but with my pace and vibe. I have other ideas for live shows, call in shows, etc… but time is always the problem. I would expect to be near 150 shows by the end of 2014… There are some interviews I have loosely lined up, and will probably get too this year. I hope to get to more and more pinball shows and expos. Hopefully I can keep getting better at the podcast, maybe expand the videos, and get a little bit more interesting website going. I have always wanted Coast 2 Coast Pinball to be my commentary on the hobby for the guys who love the game and spend their money owning/playing pinball.

Catch Mr. Shivers doing his podcast thing over at Coast 2 Coast Pinball  and be on the lookout for him at pinball venues and conventions across the continent!