Playing virtual pinball on an iPad is a whole lot of fun! Pinball Arcade is my personal favorite -- it runs a huge selection of classic tables reproduced down to the finest detail, and the physics are incredibly accurate and satisfying.
Not so satisfying, however is the lack of tactile feedback when tapping the screen to trigger the flippers or sliding your finger down the screen to pull and release the plunger. So how about using real arcade buttons and a spring loaded plunger instead?
Originally intending to build my own from scratch, I ran across an old accessory called the Duo Pinball controller, which is available online for less than $9 new! (it retailed for $60 when launched in 2012). It was designed for a different pinball game, Pinball HD Collection, and isn't compatible with the one I prefer, but it didn't take too much effort to transplant a new brain in it and make it work!
This guide will show you how to mod your own controller, or use these techniques to build your own from scratch.
The Duo Pinball controller was locked into a singel game, using a Bluetooth board to pair with the iPad and send proprietary commands. In order to free it from these shackles, we'll need to swap out the electronics for something that can use a different iOS game controller standard.
One such standard is the iCade protocol, made by ION Audio for their line of iPad desktop arcade cabinets and controllers. It too requires the games you play to support the standard, but in the case of iCade, there are many, many such games, including my beloved Pinball Arcade!
The iCade standard interfaces with iOS as an HID keyboard, and is typically paired over Bluetooth. However, plugging in a wired HID keyboard works just as well, which makes it very straightforward to build your own controller!
You'll need just a few things to mod or build an iCade-compatible controller for iPad or iPhone:
- a microcontroller that can act as a USB HID keyboard, and draws less than 200 mA of current, such as the Teensy 3.2
- an adapter for the iOS device to connect USB to the Lightning port, such as the Apple USB to Lightning Camera Adapter. (If you have an older iPad or iPhone you will need the 30-pin dock connector version of the camera kit)
- micro B to A USB cable
- arcade buttons and an enclosure (such as a shoebox), or the Duo Pinball controller to hack
Next, let's get the Teensy coded to act like an iCade controller!