The ‘holy grail’ of hacks

The construction of one of the most anticipated hacks of all time

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The status LED on this pixel glows green, indicating its readiness to turn on at the figurative flip of a switch. Each pixel features a button labeled “sleep” which, according to an e-mail sent to the EAPS department, will disable the pixel for three hours if the office occupant is bothered by the light and pushes it.
Greg Steinbrecher—The Tech
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A close up view of board number 121. Of note is the antenna at the top of the image; each pixel is independently controlled via wireless link. The larger black IC is a PIC24FJ32GA — an inexpensive micro controller similar to those found in the popular Arduino boards.
Greg Steinbrecher—The Tech
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In March, the same LED arrays were used to display a purple ribbon in recognition of Relay for Life.
Joseph Maurer—The Tech
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A woman plays Tetris on the display on the Green Building during Campus Preview Weekend.
Chris Pentacoff
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Students and prefrosh alike were able to play a fully functional game of Tetris on the Green Building over Campus Preview Weekend. Hackers used the already installed LED arrays to light up the windows with a variety of colors for the super-sized video game.
Chris Pentacoff
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In September, hackers lit up the Green Building in a patriotic display of an American flag in honor of 9/11. The flag was the first use of the LED system that was later featured in the Tetris hack.
Chris Pentacoff
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Each pixel in the display featured the phrase “WHO did this?” printed on the corner of the circuit board.
Greg Steinbrecher—The Tech
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Under the protective plexiglass cover, each device features 13 LEDs. Each pixel has a ridged plastic cover to direct the light up toward the window rather than back into the room.
Greg Steinbrecher—The Tech

153 windows, 153 pixels. Two weekends ago, the front of the Green Building lit up in a colorful display of the popular puzzler Tetris. The 17x9 pixel screen spanned over 80 by 250 feet — making it the second largest screen in the nation. Appearing mysteriously on Friday night, the Tetris hack was the culmination of over four and a half years of work by an undisclosed number of hackers. With the completion of the hack came the conclusion of a dream; the idea of transforming Building 54 into a working game of Tetris has been a fantasy of hackers for decades.

“The point was to do something that was marked as impossible,” one of the hackers said to The Tech this Sunday.

The Green Building, whose front measures over 100 by 295 feet, might have been host to the largest game of Tetris ever played in the United States.

The Tech had the opportunity to sit with three of the hackers who made it all possible. While they refused to disclose their identity or mention which hacking group they were a part of, they did indicate that their team was much larger than three people and covered a range of courses and class years.

Birth of a hack

The idea of doing Green Building Tetris has been around since the 80s when the game was first invented, and the inception of this hack started just over four years ago.

“Four years ago, we were like, ‘let’s just freaking do it,’” said one of the hackers. Activity happened in bursts; the project would lay dormant until someone would “get an itch” to work on it again.

One of the biggest challenges in the engineering process was how to properly illuminate the entire window from a single spot. The device needed to be small enough to not annoy the room’s occupant, but powerful enough to uniformly light the window. Each window on the Green Building is about eight feet tall by six feet wide, and formed one pixel of the entire display. Every window was outfitted with a custom built LED board that was wirelessly controlled.

“It wouldn’t have been possible to run wires to put everything together,” a hacker said, “From our perspective; this was the only way you could possibly build it.”

The units used consisted of 2-layer aluminum-core printed circuit boards housed in an aluminum casing. To cut costs, the hackers used standard aluminum bar stock which was CNC machined to create custom one-piece housings. The devices all have 13 LEDs on them, each rated for 3 watts. The hackers went through five different prototypes before settling on the final version.

One of the advantages of the design was its heat dissipation. “They are thermally linked to the window sill,” said a hacker, “Turns out we don’t actually run them that hot, ever. If you were to run them [to full capacity], it would still only be warm to the touch.”

The housing for each board was also specially designed for the wireless antennae, which communicated with a computer held in the podium where players controlled the game.

“The wireless itself is. …the cheapest solution that would work for this application,” he said, “This was the minimum you could get away with and it would still work.”

With the design finalized, the time came to implement the hack. The team worked for two months nonstop.

“We worked every night from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.,” he said, “I’m not kidding you, every night for like two months.”

The fruit of their efforts was the patriotic display that appeared on the Green Building on 9/11. The flag, which went up in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of September 11, is the same LED system that was used for the Tetris Hack.

The reaction to the memorial hack was disappointing.

“People thought they were Christmas tree lights,” a hacker said, also mentioning that the response on the internet had been surprisingly slow. But they did not lose heart — with the system fully installed for 9/11, the hackers now had the ability to use it more easily for other things. They were responsible for the purple ribbon that appeared on the building in honor of Relay for Life in March. Tetris was the original goal of the project, and they set their sights on CPW for its premiere.

“It’s a time when people want to put up hacks,” one of the hackers explained, “The more you can get prefrosh interested in hacks, the more likely you get more interesting prefrosh to come to MIT.”

“You have the most audience for CPW,” he added, “Everybody is up late.”

Tetris in action

When the hack finally went live, the Twitterverse and Facebook exploded with photos of the event, with dozens of MIT students boasting about seeing the coolest hack ever. A number of Boston media reported on the event, and the internet carried the story even further. For every night that the hack was up, the podium where one could play the game was swarmed with impressed prefrosh and parents, all vying for their turn at the largest Tetris game they’d ever seen. Students laughed about how their mistakes playing the game were broadcast across the river to all of Boston, and each tetris was met with cheers and applause from those standing around.

Asked how they felt when the Tetris hack finally went live Friday night?

“It was freaking awesome,” said one of the hackers.

“Watching it from across the river is pretty freaking sweet,” added another.

“Honestly, I think the thing that was more cool was people walking down the Mass Ave. bridge saw it and came to see the actual thing,” said a hacker. Another pointed out the positive response on the internet as being encouraging.

The future

The hackers have made arrangements with EAPS (Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary sciences); the residents of Building 54, to keep the hack installed permanently so future generations can use the Green Building’s “screen.”

“In general, EAPS is supportive,” said a hacker, “They think it’s difficult to manage, but it’s still pretty cool. People whose windows they are in actually all have varied opinions.”

To prevent occupants from getting angry with the hack, each unit has a button that will disable the light for a few hours. “Part of the goal is public relations,” explained one of the hackers, “It’s just communication.”

“We don’t want hurt feelings in any way.”

Open source

In the near future, hackers have a few ideas for things to put on the building, though they declined to state exactly what they had in mind.

More excitingly, however, is the plan to release the software used to create the Tetris game on the internet so people can try and make their own hack that could run on the building.

“Everything would still go through us to make sure it’s vetted and ok with us,” one of the hackers said, “We would like to open this up to a general audience.”

“It also means less work for us,” he laughed, “If someone develops something that’s really neat. …that’s cool and we’ll do that. It’s interesting to see what people will do with the design challenge of the low resolution display. It’s only 17x9. It’s a bit of a challenge.”

Those interested in creating something for the Green Building display can find the software online at

Glenn Glazer about 12 years ago

I find it strange that people at MIT felt this was impossible or even novel to do, when it has been done several times before:

Brown University:



and I am sure you can search for more examples. The current Tech version is truly superior in execution, but previously impossible? Not nearly.

Jordan about 12 years ago

What wireless was used for this solution? Did you use XBee modules? Some other module? Did you create your own cheap FSK radio?

Anonymous about 12 years ago

I'm disappointed. I thought it was an actual HACK of the building's electrical system, manipulating the room lights behind each window. This isn't a hack. They just built a huge LED display and programmed it. LAME!

sleepytom about 12 years ago

This concept was first done in 2001 in Germany. for full documentation. Even back then they had games controlled by mobile phones and user generated content uploaded to the screen, so this is hardly new.

Rahn about 12 years ago

Come on now, please - more details! more details!

1. The LED (3W?) did you get them from Digikey?

2. What are the wireless module?

3. Did you use a light diffuser?

4. What Microprocessor?

5. Thank god you didn't arduino it. Yay!