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Modular SNES – Nathan Villicaña-Shaw

Modular SNES

The Modular SNES is a modified Super Nintendo Entertainment System that is hacked and circuit bent using an Arduino Nano microcontroller. The Modular SNES utilizes the same approach of via-based hardware bending for finding and exploiting the SNES consoles. The Modular SNES, however, does not only provide a path to ground for these bends, but instead opens them up to the world by porting the connections to the outside via 1/8th inch ports. The activity of circuit bending is steeped in exploration and discovery and the Modular SNES chose a patchbay interface to allow for flexibility in its use representative of the act of circuit bending while still benefitting from the advantages afforded by working within an established convention with established expectations for interaction. In addition to the patchbay, the Modular SNES additionally boasts an Arduino Nano hidden inside the case with four input jacks, four analogue pots, as well as its own eight outputs. To find the bends used in the Modular SNES, an Arduino Nano’s PWM pins are used to pulse, at varying speeds, potential locations on the SNES mainboard. Just like when bending the Rotary SNES, the Modular SNES focused in on the plentiful vias found on the host SNES’s mainboard and tested each one. If the via provides consistently interesting results when probed with the Arduino, it is tested against system ground before being marked as “good”. After testing all possibilities for the SNES, each of the final bends is connected to a 1/8th inch jack which is mounted onto the SNES plastic case. In fact, all of the input and output jacks on the Modular SNES use the same 1/8th inch housings which provided the perfect balance between size and functionality. The 1/8th inch standard is common among electronic devices allowing the Modular SNES to easily mate with auxiliary cables, headphones, and even other Modular SNESs; as long as the interfaced system has an operating voltage of 5V or lower there are no limitations. One thing that sets the Modular SNES apart from the Rotary SNES is its use of an onboard Arduino Nano microcontroller. The logic levels of a SNES console operate at 5V and the system is organized with at least 500mA of extra current draw on top of normal operations. This provides enough overhead to allow the console to internally power an Arduino without any additionally cables or cords. The Modular SNES takes advantage of this and houses an Arduino NANO inside the SNES plastic casing. The Arduino’s PWM output pins are connected to 1/8th” jacks and are mounted to the case in the same manner as the bends. In addition to simply providing output connections, analog input pins from the Arduino are ported out to 1/8th” jacks which are mounted to the back of the SNES unit. The voltages read at these inputs affect the pulse rate and overall intensity of several of the Arduino’s PWM outputs. These allow for some interesting feedback loops to be created between the Arduino and the various bends available on the patchbay. The operations of the Arduino can furthermore be controlled using four potentiometers positioned on the top of the SNES case which additionally affect the rates and intensities of the Arduino outputs. In addition to the video bends offered by the device, the Modular SNES’s patchbay provides its user an output from the audio card. This connection can be connected to one of the video bends to allows the visuals to be effected by a games music and sound effects or can be routed into the Arduino to control its behavior. Furthermore, a separate jack in the patchbay provides a connection to the logic signals of one of the controllers. This interesting jack can be used to either control the in-game avatar with another bend, or the Arduino, or can leverage the controller messages to dynamically bend the game according to the players button presses.

Compared to Rotary SNES

Both the Modular SNES and Rotary SNES have been shown at various Fairs, Expos, Festivals, and installations often together with the Symbiotic SNES as the SNES Trinity and due to their similarities invite comparison. When evaluated based strictly on their technical capabilities there is no doubt that the Modular SNES boasts more features than its rotary counterpart with an onboard Arduino, access to audio, and the patchbay interface which allows different bends to be connected to each other. However, as seen in Table 4, the Rotary SNES does feature between five and ten more bends than its counterpart. This is due to both the fragility of Modular SNES bends and the amount of physical space required to implement each of its bends. However, more available bends does not equate to more available bend combinations, the Modular SNES’s patchbay interface allows for every possible bend to be connected to any other bend, or Arduino port, vastly increasing on the number of possibilities offered by the Rotary SNES whose two twelve-positions rotary switches only provide a total of 144 different possible states. The Modular SNES is by no means the better device in all facets and the simplicity of the Rotary SNES is preferred in some circumstances. For instance, the Modular SNES is prone to “crashing” and when some bends are connected to each other the system will reboot or freeze. While these events are avoidable after learning what the triggers are, these crashes prove crippling during public events where unsuspecting visitors are unaware of such limitations. Another example of how the complexity of the Modular SNES works to its disadvantage becomes apparent in how many visitors interact, or avoid interacting, with the interface. The Modular SNES’s dozens of jacks, along with the operational cabling, distracts users from the circuit bent video game which is intended to be the focus of the exhibit. The Rotary SNES on the other hand has two simple knobs guests can turn to their hearts content without fear of breaking the exhibit; they encouraged guests to quickly find bends they like and then focus on the game without the interface impeding them. When used as an interfaces for public installations where the installation topic is not the interface itself the Rotary SNES triumphs at transparency, simplicity, and minimalism and serves its resulting glitched software without drawing unneeded attention to itself. It refrains from obstructing the circuit bent games, which are the topic of the installation, while still allowing for control over the system. This the Modular SNES fail to achieve due to the complexity of its controls which requires explanation drawing attention away from the games guest should be focusing on. To conclude, the Rotary SNES is a better interface for installations while the Modular SNES is the better choice for the individual user interested in spending extend time with the device.

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