April 18, 2000 5:15 PM PDT

Brown students create massive Tetris game on building

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It's probably the largest Linux installation in the world.

Sort of.

Last Friday night, a group of Brown University undergraduates unveiled La Bastille, a 10-story-tall version of the famously addictive video game Tetris displayed on the side of the Sciences Library. The game--in which a player tries to fit shapes snugly together as they drop down the screen--runs on a Linux computer connected to a network of 10,000 light bulbs, according to project architect Soren Spies.

Is it art? Is it computer science? Both, probably.

Brown University Tetris

One art student, Nicholas Lochmatow, is getting art credit for his work on the project. And Spies might see if he can get engineering credit as well: "I spent more time on it than any of my classes," he said.

About 30 people at Brown's Tech House sunk countless hours building wooden frames, soldering wires, attaching Christmas tree lights, debugging software, and hanging the apparatus in 100 windows of the library, Spies said.

"My girlfriend came in from California and put in several days of soldering," Spies said.

Linux, a clone of the Unix operating system originally created by Linus Torvalds when he still was in college, is popular in educational institutions because its source code may be scrutinized and modified by experimenters. The Brown students chose it because of a free piece of Linux software that makes it comparatively easy to control nonstandard electronic equipment such as arrays of Christmas tree lights, Spies said.

Initially, the students considered sneaking their project into the library but realized it would be short-lived at best with that approach. Obtaining permission was laborious, but as it turned out, the school electrician's advice proved very helpful.

In any case, the project won't be up for much longer. Permission for the installation expires next weekend.

The game is played on a small Windows CE device connected by cable to the Linux server. The game only can be played after midnight when the lights are out in the library and the loud clicking of relays won't disturb students.

On opening night, a band played the Klezmer music that provides the sound track to the original Tetris game.

About 50 to 100 people have played the game by now, Spies estimated. The general response: "This is the coolest thing anyone has ever done with the SciLi," Spies said.

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