Engineer Levels Up With Arcade Hobby

Like many engineers, Greg Mitchell has a natural fascination with gadgets and is a natural tinkerer.

A trip to Disneyland as a teenager first piqued his interest in how engineers bring imaginary worlds to life and the machines that make the magic possible. Years later, while attending a job fair in Orlando, he stumbled across a Lockheed Martin booth, and he hasn’t looked back — celebrating 20 years as a Lockheed Martin employee in June.

“I always loved building and creating things. When I was 13, I got my first computer, and I used to love writing simple programs,” he said. “I love to create things and that takes many forms. I also love to solve problems and work through different challenges.”  

Greg began his education studying computer science but ultimately switched to mechanical engineering, eventually earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech.

Now the Chief Engineer overseeing several development programs for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, Greg said one of the keys to his career success is being able to troubleshoot and identify the root cause of a problem, which requires him to think methodically in how to approach it. Drawing on a breadth of knowledge from multiple engineering disciplines is critical to understanding complex technical systems.

He uses this same kind of thinking outside of the office in his garage.

“Having grown up in the arcades of the ‘80s, I had always wanted to have my own arcade cabinet,” he said. “While researching that project, I stumbled across another site where people were building their own full-size pinball tables, and I thought it would be cool to build one someday. Fortunately, the COVID quarantine provided me the opportunity to tackle this challenge.”

Greg leveled up his arcade space by creating his very own pinball machine and arcade cabinet, connecting various electronic components like a processor, sensor and buttons to get the pinball table game ready.

Both the arcade and pinball are based on real game systems and designs. After many nights of programming and wiring, he fabricated the table and arcade parts from plywood; assembled, sanded, painted and added artwork.

“The pinball table is my favorite. Not only because it was the most complex, but the fact that my son did all of the artwork and the fact that pinball is so much more challenging of a game than I ever realized. There is a lot of skill and strategy associated with playing pinball.”

He also picked up a classic 1980s Super Pac-Man ® cocktail cabinet from a coworker and restored it to working order. Tapping into his electrical engineering skills, he reconfigured the cable design and interconnects for the electronics. He quickly learned how to troubleshoot and repair a cathode-ray tube (CRT) display, to get the table ready to play.

With a full arcade room, Greg would eventually love to create his own jukebox or build a projection-mapping system for his pool table. The system would project imagery onto the pool table and interact with players’ movements.

“I’ve seen designs with koi fish that swim about on the table and move around to avoid the balls as they roll,” he said. “It also has the ability to create a training overlay that will provide a visual indication of where the cue ball is likely to go when struck. By using motion detection sensors and video projection, the computer is able to generate the necessary imagery that is then projected onto the pool table surface.”

Stretching himself even further, Greg has also used his creative talents developing sets, costumes and props for his kids’ theater productions, such as for the “Little Shop of Horrors.”

“Being able to visualize the inner workings of the puppets, from the small hand puppet to the full-size plant, required an understanding of mechanisms and motion,” he said. “It took a bit of trial and error to get a design that was easily handled by the students that would be bringing these plants to life. Working with John Kennedy, a professional puppeteer who has worked on Sesame Street, Muppet movies and other projects, it was amazing to see how he approached these challenges, and I learned a lot in the process.”

His advice for anyone wanting to start large projects – both at home or in the Aerospace and Defense industry – is to start small before working on the larger picture.

“For my pinball table, before I ever worried about what my table would look like and how big it would be or what unique hardware I would need, I started by getting my computer working with the displays,” Greg said. “I just grabbed TVs and monitors I had lying around the house, not the real ones I used in my table. This allowed me to work out the bugs and interconnects at a smaller, less daunting level, before ever spending any additional money and time to get the final design.”

He encourages others to just be curious about things, tinker around and learn how things function.

“Too often I see people who don’t want to try some new project because they are afraid it won’t be right or they’ll break something,” Greg said. “I have screwed up way more things than I’ve probably fixed, but I’ve always learned a ton. And each of those lessons gave me insights into new and different ways of tackling a problem.”

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