An I/O controller for virtual pinball machines: accelerometer nudge sensing, analog plunger input, button input encoding, LedWiz compatible output controls, and more.

Dependencies:   mbed FastIO FastPWM USBDevice

Fork of Pinscape_Controller by Mike R


This is Version 2 of the Pinscape Controller, an I/O controller for virtual pinball machines. (You can find the old version 1 software here.) Pinscape is software for the KL25Z that turns the board into a full-featured I/O controller for virtual pinball, with support for accelerometer-based nudging, a real plunger, button inputs, and feedback device control.

In case you haven't heard of the concept before, a "virtual pinball machine" is basically a video pinball simulator that's built into a real pinball machine body. A TV monitor goes in place of the pinball playfield, and a second TV goes in the backbox to serve as the "backglass" display. A third smaller monitor can serve as the "DMD" (the Dot Matrix Display used for scoring on newer machines), or you can even install a real pinball plasma DMD. A computer is hidden inside the cabinet, running pinball emulation software that displays a life-sized playfield on the main TV. The cabinet has all of the usual buttons, too, so it not only looks like the real thing, but plays like it too. That's a picture of my own machine to the right. On the outside, it's built exactly like a real arcade pinball machine, with the same overall dimensions and all of the standard pinball cabinet hardware.

A few small companies build and sell complete, finished virtual pinball machines, but I think it's more fun as a DIY project. If you have some basic wood-working skills and know your way around PCs, you can build one from scratch. The computer part is just an ordinary Windows PC, and all of the pinball emulation can be built out of free, open-source software. In that spirit, the Pinscape Controller is an open-source software/hardware project that offers a no-compromises, all-in-one control center for all of the unique input/output needs of a virtual pinball cabinet. If you've been thinking about building one of these, but you're not sure how to connect a plunger, flipper buttons, lights, nudge sensor, and whatever else you can think of, this project might be just what you're looking for.

You can find much more information about DIY Pin Cab building in general in the Virtual Cabinet Forum on Also visit my Pinscape Resources page for more about this project and other virtual pinball projects I'm working on.


  • Pinscape Release Builds: This page has download links for all of the Pinscape software. To get started, install and run the Pinscape Config Tool on your Windows computer. It will lead you through the steps for installing the Pinscape firmware on the KL25Z.
  • Config Tool Source Code. The complete C# source code for the config tool. You don't need this to run the tool, but it's available if you want to customize anything or see how it works inside.


The new Version 2 Build Guide is now complete! This new version aims to be a complete guide to building a virtual pinball machine, including not only the Pinscape elements but all of the basics, from sourcing parts to building all of the hardware.

You can also refer to the original Hardware Build Guide (PDF), but that's out of date now, since it refers to the old version 1 software, which was rather different (especially when it comes to configuration).

System Requirements

The new config tool requires a fairly up-to-date Microsoft .NET installation. If you use Windows Update to keep your system current, you should be fine. A modern version of Internet Explorer (IE) is required, even if you don't use it as your main browser, because the config tool uses some system components that Microsoft packages into the IE install set. I test with IE11, so that's known to work. IE8 doesn't work. IE9 and 10 are unknown at this point.

The Windows requirements are only for the config tool. The firmware doesn't care about anything on the Windows side, so if you can make do without the config tool, you can use almost any Windows setup.

Main Features

Plunger: The Pinscape Controller started out as a "mechanical plunger" controller: a device for attaching a real pinball plunger to the video game software so that you could launch the ball the natural way. This is still, of course, a central feature of the project. The software supports several types of sensors: a high-resolution optical sensor (which works by essentially taking pictures of the plunger as it moves); a slide potentionmeter (which determines the position via the changing electrical resistance in the pot); a quadrature sensor (which counts bars printed on a special guide rail that it moves along); and an IR distance sensor (which determines the position by sending pulses of light at the plunger and measuring the round-trip travel time). The Build Guide explains how to set up each type of sensor.

Nudging: The KL25Z (the little microcontroller that the software runs on) has a built-in accelerometer. The Pinscape software uses it to sense when you nudge the cabinet, and feeds the acceleration data to the pinball software on the PC. This turns physical nudges into virtual English on the ball. The accelerometer is quite sensitive and accurate, so we can measure the difference between little bumps and hard shoves, and everything in between. The result is natural and immersive.

Buttons: You can wire real pinball buttons to the KL25Z, and the software will translate the buttons into PC input. You have the option to map each button to a keyboard key or joystick button. You can wire up your flipper buttons, Magna Save buttons, Start button, coin slots, operator buttons, and whatever else you need.

Feedback devices: You can also attach "feedback devices" to the KL25Z. Feedback devices are things that create tactile, sound, and lighting effects in sync with the game action. The most popular PC pinball emulators know how to address a wide variety of these devices, and know how to match them to on-screen action in each virtual table. You just need an I/O controller that translates commands from the PC into electrical signals that turn the devices on and off. The Pinscape Controller can do that for you.

Expansion Boards

There are two main ways to run the Pinscape Controller: standalone, or using the "expansion boards".

In the basic standalone setup, you just need the KL25Z, plus whatever buttons, sensors, and feedback devices you want to attach to it. This mode lets you take advantage of everything the software can do, but for some features, you'll have to build some ad hoc external circuitry to interface external devices with the KL25Z. The Build Guide has detailed plans for exactly what you need to build.

The other option is the Pinscape Expansion Boards. The expansion boards are a companion project, which is also totally free and open-source, that provides Printed Circuit Board (PCB) layouts that are designed specifically to work with the Pinscape software. The PCB designs are in the widely used EAGLE format, which many PCB manufacturers can turn directly into physical boards for you. The expansion boards organize all of the external connections more neatly than on the standalone KL25Z, and they add all of the interface circuitry needed for all of the advanced software functions. The big thing they bring to the table is lots of high-power outputs. The boards provide a modular system that lets you add boards to add more outputs. If you opt for the basic core setup, you'll have enough outputs for all of the toys in a really well-equipped cabinet. If your ambitions go beyond merely well-equipped and run to the ridiculously extravagant, just add an extra board or two. The modular design also means that you can add to the system over time.

Expansion Board project page

Update notes

If you have a Pinscape V1 setup already installed, you should be able to switch to the new version pretty seamlessly. There are just a couple of things to be aware of.

First, the "configuration" procedure is completely different in the new version. Way better and way easier, but it's not what you're used to from V1. In V1, you had to edit the project source code and compile your own custom version of the program. No more! With V2, you simply install the standard, pre-compiled .bin file, and select options using the Pinscape Config Tool on Windows.

Second, if you're using the TSL1410R optical sensor for your plunger, there's a chance you'll need to boost your light source's brightness a little bit. The "shutter speed" is faster in this version, which means that it doesn't spend as much time collecting light per frame as before. The software actually does "auto exposure" adaptation on every frame, so the increased shutter speed really shouldn't bother it, but it does require a certain minimum level of contrast, which requires a certain minimal level of lighting. Check the plunger viewer in the setup tool if you have any problems; if the image looks totally dark, try increasing the light level to see if that helps.

New Features

V2 has numerous new features. Here are some of the highlights...

Dynamic configuration: as explained above, configuration is now handled through the Config Tool on Windows. It's no longer necessary to edit the source code or compile your own modified binary.

Improved plunger sensing: the software now reads the TSL1410R optical sensor about 15x faster than it did before. This allows reading the sensor at full resolution (400dpi), about 400 times per second. The faster frame rate makes a big difference in how accurately we can read the plunger position during the fast motion of a release, which allows for more precise position sensing and faster response. The differences aren't dramatic, since the sensing was already pretty good even with the slower V1 scan rate, but you might notice a little better precision in tricky skill shots.

Keyboard keys: button inputs can now be mapped to keyboard keys. The joystick button option is still available as well, of course. Keyboard keys have the advantage of being closer to universal for PC pinball software: some pinball software can be set up to take joystick input, but nearly all PC pinball emulators can take keyboard input, and nearly all of them use the same key mappings.

Local shift button: one physical button can be designed as the local shift button. This works like a Shift button on a keyboard, but with cabinet buttons. It allows each physical button on the cabinet to have two PC keys assigned, one normal and one shifted. Hold down the local shift button, then press another key, and the other key's shifted key mapping is sent to the PC. The shift button can have a regular key mapping of its own as well, so it can do double duty. The shift feature lets you access more functions without cluttering your cabinet with extra buttons. It's especially nice for less frequently used functions like adjusting the volume or activating night mode.

Night mode: the output controller has a new "night mode" option, which lets you turn off all of your noisy devices with a single button, switch, or PC command. You can designate individual ports as noisy or not. Night mode only disables the noisemakers, so you still get the benefit of your flashers, button lights, and other quiet devices. This lets you play late into the night without disturbing your housemates or neighbors.

Gamma correction: you can designate individual output ports for gamma correction. This adjusts the intensity level of an output to make it match the way the human eye perceives brightness, so that fades and color mixes look more natural in lighting devices. You can apply this to individual ports, so that it only affects ports that actually have lights of some kind attached.

IR Remote Control: the controller software can transmit and/or receive IR remote control commands if you attach appropriate parts (an IR LED to send, an IR sensor chip to receive). This can be used to turn on your TV(s) when the system powers on, if they don't turn on automatically, and for any other functions you can think of requiring IR send/receive capabilities. You can assign IR commands to cabinet buttons, so that pressing a button on your cabinet sends a remote control command from the attached IR LED, and you can have the controller generate virtual key presses on your PC in response to received IR commands. If you have the IR sensor attached, the system can use it to learn commands from your existing remotes.

Yet more USB fixes: I've been gradually finding and fixing USB bugs in the mbed library for months now. This version has all of the fixes of the last couple of releases, of course, plus some new ones. It also has a new "last resort" feature, since there always seems to be "just one more" USB bug. The last resort is that you can tell the device to automatically reboot itself if it loses the USB connection and can't restore it within a given time limit.

More Downloads

  • Custom VP builds: I created modified versions of Visual Pinball 9.9 and Physmod5 that you might want to use in combination with this controller. The modified versions have special handling for plunger calibration specific to the Pinscape Controller, as well as some enhancements to the nudge physics. If you're not using the plunger, you might still want it for the nudge improvements. The modified version also works with any other input controller, so you can get the enhanced nudging effects even if you're using a different plunger/nudge kit. The big change in the modified versions is a "filter" for accelerometer input that's designed to make the response to cabinet nudges more realistic. It also makes the response more subdued than in the standard VP, so it's not to everyone's taste. The downloads include both the updated executables and the source code changes, in case you want to merge the changes into your own custom version(s).

    Note! These features are now standard in the official VP releases, so you don't need my custom builds if you're using 9.9.1 or later and/or VP 10. I don't think there's any reason to use my versions instead of the latest official ones, and in fact I'd encourage you to use the official releases since they're more up to date, but I'm leaving my builds available just in case. In the official versions, look for the checkbox "Enable Nudge Filter" in the Keys preferences dialog. My custom versions don't include that checkbox; they just enable the filter unconditionally.
  • Output circuit shopping list: This is a saved shopping cart at with the parts needed to build one copy of the high-power output circuit for the LedWiz emulator feature, for use with the standalone KL25Z (that is, without the expansion boards). The quantities in the cart are for one output channel, so if you want N outputs, simply multiply the quantities by the N, with one exception: you only need one ULN2803 transistor array chip for each eight output circuits. If you're using the expansion boards, you won't need any of this, since the boards provide their own high-power outputs.
  • Cary Owens' optical sensor housing: A 3D-printable design for a housing/mounting bracket for the optical plunger sensor, designed by Cary Owens. This makes it easy to mount the sensor.
  • Lemming77's potentiometer mounting bracket and shooter rod connecter: Sketchup designs for 3D-printable parts for mounting a slide potentiometer as the plunger sensor. These were designed for a particular slide potentiometer that used to be available from an seller but is no longer listed. You can probably use this design as a starting point for other similar devices; just check the dimensions before committing the design to plastic.

Copyright and License

The Pinscape firmware is copyright 2014, 2021 by Michael J Roberts. It's released under an MIT open-source license. See License.

Warning to VirtuaPin Kit Owners

This software isn't designed as a replacement for the VirtuaPin plunger kit's firmware. If you bought the VirtuaPin kit, I recommend that you don't install this software. The VirtuaPin kit uses the same KL25Z microcontroller that Pinscape uses, but the rest of its hardware is different and incompatible. In particular, the Pinscape firmware doesn't include support for the IR proximity sensor used in the VirtuaPin plunger kit, so you won't be able to use your plunger device with the Pinscape firmware. In addition, the VirtuaPin setup uses a different set of GPIO pins for the button inputs from the Pinscape defaults, so if you do install the Pinscape firmware, you'll have to go into the Config Tool and reassign all of the buttons to match the VirtuaPin wiring.

--- a/TLC5940/TLC5940.h	Thu Dec 24 01:37:40 2015 +0000
+++ b/TLC5940/TLC5940.h	Tue Jan 05 05:23:07 2016 +0000
@@ -20,49 +20,47 @@
 #ifndef TLC5940_H
 #define TLC5940_H
-// Should we do the grayscale update within the blanking interval?
-// If this is set to 1, we'll send grayscale data during the blanking
-// interval; if 0, we'll send grayscale during the PWM cycle.
-// Mode 0 is the *intended* way of using these chips, but mode 1
-// produces a more stable signal in my test setup.
+// Data Transmission Mode.
+// NOTE!  This section contains a possible workaround to try if you're 
+// having data signal stability problems with your TLC5940 chips.  If
+// your chips are working properly, you can ignore this part!
-// In my breadboard testing, using the standard data-during-PWM
-// mode causes some amount of signal instability with multiple
-// daisy-chained TLC5940's.  It appears that there's some signal
-// interference (maybe RF or electrical ringing in the wires) that
-// can make the bit data and/or clock prone to noise that causes
-// random bits to propagate down the daisy chain.  This happens
-// frequently enough in my breadboard setup to be visible as
-// regular flicker.  Careful wiring, short wire runs, and decoupling
-// capacitors noticeably improve it, but I haven't been able to 
-// eliminate it entirely in my test setup.  Using the data-during-
-// blanking mode, however, *does* eliminate it entirely.
+// The software has two options for sending data updates to the chips:
+// Mode 0:  Send data *during* the grayscale cycle.  This is the way the
+// chips are designed to be used.  While the grayscale clock is running,
+// we send data for the *next* cycle, then latch the updated data to the
+// output registers during the blanking interval at the end of the cycle.
-// It clearly should be possible to eliminate the signal problems
-// in a well-designed PCB layout, but for the time being, I'm
-// making data-during-blanking the default, since it provides
-// such a noticeable improvement in my test setup, and the cost
-// is minimal.  The cost is that it lengthens the blanking interval
-// slightly.  With four chips and the SPI clock at 28MHz, the 
-// full data update takes 27us; with the PWM clock at 500kHz, the 
-// grayscale cycle is 8192us.  This means that the 27us data send 
-// keeps the BLANK asserted for an additional 0.3% of the cycle 
-// time, which in term reduces output brightness by the same amount.
-// This brightness reduction isn't noticeable on its own, but it
-// can be seen as a flicker on data cycles if we send data on
-// some blanking cycles but not on others.  To eliminate the
-// flicker, the code sends a data update on *every* cycle when
-// using this mode to ensure that the 0.3% brightness reduction
-// is uniform across time.
+// Mode 1:  Send data *between* grayscale cycles.  In this mode, we send
+// each complete update during a blanking period, then latch the update
+// and start the next grayscale cycle.  This isn't the way the chips were
+// intended to be used, but it works.  The disadvantage is that it requires
+// the blanking interval to be extended to be long enough for the full
+// data update (192 bits * the number of chips in the chain).  Since the
+// outputs are turned off for the entire blanking period, this reduces
+// the overall brightness/intensity of the outputs by reducing the duty
+// cycle.  The TLC5940 chips can't achieve 100% duty cycle to begin with,
+// since they require a certain minimum time in the blanking interval
+// between grayscale cycles; however, the minimum is so short that the
+// duty cycle is close to 100%.  With the full data transmission stuffed
+// into the blanking interval, we reduce the duty cycle further below
+// 100%.  With four chips in the chain, a 28 MHz data clock, and a
+// 500 kHz grayscale clock, the reduction is about 0.3%.
-// When using this code with TLC5940 chips on a PCB, I recommend
-// doing a test: set this to 0, run the board, turn on all outputs
-// (connected to LEDs), and observe the results.  If you don't
-// see any randomness or flicker in a minute or two of observation,
-// you're getting a good clean signal throughout the daisy chain
-// and don't need the workaround.  If you do see any instability, 
-// set this back to 1.
+// By default, we use Mode 0, because that's the timing model specified
+// by the manufacturer, and empirically it works well with the Pinscape 
+// Expansion boards.  
+// So what's the point of Mode 1?  In early testing, with a breadboard 
+// setup, I saw some problems with data signal stability, which manifested 
+// as sporadic flickering in the outputs.  Switching to Mode 1 improved
+// the signal stability considerably.  I'm therefore leaving this code
+// available as an option in case anyone runs into similar signal problems
+// and wants to try the alternative mode as a workaround.
 #include "mbed.h"
 #include "FastPWM.h"
@@ -99,31 +97,28 @@
   * isn't a factor.  E.g., at SPI=30MHz and GSCLK=500kHz, 
   * t(blank) is 8192us and t(refresh) is 25us.
-#define SPI_SPEED 2800000
+#define SPI_SPEED 28000000
   * The rate at which the GSCLK pin is pulsed.   This also controls 
   * how often the reset function is called.   The reset function call
-  * rate is (1/GSCLK_SPEED) * 4096.  The maximum reliable rate is
+  * interval is (1/GSCLK_SPEED) * 4096.  The maximum reliable rate is
   * around 32Mhz.  It's best to keep this rate as low as possible:
   * the higher the rate, the higher the refresh() call frequency,
   * so the higher the CPU load.
-  * The lower bound is probably dependent on the application.  For 
-  * driving LEDs, the limiting factor is that lower rates will increase
-  * visible flicker.  200 kHz seems to be a good lower bound for LEDs.  
-  * That provides about 48 cycles per second - that's about the same as
-  * the 50 Hz A/C cycle rate in many countries, which was itself chosen
-  * so that incandescent lights don't flicker.  (This rate is a function 
-  * of human eye physiology, which has its own refresh cycle of sorts
-  * that runs at about 50 Hz.  If you're designing an LED system for
-  * viewing by cats or drosophila, you might want to look into your
-  * target species' eye physiology, since the persistence of vision
-  * rate varies quite a bit from species to species.)  Flicker tends to 
-  * be more noticeable in LEDs than in incandescents, since LEDs don't
-  * have the thermal inertia of incandescents, so we use a slightly
-  * higher default here.  500 kHz = 122 full grayscale cycles per
-  * second = 122 reset calls per second (call every 8ms).
+  * The lower bound depends on the application.  For driving LEDs, 
+  * the limiting factor is that lower rates will increase visible flicker.
+  * A GSCLK speed of 200 kHz is about as low as you can go with LEDs 
+  * without excessive flicker.  That equals about 48 full grayscale
+  * cycles per second.  That might seem perfectly good in that it's 
+  * about the same as the standard 50Hz A/C cycle rate in many countries, 
+  * but the 50Hz rate was chosen to minimize visible flicker in 
+  * incandescent lamps, not LEDs.  LEDs need a higher rate because they 
+  * don't have thermal inertia as incandescents do.  The default we use 
+  * here is 500 kHz = 122 full grayscale cycles per second.  That seems
+  * to produce excellent visual results.  Higher rates would probably
+  * produce diminishing returns given that they also increase CPU load.
 #define GSCLK_SPEED    500000
@@ -187,8 +182,7 @@
         // grayscale levels, but SPI is ultimately just a bit-level serial format,
         // so we can reformat the 12-bit blocks into 8-bit bytes to fit the 
         // KL25Z's limits.  This should work equally well on other microcontrollers 
-        // that are more flexible.  The TLC5940 appears to require polarity/phase
-        // format 0.
+        // that are more flexible.  The TLC5940 requires polarity/phase format 0.
         spi.format(8, 0);
@@ -211,6 +205,7 @@
         // Allocate a DMA buffer.  The transfer on each cycle is 192 bits per
         // chip = 24 bytes per chip.
         dmabuf = new char[nchips*24];
+        memset(dmabuf, 0, nchips*24);
         // Set up the Simple DMA interface object.  We use the DMA controller to
         // send grayscale data updates to the TLC5940 chips.  This lets the CPU
@@ -218,14 +213,14 @@
         // allows our blanking interrupt handler return almost immediately.
         // The DMA transfer is from our internal DMA buffer to SPI0, which is
         // the SPI controller physically connected to the TLC5940s.
-        sdma.source(dmabuf, 1);
-        sdma.destination(&(SPI0->D), 0, 8);
+        sdma.source(dmabuf, true, 8);
+        sdma.destination(&(SPI0->D), false, 8);
         sdma.attach(this, &TLC5940::dmaDone);
         // Enable DMA on SPI0.  SimpleDMA doesn't do this for us; we have to
         // do it explicitly.  This is just a matter of setting bit 5 (TXDMAE)
-        // in the SPI controllers Control Register 2 (C2).
+        // in the SPI controller's Control Register 2 (C2).
         SPI0->C2 |= 0x20; // set bit 5 = 0x20 = TXDMAE in SPI0 control register 2
         // Configure the GSCLK output's frequency
@@ -257,7 +252,7 @@
         // in the timer clock vs the PWM clock that determines the GSCLCK
         // output to the TLC5940), which is far less noticeable than a 
         // constantly rotating phase misalignment.
-        reset_timer.attach(this, &TLC5940::reset, (1.0/GSCLK_SPEED)*4096.0);
+        resetTimer.attach(this, &TLC5940::reset, (1.0/GSCLK_SPEED)*4096.0);
@@ -306,7 +301,7 @@
     // Timeout to end each PWM cycle.  This is a one-shot timer that we reset
     // on each cycle.
-    Timeout reset_timer;
+    Timeout resetTimer;
     // Has new GS/DC data been loaded?
     volatile bool newGSData;
@@ -336,15 +331,21 @@
         // update on every cycle, we make the brightness reduction
         // uniform across time, which makes it less perceptible.
+        sdma.start(nchips*24);
         // end the blanking interval
-        // if we have pending grayscale data, start sending it
+        // if we have pending grayscale data, update the DMA data
         if (newGSData)
+        // send out the DMA contents
+        sdma.start(nchips*24);
@@ -373,7 +374,7 @@
         // set up the next blanking interrupt
-        reset_timer.attach(this, &TLC5940::reset, (1.0/GSCLK_SPEED)*4096.0);
+        resetTimer.attach(this, &TLC5940::reset, (1.0/GSCLK_SPEED)*4096.0);
     void update()
@@ -413,9 +414,6 @@
             dmabuf[dst++] = (gs[i] & 0x0FF);
-        // Start the DMA transfer
-        sdma.start(nchips*24);
         // we've now cleared the new GS data
         newGSData = false;