How to build an Escape Room. Part 1. Building of ER “Space Odyssey”
This article is not going to tell you the puzzles mechanisms, but there will be a lot of technical details about how everything is arranged from the inside. Legend Players are space tourists flying to the neighboring galaxy to study extraterrestrial civilizations. But something went wrong, and now players have an hour to get out of this situation by solving a variety of puzzles with electricity, compressed air, computer control panels, video cameras and augmented reality. The structure of quest electronics is very similar to a smart house: a lot of modules, grouped by functions (not by game logic), data network and server. The game server manages all the quest devices. For example, this is how the situation looks from the player’s point of view: • a player presses the button • the light turns on And this is and it actually happens: • a player presses the button • the input block reads the state of the button • the server polls the input block • the server selects the needed action according to the game script • the server sends a command to the output block • output unit supplies power to the lights This approach allows you to programmatically change the game logic, monitor its status so the operator can intervene to manually control if necessary. Structural scheme of the quest: The scheme looks quite heavy and complicated, but let us consider each subsystem in turn. Start The work on the quest begins with a sketch of the script, an empty room and the inexhaustible enthusiasm of the creators. Gradually, the script becomes rich in details, designers with ideas and layouts, engineers with schemes and drawings, and the walls of the rooms with layout (“there will be a hatch”, “puzzle”, “from here to there”). When everybody agree what exactly they will build (at least in general), the work begins. Walls We selected aluminum composite as a material for the walls. This is quite an interesting material: a layer of plastic (4 mm), covered on both sides with thin layers of aluminum. The front side is coated, its color can be different: from white to anthracite black. The composite like metal is cold to touch so it does not create the impression of “cheap plastic”. But, unlike metal, it doesn’t make a booming sound on impact. Shortly, the task of “finding the material that most people have not met in everyday life” is completed. Composite sheets can bend by hand, so under them there is a plasterboard on a steel frame (in places with complex geometry — a wooden frame). The composite can easily be processed: it can be cut, sawed, milled. The sheet can be gently bent by cutting the inner layer. This allows to build a complex scenery with no seams and no visible fasteners. We actually tried to avoid visible fasteners where possible. Walls with rows of bolts and rivets are appropriate for steampunk atmosphere, but not for a starship from the distant future. Installation of walls and scenery is well under way on the photos. The front side of the composite is covered with a protective film, which will be removed only before the launch itself. Niches are cut and wiring is done in advance in those places where puzzles and interactive elements are going to be. Ceilings What players see above their head is a false ceiling made of perforated black steel sheet. This solution is very convenient because the ceiling can hide all service lines. You can easily organize air conditioning and ventilation, without worrying about the fact that the bars will stick out in the most inappropriate places. There are speakers and microphones over the ceiling. Finally, the ceiling hides some puzzle mechanisms. To make sure that nothing can be seen from the false ceiling all the surfaces above it are painted with black matt paint. Here is the installation of wiring from the ceiling: Floors The floor is a “sandwich” of several layers. Bottom-up: concrete screed, substrate, laminate, dark linoleum and finally, a black perforated sheet, the same one as on the ceiling. Linoleum reduces the loud sound from person’s steps on metal. Illuminated grooves are made in the laminate layer: aluminum profile with led strips. The layer is closed by a diffuser (in the photo it is not installed yet), the upper surface of which is on the level of the rest of the floor. There are no slits in the metal sheets, the light is visible through the perforation. Like the rest of equipment floor lighting has two groups – white and red, which are switched in the course of the script. Floor lighting plays a decorative role, its output is several times lower than the power of wall and ceiling lighting. Automatics Decoration is well under the way, all communications are laid, so it’s time to do the hardware. Here is a bun of wires from the quest: All gaming devices can be divided into four categories: computers, actuators, lighting and puzzles. Compuers What spaceship can do without a bunch of screens and control terminals? The quest has a total of 7 computers with 9 monitors. Where the task fits into the scheme of “one app — one monitor”, nettop computers are used, because they are compact, make no noise, and heat only a little. Where it is supposed to display images on multiple monitors at once, there are normal PCs with “multi-headed” video cards. Open frame monitors, designed for ATMs and payment terminals are built into the scenery. Some of the monitors are sensory, equipped with touch panels, the rest with just vandal-proof glass. Two more interface panels are tablets built into the walls. The computers are connected to a local network through which all game applications communicate with the server. All machines are configured for remote access, so you can update or fix anything in the software even during the game. You can’t connect an Ethernet cable to your tablets, so they go online via Wi-Fi. It was not so easy to place the access point so as to provide a normal connection. The room has thick walls, and moreover, the metal composite cladding works as a Faraday cage: Wi-Fi is caught only within the direct line of sight. Executive mechanisms The next category of quest “irons” is executive mechanisms that have to be controlled by the “on-off” mode. These are door drives, electromagnetic locks, pneumatic valves – a total of one and a half dozen channels. Part of the loads run from 220 V, part from 12 V. To control all these mechanisms industrial automatics modules are used. This box is a discrete output module. It receives commands via RS-485 interface and has eight independent relay outputs. Two of these modules cater all the executive mechanisms. Powerful workloads, such as motors, are connected through intermediate relays. All the modules are united in one network and are controlled by the server through the USB/RS-485 converter by MODBUS Protocol. Lighting The ship is illuminated by a total of about 50 meters of led strips. All lighting is divided into main (white) and emergency (red), these groups are turned on at different time during the quest story. To control the light, the same industrial modules are used as for executive mechanisms, although not with relay, but with analog outputs. The module has 6 outputs, each of which can output a voltage from 0 to 10 V in increments of 0.1%. These signals control multi-channel dimmers, through which the lighting is powered. Thus, we are able to smoothly and independently change the brightness of any group of lights on the server command. That’s how the fully assembled automatics cabinet looks like: 1. pad for executive mechanisms; 2. light pad; 3. discrete output modules; 4. control electronics power supply (24 V); 5. converter RS-485/USB; 6. analog output modules; 7. dimmers; 8. power supply of led strips (12 V, located behind the dimmers). Puzzles Many puzzles have their own microcontroller “brain”. More precisely, even the cerebellum, because it only transmits data about its state to the server, and receives commands from it. The modules of the puzzles are connected to the same MODBUS as automatics. As a platform for puzzles, we have developed a unified board specifically for the quest. It includes a core (ATmega32 controller), RS-485/UART Converter, power supply (input up to 36V, output 5V), multiple power transistors to control different load, and a pair of light bulbs for debugging. Here they are: Assembled board: That’s how it looks like in quest: The network boards are connected by a conventional twisted pair, the same cable are data (RS-485), and power (24 V). 8 board are used in quest in total. I will repeat that they are all the same, the puzzles differ only in the wiring diagram and firmware. Air One of the puzzles requires compressed air, and this has caused an unexpected difficulty to us. The usual compressor is too loud, it can be heard even from the next room. The solution was found in the form of a dental compressor that supplies the air to the drill. If the compressor is hidden in the bowels of the ship and further soundproof, it is almost inaudible. The compressor is turned on in advance to gain pressure in the receiver by the time the players reach the pneumatic puzzle. Command cabin The heart of the ship is the command cabin, it is available to players from the second half of the game. The control panel with monitors and a bunch of glowing indicators is stretched for all width of the cabin. At the stage of construction, everything looks much more modest: Above the control panel there are two projection screens that show the starry sky during the game. The screens are made of plexiglass with a special translucent film glued to it. Projectors are behind the screens, which causes some difficulties, because there is very little space. Fortunately, there are ultra-short-focus projectors that can be hung very close to the screen. Since the screen is situated at an angle, regular mounting of projectors had to be mercilessly modified by grinder and hang the ceiling with the studs in an inclined position. The walls behind the screens were painted with black matte paint to avoid reflections. When the projectors are off, you can’t see anything through the screens: Sensory buttons To make remote control not to look like lifeless piece of plastic, it was decided to put more different buttons and lights that do not do anything useful, but create entourage. The ship we have is from the distant future, so you should not spoil the minimalist design by tumblers and switches. It was decided to make the buttons sensory. Each sensor is a separate small board with a microcontroller (ATtiny13) and an RGB led. The remote is made of white plastic sheet, and the sensors are attached to the bottom of this sheet. The plastic is translucent, so that the led shines through and nothing sticks out from the outside. The circuit reacts to the touch of the panel by changing the capacity of the antenna. The antenna is a piece of wire fused into the panel from the inside. This is how sensory modules and antenna blanks look like: Each module is glued to its place, connected to the antenna and power supply. Under each button there is a hole cut in which it falls when you install the panel in place: In total, there are about 100 such modules. Due to mass production, they are even cheaper than ready-made mechanical buttons with backlight (not to mention sensory ones). Video surveillance Operators continuously monitor the game progress and are ready to intervene if something goes wrong. Dome IP-surveillance cameras are installed in the quest rooms. The video stream is transmitted to the operator’s computer and simultaneously recorded in the archive. The cameras have their own built-in microphones, the sound of which also goes to the archive. However, for real time surveillance we installed “Shorokh” separate microphones. The signal is not digitized from them, but is transmitted through the mixing console to the operator room. This avoids delays, which are very unpleasant when the operator communicates with the players. Audio broadcasting The quest has two independent audio systems: one for game sounds and background music, the second for the operator’s messages. We used the usual active speakers (about 20 W per room), which are hidden behind the false ceiling. As experience has shown, this is not the best option. Speakers are likely to catch all sorts of interferences and noises (especially from mobile phones). So it is better to put passive ceiling acoustics and an external amplifier. Help button Players can ask for a hint at any time by clicking on a special button. In this case, the operator can hear a signal. In other quests, wireless calls are often used for this purpose – lean and mean. But this option did not suit us. Firstly, the bell button doesn’t fit into the spacecraft interior. Secondly, as already mentioned, the wall covering perfectly extinguishes all radio signals. I had to put an additional light button in the wall and run cable right to the operator’s. That is how the operator’s workplace looks like: One monitor displays a picture from the surveillance cameras, the second is used to manage games and administration. The server has a web-based interface that shows the game progress, the status of all applications and devices, and there are buttons for manual control.