His new Bride of Pinbot software runs on a laptop computer connected to the pinball machine using an interface board called a Pinball Remote Operations Controller (P-ROC) designed by USA-based Pinball Controllers. "Using the processor and memory that came with the pinball machine it would be impossible to run the software I have developed," says Heltzel. "But with the power of a laptop PC running the software we can have a completely new rule set, make the new screen run animations at 30 frames per second, and create complex shows of choreographed lights and sounds."
Stern’s Gomez thinks that the added dimension that PC power brings will help to stage a revival for the game. “We are on the verge of a huge renaissance," he says. "Improved display technology and the raw computing power available mean games can weave a story, convey information and react intelligently to what players are doing in ways that were never possible before."
For instance, Gerry Stellenberg, an electrical engineer from Texas and one of the designers of the P-ROC, has built a custom pinball machine from scratch, called P3. It has a 22-inch (56cm) LCD screen built in to the playfield with built-in ball tracking technology, so that it can establish the precise location of a ball as it rolls over the screen. "It can actually track multiple balls on the screen in a similar way to the way multi-touch technology works in an iPad screen," he says.
This allows P3 to display moving images on the screen, which a player can aim at with the pinballs. "Think of asteroids floating around the screen, and the balls smashing in to them. You have the physical pinball on the playfield interacting with the virtual world on the screen," says Stellenberg.
Former pinball service engineer and industry veteran Jack Guarnieri – known to pinheads as Jersey Jack – has formed a company called Jersey Jack Pinball, which will shortly release a machine called Wizard Of Oz. "Our game is still based on mechanical action, but it is loaded with new technology," Guarnieri says. The centrepiece of the new machine is a 26-inch (66cm) colour LCD screen that shows scores, plays movie clips and animations, and also guides players through the various parts of the game.
Other pinball machines under construction include Forbidden Planet, by a team of pinheads led by Mark Squires (known in British pinball circles as "The Modfather"), and Ben Heck's Zombie Adventureland, produced by Ben Heckendorn – an inventor best known for hacking video games consoles such as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox – and veteran pinball designer John Popadiuk. The machine will be made in a limited run of 99 featuring 3D graphics (and which require the player to wear cinema-style 3D glasses.)
And in Spain Antonio Ortuno, a 31-year-old freelance computer programmer has set up a company called Quetzal Pinball to manufacture thirty Captain Nemo pinball machines. Ortuno has designed and built all the electronics from scratch in his spare time – including his Quetzal pinball controller (QPC) which is similar in concept to Stellenberg's P-ROC. "Apart from the artwork, the whole pinball machine – the cabinet, the playfield, the software and the electronics – has been designed by me," says Ortuno. He plans to make the source code for the game freely available so that anyone can modify the rules for the game – or create completely new ones. The machine will also have a Wi-Fi connection so that new rules and software updates can be downloaded from time to time.
The internet will play an important part in any revival, says Stern’s Gomez, with the next generation of machines being permanently online and connected to social media websites like Facebook. "You'll be able to see what your pinball friends are doing with their machines, post your high scores, play online tournaments and compete with people on the other side of the world. And we haven't even scratched the surface in terms of online commerce: episodic content and extra features or software upgrades that you will be able to buy."
All of which means that the pinball machines of the future will be very different to anything that has been seen or played in the 65 years since Humpty Dumpty first appeared. "New technology means that the game of pinball will evolve in new directions that are hard to imagine," says Gomez. "The only things that are sacred are the flippers and the silver ball."