Mad Science! An Inside Look at Create Life Pinball from Robert V. Kieronski & John Manuelian

Mad Science! An Inside Look at Create Life Pinball from Robert V. Kieronski & John Manuelian
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Mad Science! An Inside Look at Create Life Pinball from Robert V. Kieronski & John Manuelian
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Mad Science! An Inside Look at Create Life Pinball from Robert V. Kieronski & John Manuelian
Published on
January 16, 2024
Updated on
January 16, 2024
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God does not play dice with the universe. -Albert Einstein

Well, if dice is not the game, then what is? -Robert V. Kieronski

It was a normal day visiting Electromagnetic Pinball Museum and Restoration in Pawtucket, RI playing and cleaning my JJP Guns N’ Roses: Standard Edition in ‘22. John Manuelian (creator of the Pinball ARS Platform and games such as Haunted Cruise) was taking a break tinkering on his games and we were playing a game together. This is where we were introduced to Robert Kieronski. Robert was absolutely impressed by the size of the museum and how advanced modern games are. I took off the glass from Guns N’ Roses and showed him what modern games look like with its various node logic boards, large LED display, SMD boards, etc. It all made sense to Robert though as the group of us quickly formed a friendship and learned more about him.  

Who is Robert V. Kieronski?

Let's go back to the year 1963. The Cold War is very much a thing with Dr. Strangelove in theaters playing on fears of nuclear proliferation as the Vietnam War drafts young men. Martin Luther King is delivering the “I Have a Dream” speech inspiring future generations of civil rights movements. The President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy was just assassinated. Those were some extraordinary times in American culture and for the world when Robert was growing up. Robert was always curious about how things worked taking apart computers and TV sets growing up.

Robert went to college and graduated from Lehigh University with a B.A. in Electrical Engineering in Pennsylvania in 1963. He was then hired by Bell Telephone Laboratories in NJ. This is like being hired by Google today. At the time he was focused on researching Digital Information Processing Systems; the earliest forms of computers. It was the bleeding edge of technology and the foundation of digital devices that make modern society function. At this time Robert was using Punch Cards. Punch Cards and Punched Tape had pinholes created from typewriter-like devices. A hole in the card or tape would let light through which would program a computer. A few years later in 1966 Robert invented and patented a device called the “Vochrome”.

The Vochrome translates the human voice or any sound into instruments. The Vochrome consists of a box full of reed switches that create electrical outputs. These electrical outputs create digital signals that spectrally encode the audio on a musical scale which can then be used to control automated instruments. Examples of automated instruments that can be used are cymbals or even a pipe organ. You can even create visual art using lights synchronized to music.

Soon Robert earned his Masters Degree from Stevens Institute of Technology in NJ and left Bell Laboratories. He began researching Optical Translation of Electronic Signals and worked on Light Art in collaboration with author and artist Jack Burnham. Jack was one of the main pioneers of “Systems Art” which is an early form of digital artwork. Robert then went on to create prototypes for the Arp 21000 Music Synthesizer at Arp Instruments. This device is an early version of what we know today as a synth keyboard.

In the 70’s he co-founded the Art and Technology Group, Inc in Boston and went on to work on submarine defense systems serving as a Marine Engineer in the United States Navy. It’s where he created several patents including one for stereolithography. Yep, Robert has been 3D printing since ‘99.   

Kinetic Art

For this article I visited Robert at his home where he showcased some of his art pieces. This is one of his light art pieces. He is currently working on it to project colored light better but it uses dichroic optics that shift colored light beams using a proximity sensor that senses nearby motion.

Next is the “Morning Annunciator”.

It’s an alarm clock that humorously uses a rubber chicken. There is the “Social Advisor” as well. It’s a coin-op piece that doles out questionable advice from Mamie Fish who you may have seen from the HBO show The Gilded Age. Mamie was a socialite and was known for her outspoken manner. Social Advisor uses a mirror and display to project a hologram of Mamie as she dispenses advice.

Create Life Pinball

Create Life you may have played at Pinball Expo ‘23 but to get the game to the state some played at the show took an incredible amount of time and effort to complete.

The concept began over 13 years ago where a prototype game was built. It was then exhibited at the Newport Art Museum where it won an award.

At the time the game used EASYPIC6 and BigPic5 circuit boards. It's only recently FAST Pinball and John Manuelian entered the picture adding to Create Life.

Create Life is a single level style layout that allows players to simulate the “Miller-Urey” experiment. In the 1950’s chemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey from the University of Chicago postulated that life on Earth, and possibly on other planets, can be created through chemical reactions using specific Amino Acids. They created an experiment that simulated conditions of a primordial Earth and used chemicals that would be found in abundance at the time. They then analyzed the resulting primordial soup to see if they had created any living organisms. Some of their work has been proven correct as research still continues with bacterial life being created near underwater volcanoes.   

So in Create Life, are you playing God forming life as you play pinball? From the perspective of the player, absolutely, as long as you can incorporate a healthy suspension of disbelief.

Robert found an old Electro-Mechanical game and salvaged parts from it to create his game. The woodworking components were handmade by Robert rather than using a donor cabinet or using a CNC Router. That’s why it looks similar to his other art projects and he wanted to achieve the look of a laboratory environment back in the 60's. It’s the closest to a new EM game made in a world in which pinball games are being connected through the internet. The backbox contains laboratory glassware from Cornell University as if you’re cooking with Heisenberg in Breaking Bad.

It’s absolutely crazy playing it like you are a mad scientist as a science experiment unfolds before you. I cannot think of a single thing aside from Pinball Circus or some crazy coin-op device at Musée Mécanique that comes anywhere near close to what Robert has created.

The 2 inlanes simulate lighting a fire under the flask. The slingshots “increase” the flask temperature. A motor starts pumping and simulates the flask boiling starting the experiment.


An alphanumeric display shows your progress, your score, etc. You chain various proteins together combining top lanes to make them light from red to green which then create complex compounds. As you progress, other parts of the experiment start working in the backbox. A spark chamber simulates lightning and there really is electricity arcing out inside the chamber! A helical tube glows ghostly green as fluid spirals up progressing through the game. Finally the primordial soup, which eerily looks like blood, drips into the kidney like portion where life could be found. The player is successful when all the lights in the middle of the playfield are green for a total of 8.

So how is FAST Pinball and John Manuelian involved? Robert started his game before P-ROC/FAST/Cobrapin, etc. So this required him to create his own set of control boards and software to handle all game logic and functionality. Robert realized this wasn’t sustainable long-term and through his research found that there are now better solutions. He sought assistance from John to update his machine. Over the Summer of 2023, John traveled to Robert’s house and worked with him in his garage rebuilding Create Life. A new playfield was CNC cut with decals added. The driver system changed to use the FAST Pinball board-set. The computer was updated to a contemporary single board PC running Ubuntu Linux. Finally, the game code was rewritten from the ground up in Unity3D C#. In the end, Create Life became more reliable, modernized, and able to be maintained easily for years to come!

The Future of Create Life

What are Robert Kieronski's future plans for Create Life? He plans to exhibit it at pinball shows such as Pinball Expo and eventually find a home for it at a museum. It’s a thought provoking game and art piece for old and young alike asking “is it really creating life as I play” and “how does it work”? It really makes me personally appreciate it from the pure steampunk/homebrew/art approach and asking the aforementioned questions.