DIY Weekend: Shining a new light on an old video game classic

Bryan Duxbury and Adam Ellsworth loved playing Super Mario Bros. as kids. Now, as adults, they've turned the classic NES video game into a cool DIY project with help from membership-based workspace TechShop.

Bonnie Cha Former Editor
Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.
Bonnie Cha
5 min read
James Martin/CNET

For Bryan Duxbury and Adam Ellsworth, a shared interest in DIY Arduino projects and a conversation at a Christmas party led to a pretty bright idea and an unexpected side business.

The two San Francisco residents are the creators of the Interactive 8bit Question Block lamp--a Super Mario Bros.-inspired piece of home decor. For fans of the game, the lamp should instantly look familiar, as it resembles the blocks that Mario hits to earn coins and other loot. The design alone already makes it pretty cool, but that's not where the fun ends.

To turn the light on or off, you must punch (actually, a gentle tap is enough and recommended) the bottom of the block, and every time you do so, it makes a coin sound just like in the video game. On every eighth tap, you're rewarded with the 1-Up sound. It's a piece of Super Mario Bros. come to life.

This project may never have seen the light of day, however, had it not been for a chance meeting at a company Christmas party.

By day, Duxbury, 28, is a software engineer at San Francisco-based startup Rapleaf, but in his spare time, he likes to design products and come up with other DIY projects. After tinkering with a laser cutter, Duxbury, who says he started writing software in middle school, came up with the idea for the lamp a few months ago. But with two kids and a full-time job, finding the time to turn the concept into an actual product proved to be challenging.

Still, not wanting to let his idea go to waste, he sent himself an e-mail saying, "Do this one day."

Enter Ellsworth, 25, who spends most of his days doing rapid prototyping for people with ideas. His most recent project involved building a 3D printer to be used in zero gravity. Ellsworth and Duxbury knew each other casually through their Arduino (an open-source electronic prototyping platform) work, but it was at a Christmas party for Duxbury's company, where Ellworth's girlfriend also works, that the two really got to talking.

"We were kind of riffing on stuff at the Christmas party and Bryan brought up his idea," Ellwsorth said.

Said Duxbury, "I just hate having these ideas that I'm never going to get around to. Obviously, I have this day job and kids and I'm not going to have time at night or during the day to do this stuff, so I was thinking if only I knew someone who knew how to operate machines or knew electronics well enough so they could put stuff together. I'm saying this to Adam when finally I was like, 'Wait a minute, what about you?'"

James Martin/CNET

The next day Duxbury sent Ellsworth information on his concept, and within a week, they had a prototype. The two admit there was a lot wrong with the prototype, but they immediately knew they were onto something based on the enthusiastic reaction from Duxbury's office mates upon first seeing the product. From there, the two refined and improved the product to get it to where it is today.

The lamp is based on Arduino, but a bare-bones version of it to keep costs down. Ellsworth and Duxbury use a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) Mill to cut the circuit boards from a large sheet of copper clad. Various components, such as transistors for turning the LED lights on and off and amplifying the speakers, are then secured to the board using solder paste and an oven, but the speaker, power source, and touch sensor are soldered to the board by hand.

Meanwhile, the 6-inch sides of the lamp are cut from large sheets of yellow acrylic using a laser cutter, while the question mark is screen-printed onto the sides. Once everything is assembled, the two test each lamp for functionality and aesthetics.

Ellsworth and Duxbury are able to build these lamps in large part due to TechShop, a membership-based workspace that provides access to tools, equipment, classes, and other resources for artists, inventors, hackers, and other DIYers. After all, not everyone has a laser cutter or CNC Mill in their garage. The two build their lamps in TechShop's downtown San Francisco venue, where not only does the equipment come in handy, the people do too. It was another TechShop member who passed along a strip of LEDs to Ellsworth early on and gave him the idea to use similar ones in their interactive lamp.

Super Mario Bros. reimagined as lamp (photos)

See all photos

The two opened their Etsy store 8BitLit in January and sell the lamps preassembled for $75 or as a DIY Kit for $55. There are also accessories, such as a table stand for $15, available.

Initially, they got a handful of people, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, buying the lamp, but sales really picked up in mid- to late-February, after they dropped the price (the lamp went through several price drops, but originally went for $250). Crave met with Ellsworth and Duxbury on a Wednesday, and they had 150 lamps to deliver by the following Monday. They received two additional orders during our meeting--three if you include the DIY Kit CNET's Donald Bell bought right on the spot.

"The general feedback has been people like it and want them," Ellsworth said. The shop has received orders from around the world, including one gentleman in the U.K. who wanted a 3-foot version of the lamp to use as a chandelier. If there's been one complaint, it's been from the Super Mario Bros. purists who say you only achieve the 1-Up sound after collecting 100 coins (or in this case 100 taps) instead of eight.

Duxbury and Ellsworth say they could offer that as an option if there were a huge demand, and they're also exploring expanding their store to include more accessories and other 8-bit-themed products.

"Now is a great time to be making things," Duxbury said. "Between Arduino and these supporting communities and Web sites like SparkFun, TechShop, and Noisebridge, a lot of really cool stuff is being made by people who have day jobs."

To share your DIY project, simply e-mail a description of 350 words or less, including all the geeky ins and outs of your invention, plus relevant links and photos, to crave at cnet dot com. Please put DIY Weekend in the subject line.