Turn Your PVR into a Dancin' Machine
Note: I wrote this article for byopvr.com a while ago, but I thought I’d get a copy up here as well. Basically, I turned my old desktop PC into a Tivo, but without a subscription fee and total control over the content. It also has the perk of being able to run PC software on the TV… including games. Which brings us to this article.
I recently was introduced to the video game Dance Dance Revolution and suggested it to The Wife(tm). The game play is deceptively simple– step on a game pad containing 4 arrows in time to arrows displayed on the screen in time to modern dance music. She isn’t really a gamer, but the idea of getting some exercise made her interested. And not just for her, but it was a game that she could feel comfortable recommending to kids. I thought this might be the opening to get a console into the house… but the total cost of a new system, plus pads, plus the game itself just to play one game wasn’t really feasible.
So she asked, "Can’t you find a program for the PVR?"… which made a lot of sense (as usual). I had recently completed a project turning my old Desktop PC into a PVR which is connected 24/7 to the TV in our family room. It’s a modest computer in today’s PC market– 1 GHz Celeron, 512MB of PC100 RAM and a GeForce 5200. But it should be powerful enough to play a relatively low demanding game such as DDR. So after a bit of investigation I found the answer to my quest: StepMania.
It’s an open-source DDR clone that runs on windows. There’s a strong community and a lot of the familiar songs and steps have been ported over. Plus the program is FREE (you have to find your own song packs).
Here’s a quick checklist of steps for turning your PVR into a dancing machine:
Download and install StepMania
This is just the program itself. You can download some extra items from the site as well, such as Background Animations and Announcer sound packs.
Download and install Songpacks
This is where copyright gets a little sticky. I can’t tell you where to download song packs, but I can tell you that they are distributed as files with a “smzip” extension. Perhaps you might be able to figure out a method to search for files that contain that text, maybe even in a way that a peer would connect to a peer. “smzip” files are just plain “zip” files, but they are extracted and installed automatically by the StepMania program.
You should now be able to fire up StepMania and play… with your keyboard. But that’s no fun, and hardly can be called exercise (plus, that’s no way to impress the ladies). You need some dance pads to get your groove on.
Purchase Dance Pads
There are some pads that are made specifically for a PC USB connection, but they are expensive. A much better way to go is to buy PS2 pads and a PS2 to USB connector. It’s cheaper, and you have a much wider selection to choose from. The most expensive pads are arcade quality metal and high-impact plastic, and will run you about $300 each. Personally, I took the opposite route and bought a couple of PS2 Dance Pads from Computer Geeks for $8 each (not only cheap but they have stylish flaming feet on them!).
I bought two so my wife and I can both play at the same time. It’s much more fun to play with two people at the same time than having to take turns. The pads have a certain “new-diaper” smell when you first open the box, but they fold up easily for stashing behind the couch when not in use. They’ve held up for months now without any problems. I have heard stories of people buying pads on Ebay, but they have had very mixed results on quality and reliability. I know that the “budget”-line pads have a limited lifetime, so I wanted to be sure I wasn’t getting one that was 75% worn out already.
Purchase a PlayStation2 to USB converter
You need to be careful with this one, as some converters don’t work with dance pads. Check out this page on the StepMania page for details on the right model to get.
I ended up finding the best deal from Ebay (I wasn’t concerned about wear-and-tear on a box of wires and no moving parts). I ended up getting the “Super Dual Box”, which can handle both pads through a single USB connection.
Final Setup and Config
I connected the pads to the converter, then plugged the converter into one of the USB ports on the front of my Aria, which was recognized and installed as plug-and-play in XP. I then started StepMania, but there were a couple of tweaks necessary to use the pads—First, I had to get the converter out of analog mode by holding the UP arrow, SELECT and START on the pads for five seconds on each pad. I have to repeat the process every time I reconnect the pads, but it’s easy enough to do. Second, I had to go into the Stepmania configuration and remap the arrows to the right controls. Before I did so, there was no way to get two simultaneous arrow hits. This key remapping was only required once, and now works flawlessly. I even added a custom button in my PVR interface to launch the StepMania executable, and return to the PVR interface when I quit StepMania.
So for about $35 total I was playing DDR on my TV. On multiple occasions we have ended up playing for over an hour, getting a good work out and working our way up the difficultly settings. It’s a lot of fun and you feel good about it when you’re done. I had no plans for this when I built my own PVR, but the freedom to do this kind of project is yet another reason why I’m glad I did.