As the Escape Room industry has evolved, technology has been a key driver in creating higher quality and automated experiences. While Gen 1 games with all locks and keys have a retro feel, they limit the immersive experiences ER operators want to create to serve their market demand. There are a few major ways technology has contributed to the ER experience and prop construction has been a key factor.
There are a few key technologies that have prop and room automation that generally fall into two main categories, Industrial Automation and Grow Your Own. Industrial Automation technologies routinely get retargeted to any other industry that requires computer automation, which uses a device called a PLC (programmable logic controller). PLCs vary widely in capability and are very capable, but the downside can be a learning curve and cost. However, if you have the budget, they do provide some of the most integrated solutions.
On the other side, you have the Grow Your Own method. These solutions can be just as capable as a PLC solution, but depending on where you start, they can be much cheaper hard cost wise, but they can be a lot more work depending on your skill set.
When starting any business, there is always a make vs. buy decision on almost every aspect. While some would jump on developing their own website, others would outsource it in a second. Many ER owners tend to take a lot of pride in building their rooms themselves, and they should, but building electronics is not likely a great use of their time unless they are already experienced developing systems like this. To help ER owners and prop designers have an easier time building their tech, we have developed the FX350.
The FX350 electronics and open source/free software free up the puzzle developer’s time from many details of ER prop design. Together, stock props can be programmed in minutes and support integration with Houdini MC (and other software also).
First, the hardware. Where a standard Arduino UNO (a commonly used controller) provides an easy to use software interface, it’s just plain bad for interfacing with the real world (most digital processors are). It can’t do anything by itself. Therefore, the integration of switches, lights, and other controls are left to what is usually a novice designer, scouring youtube, adafruit and sparkfun. There is nothing wrong with learning how to do all of this, but one needs to assess if their time may be better spent on marketing or building the business. The FX350 (and the FX300) provide out of the box inputs and outputs suitable for doing real work. By protecting the microcontroller and leveraging industrial input and output standards, the FX350 can accept inputs from buttons and knobs, and control motors, maglocks, and solenoids. And with the Ethernet interface, it can report and control the status of the puzzle from the comfort of the control room.
Second, the software. It’s all open source and it’s been extended far beyond what you find in a stock Arduino package. There are canned games and communications setup for control room monitoring. It’s a perfect template to write your own games.
There is no doubt that escape room props are fun to build and electronics is fun to learn, however, the FX350 and other FX controllers can save you from some of the headache of electronics, allow you to customize your games, and let you focus more on building your business.
Here is an example of integration with Houdini MC and our RFID reader system: