Building the heart of the VP cab

Inside the cabinet a Windows 10 PC will be installed: this is the heart of the virtual pinball machine. Depending on the playfield monitor we choose (we are thinking of getting a 43″ 4K monitor) this PC has to be quite powerful. Therefore we will use 16GB of RAM and a powerful GeForce video card. Below is a complete list of the PC components we bought:

The total costs of these components: €1000.

↪ The case of our choice is a fairly compact one made by Cooler Master. The reason we choose to put the computer hardware in a case is to protect against dust or falling objects. Cool detail is the transparent side.

↪ Luckily the MasterBox comes with a manual that guides us through the process of installing all hardware. First we need to put in the PSU.

↪ Next up is the motherboard.

↪ But before we can put it in the case, we need to install the CPU…

↪ … the CPU fan…

↪ … and the RAM.

↪ When placing the motherboard inside the computer case we have to make sure that we align the ports correctly. This was easier said than done, it’s a tight fit!

↪ That’s a lot of cables!

↪ Before rearranging the cables and closing the case we make sure that the computer is working. Looks like we installed everything correctly!

↪ Inside the computer’s BIOS

↪ The computer after rearranging the cables. Yes, that’s a real pinball machine in the back =)

↪ And a small test setup with VP software.

Now that the PC is up and running it is time to think about what playfield monitor to buy and to continue working on the cabinet.

Making the first cuts!

Now that the MDF is delivered, the next step is to make all the necessary cuts and adjustments before we can start assembling the cabinet. The most important of these cuts is the one on the bottom. The bottom plate of the cabinet is secured by the sides by a so-called flat bottomed groove. We need a router with a straight router bit to make these kind of cuts.


The real deal

After getting familiar with the new router we bought and after making some test cuts we finally get to be working on the cabinet! A small photo report:

The router bits we need↪ The router bits we need

↪ Making the first flat bottomed groove cut

↪ Close-up of the groove cut

↪ For the rubbers that hold the playfield glass we need a very small cut. We used a slot cutter bit.

↪ At the back end of the cabinet sides we need to remove a small triangle. This way the backbox will fit on top of the cabinet.

↪ Preparing the miter saw

↪ And the end result

Prepping for building

Cabinet wood

In my last post I wrote about all the considerations I have to make before even starting the project. One of these things is choosing the dimensions of the cabinet. I went with the widebody dimensions Williams used during the 1990s, as this gives me more room for a big playfield screen. The only difficulty with these dimension is the fact that they are in inches. Since hardware shops over here do not sell 3/4″ plywood or MDF I converted the dimensions to millimeters and rounded down to whole mm’s or the next best option. In case of the thickness I went with 18mm.

The drawing plans below show the global dimensions of my pinball cabinet:

Now that the dimension plan is ready I can order the materials for the cabinet. The webshop I order from allows me to choose different materials, finishes, shapes and edging. I chose pre primed MDF for all of the visible parts of the cabinet. This will save me time when painting the cabinet. For the bottom of the cabinet and the back of the backbox I chose blank MDF, to reduce costs. The sides, front and back of the cabinet are also provided with 45 degree miter cuts. The front faces of the top and bottom of the backbox are provided with a 7 degree miter cut, to align with the slope of the sides.

The total costs of the wood were €155, shipping included. Not bad, compared to the price of a pre-assembled kit. Of course, we chose MDF instead of plywood, and we still have to make all the cuts ourselves… but I personally think that should be part of the hobby =)

Other cabinet hardware and materials

Apart from wood I also bought the first “batch” of hardware materials for the cabinet. Side rails, the lockbar mechanism, legs, a coin door, and plastics for guiding the playfield glass. With these materials we can almost start building!


There is a lot to think about if you want to make a virtual pinball cab. There is no such thing as “the” ultimate DIY kit or guide. Fortunately some people can make your life easier. The best thing I came across for example was this Pinscape Build Guide, written by Michael Roberts. It is not just a guide, it’s a whole book in which Michael documents his own cab-building experiences. In more than a hundred chapters he describes the entire creation process, from building the wooden cabinet to installing and customizing the pinball software. By reading this guide I was able to make up my mind about my own wishes and ideas for the virtual pinball cabinet. In the text below you can read about my considerations.

1. The cabinet
I like woodworking and I already know that I want to design and create the cabinet myself. But when you’re not so confident about your own woodworking skills, VirtuaPin offers so-called DIY “flat packs”. These flat packs contain all the parts needed for assembling a wooden cabinet. The parts are made from CNC-cut ¾” (19mm) plywood. All the necessary holes are drilled and cut and customizations can also be made on request. You can choose from Standard Body, Widebody or even Ultra-Widebody versions.

The real challenge will be to convert the dimensions from imperial to metrical. Then, the first “problem” I encounter is that 19mm wood is hard to come by here in the Netherlands. They do sell lots of 18mm wood, so that will be my choice for the thickness. For the bottom and the back of the backbox I will use 12mm. The cabinet will be made out of MDF instead of plywood, mainly to reduce costs.

All of the other dimensions have to be converted as well. For this I want to make some detailed drawings. I will also try to make a 3D model in SketchUp.

2. Playfield monitor
Just as important as the cabinet is the playfield monitor. You can either choose to build a cabinet around the monitor of your choice, or look for a monitor that fits your cabinet. I want the cabinet to resemble a real pinball machine as closely as possible. Therefore I have decided to use the WPC95 Widebody dimensions. Real pinball games using these standard dimensions include Twilight Zone, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Indiana Jones. Choosing widebody means that you will have less “dead space” around your playfield monitor, since the ratio of the playfield is closer to the 16:9 ratio of most monitors.

3. Buttons
Another thing to consider is which buttons I want to include on the machine, apart from the Start button and two flipper buttons. I know that virtual pinball often needs more buttons than real pinball machines do, but I also prefer a minimalistic approach. A summary of my considerations:

Essential buttons

  • Power button. I want to have one button that powers up all monitors and hardware at once. Location will probably be at the bottom of the cabinet, like with a real pinball machine.
  • Start button, to select and start a game.
  • Exit button, to exit the game and be able to select a different table.
  • Coin In button. Some virtual games require you to put in credits first, so you need a way to simulate this. I want to use the coin reject buttons from the coin door for this.
  • Magna Save buttons. Some games have extra buttons for magna save or other special features. The magna save buttons can be programmed to handle all sorts of functions.
  • Operator buttons, hidden inside the coin door. These will allow me to access menus or change the volume for instance.

Buttons that are nice to have

  • Fire! button, like with newer Stern machines. It can be used to launch the ball or do something special. In my Star Trek premium for instance the button is also used to fire torpedoes at the enemy ship, USS Vengeance.
  • Night Mode switch. This button can be used to power off noisy feedback devices such as solenoids.

While reading about the building process I learned that some keyboard encoders actually have a “shift” function that will allow me to add two functions to one button. This way I could add volume controls to the magna save buttons for instance.

4. Feedback devices
Just like real buttons feedback devices can also greatly enhance the experience of playing a virtual pinball table. I’m thinking of implementing the following:

  • Plunger.
  • Flipper coils. On real pinball machines you can actually feel the flippers moving when touching the buttons. To simulate this effect on a virtual pinball machine you can install a coil mechanism, also known as solenoid.
  • Bumpers/slingshots/kickers etc. Same as with the flipper coils.
  • Tilt bob and nudge sensor. Instead of making nudge buttons you can choose to install a real tilt bob and a nudge sensor. The sensor will sense the direction in which you are nudging and the computer translates this accordingly. Too much nudging will activate the tilt bob, causing the machine to tilt.
  • Shaker motor.

5. Other things to consider

  • Lights, addressable LED strips, maybe even a LED matrix at the back of the playfield?
  • Kinect to create a 3D effect for Future Pinball tables.
  • Real DMD versus LCD as a third screen

Programming NFC tags

Now that you have fully assembled your Cardboard you can start with exploring the various Cardboard compatible apps and download them. Once downloaded just start an app and put your phone into the headset. But wouldn’t it be fun if your phone automatically starts an app upon inserting it into the headset? It is possible with an NFC tag!

In order to make it work you need to program an empty NFC tag. I used an app called NFC tools. You can find it in the Google Play Store:
Get it on Google Play

Grab an empty NFC tag and stick it onto the outer flap of the headset:

Open NFC Tools and scan the tag. You will see some cool information about the tag itself and whether it is empty or not (shown at the bottom):

Now we want to program the NFC tag in such a way that it opens the Cardboard app. In order to do so go to the “Write”-tab, click on “Add a record”, select “Application”, and click on the Android icon:

From the following list select “Cardboard”. Now choose “Write”. A pop-up shows saying “Approach an NFC Tag”. So again, scan the empty tag you just attached to your headset.

After scanning the NFC tag it will say “Write complete!”. Close the NFC Tools app. Once you approach the tag in your headset it will automatically open the Cardboard app! From there you can start every Cardboard compatible app you’ve installed on your phone.

Assembling the headset

Now that you’ve collected the necessary items we can start with assembling the headset. You will need some additional tools though, which are shown in the photo below (click to enlarge):

Step-by-step plan
Down here is a step-by-step tutorial on how to cut the headset and assemble it.

1. Prepare the template
Print out the template on regular paper (so not too thick) and cut it out. The numbers on the template tell you where to glue two different parts of the template together: glue the white number 1 on top of the black number 1, the white number 2 on top of the black number 2, and so on. If you hold the paper in front of a light source or your window you can do this rather precise. In the end you’ll have this:

2. Cut the cardboard
Attach the template to the cardboard by using some tape. Start with cutting the cardboard along the solid black lines. You can try scissors, but I would recommend you to use a sharp knife and a ruler. This will make sure that the edges of the cardboard are smooth.

Continue with cutting all the solid black lines, including the small holes (the hardest part). Start folding the cardboard along the red dashed lines. To make sure you fold the cardboard in the right places you can attach the template back on top of the cardboard. In the end you’ll have this:

3. Fold the headset
Take the lenses and place them like explained in the template.

Fold the cardboard and glue (permanent) or tape (less permanent) it together. This is personal and thus up to you!

Start folding the largest piece of cardboard, like this:

Fold the flap, take the two magnets, and affix them to either side of the cardboard. The disk magnet is placed into the hole while the ring magnet is affixed on the opposite side of the cardboard. Like this:

And this:

Now take the other cardboard pieces and attach them to the largest cardboard piece. You might need to trim some of the holes and edges of the cardboard a little to make sure that everything fits nicely. Now you’ll have something like this (I didn’t use glue or tape here for the sake of making the tutorial, so it looks kinda odd):

Attach the flap on top of the headset, trim some of the holes and edges if necessary, and glue or tape it all together. Like this:

And this:

4. Create the Velcro closures
Prepare the Velcro by cutting 4 pieces of both strips (so 4 pieces with hooks and 4 pieces with loops). My pieces were around 3 cm in length (1 inches). To make sure that the hook and loop strips of each closure are equal in length just attach them to each other before cutting, like in the picture below:

Remove the backing paper and attach the Velcro strips to your headset. You might want to use some extra super glue to make sure it is securely attached to the cardboard, because my experience is that the Velcro tends to come off under pressure (for instance when your phone is inserted).

Create two closures on top of the headset:

And two on the extra flaps I designed to keep your phone in place.

Like this:

Now the headset is completely assembled and you are almost ready to play with it!

Shopping list

Before you can start with assembling your own cardboard VR headset you will need to purchase and collect some specific items. I ordered most of the “ingredients” online on websites like Ebay. If you are lucky enough you can find some of the items in a (specialised) hardware store. I would recommend you to collect all items on beforehand, because it is much more fun to assemble the headset in one go.

  1. Cardboard
    Of course the most important ingredient of the headset is the cardboard. You can probably buy this in a local hobby shop, but it is cheaper, environmental friendlier, ánd more fun to collect it from waste-paper bins. I collected some very nice pieces of cardboard from the waste-paper bins at my university’s faculty of Architecture. The minimum size of the cardboard should be somewhere around 62 x 25 cm (that’s 24½ x 10¼ inches). Make sure there are no folds in the cardboard. Google advises to use cardboard with a thickness of 1.5 mm (0.06 inches). I think mine was slightly thicker. This only meant that I had to adjust some of the cuts and holes when folding the headset.

  2. The lenses
    Perhaps the hardest part is to find the right type of lenses. These lenses are so-called “biconvex lenses” and have a focal distance of 45 mm. They should have a diameter of around 25 mm. I bought these: (note: 1 piece contains a set, so 2 lenses!).

  3. Two types of magnets
    You will need two different types of magnets for the switch used for controlling the headset. One of them is a “ferrite disk magnet”, the other one is a “neodymium ring magnet”. Both should have a diameter of around 20 mm (¾ inches). Thickness may vary between 3-5 mm ( to inches). Unfortunately you cannot just buy one magnet of each. Instead, they are mostly being sold in bulks of 5 or 10 pieces. I bought these: and these:

  4. Velcro strips
    The Velcro is used for opening and closing the back of the headset, where you put your phone. Use adhesive-backed Velcro with a width of approximately 20 mm (¾ inches). Something like this: (select 1 meter and “hook & loop”). For the Dutch people, I bought this at the local Hema store:

    Optional: Velcro headband. If you don’t want to hold the headset while using it you might want to create a Velcro headband.

    Tip: use a bit of super glue to glue the Velcro to the cardboard. Although it is adhesive-backed, the Velcro tends to come off under pressure. And you really don’t want your phone to fall down and crash onto the floor…

  5. NFC-tag (optional)
    You can stick an NFC-tag onto the headset if you want to automatically start the Google Cardboard app once you put your phone into the headset. These stickers will work with our OPOs: (sold in batches of 5 or 10 tags).

Once you have collected all of the items you are ready to move on to the next step: cutting and assembling, yeah! :)

Cardboard template

So, the first thing you need when making a Cardboard VR headset is… well, cardboard! It would also be nice to know how to cut and fold this cardboard. That’s why I created two template files: one A4-sized template and a letter-sized version. You can download the files down below.

At the time of creating this template I was an active member of the OnePlus community and my daily driver was a OnePlus One. I used my phone to test and modify the template until I was satisfied with the results.

Download A4 template  |  Download letter template