Gaming Under The Stars (Part 1)

I love technology. I love how it can enhance our everyday lives. Contemplate how far we’ve come in just the last few years. Now, make that same comparison to when you were a child. Had I access to that level of technology that I have access to today gives a whole new meaning to the phase – “If I knew then what I know now.”

I remember grade school summer vacations. Cable television was just ramping up. The extent of my gaming resources didn’t go much beyond the Atari or ColecoVision. I spent my days looking for ways to stay out of trouble and still have fun while constantly being prodded by my parents to find something to do outside.

Now, when I tell my own children that we’ll be spending some time outside they get excited; they know that I’ll be setting up the outdoor theater for some after-hours gaming. What started out as a hobby has flourished into a passion and is something that I’ve been anticipating sharing with you fellow PSNation gamers. Think of this article as a recommendation of what’s needed to game under the stars, next to a roaring fire (optional) and with an ice-cold summer mixer in your hand (mandatory).

The single most important thing to keep in mind when first starting out is that you can spend as much or as little as you feel appropriate when beginning your outdoor theater. This has been the most common theme from all the various sites I’ve visited while learning more about the outdoor theater community.

With that said I feel it necessary to start with probably the most costly feature of the outdoor set-up: the picture (or more specific, the picture source). The point of establishing an outdoor theater, at least in my mind, is to capture the look and feel of that near-dead American tradition called the Drive-In. Just grabbing a television from inside your house and putting it in your yard ‘aint gonna cut it. For this experience you really need to include a projector as a part of your gear:

I’ve seen a number of outdoor theater enthusiasts use and recommend a reel-to-reel projector; something they may have had buried in their basement. This may suffice for your run-of-the-mill home movie collection from the 1960’s but I’m talking about DVDs and gaming. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon this Epson projector when Comp USA closed its doors and was selling everything at a much reduced price. Although I was able to purchase the Epson for a good price projectors, in general, can be expensive. Take advantage of sites like Craigslist, eBay and backyardtheater.com. Used projectors are available in abundance and are truly the starting point for any outdoor theater.

You’ll notice from the above Epson picture that I’m only running Composite cables as the video source.  Although High Definition is the preferred source for an indoor theater it need not apply when taking things outdoors.  Furthermore, each of this generation’s gaming consoles still accommodate for multiple video output sources.  For the PlayStation 3, switching from HDMI to Composite is fairly simple.  Follow these steps and you should be good to go:

  • Make sure the system is off.
  • Hold down the Power Button for 5-6 seconds – until you hear the system beep a second time.
  • Your video settings have now been reset and can be displayed via Composite (default).

Once you’ve gotten over the challenge of finding a projector that’s right for you, and sticking with a cost-conscious theme, that which the picture is projected on will need to be considered. I’ve been doing this for several years now and have gone through numerous iterations of a picture “screen” before landing on one that I was happy with.

Most people will begin with practicality and start out with a garage door or side of a house (especially if either are white) to project onto. I’ve done it and admit that both were more than adequate, but because I like to tinker with all things home entertainment I decided to test out other options.

From the garage door I upgraded to a white bed sheet stapled to a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood and hung from the garage. The picture was substantially brighter and clearer than the garage door but the screen size wasn’t much bigger than the HDTV in my man-cave. Moving on I tried a blow-up movie screen that can be purchased from just about any Kmart, Wal-Mart or Target from across the state. The screen was bigger but the set-up and tear-down more than doubled; plus, in order to keep the screen inflated, the blower needed to stay on and it drowned out the audio – a nice idea but one that just didn’t suit my needs. What I decided on a few outdoor-theater seasons later was based on the combined effort of mine and a next-door neighbor and the feeling of accomplishment and ingenuity was heightened when compared to some of my earlier efforts.

Although the set-up process has been broken into two parts (frame and screen) it has delivered the best quality picture while keeping costs down. The screen that I chose is designed specifically for movie projections and is made from a durable, stretchable material. It is easily and quickly folded up for clean, safe keeping after every use. It can be cleaned of simple dirt and most, if not all, fold creases are stretched out by the time it darkens enough to begin the night’s festivities.

The frame is fashioned from ¾” PVC piping. Cut to size the pieces are held in place by PVC 90 degree angles and T-connectors. I opted to not glue the frame together to allow for better storage during the winter months and, if ever the opportunity arose, easier transport to another location for use. Along the outer edge of the frame I have attached numerous clips that are used to stretch out and secure the actual screen. The dimensions of the screen and frame are approximately 10′ x 7′ – a size considerably larger than what I had been using up to that point.

Of course, how big or small you decide to go should logically be dictated by your surroundings. My garage is detached from the house and is at the end of a long driveway. Because of this I am able to provide for a larger than average screen and place the projector further away to accommodate for an overall bigger picture. Before getting too involved with screen size I would highly recommend assessing your projector and screen locations. What has worked for me may not be the best solution for you. You may find that your screen needs to be twice as big – and wouldn’t that just be horrible.

My intention of writing this article was to help spread the word on what is fast becoming a resurgence of an updated American past-time. What I have established in my own backyard has provided me with the means necessary to relive those childhood Drive-In memories and share them with my own children. We started with outdoor movies and have since evolved into competitions of gaming under the stars.

*In the coming weeks I hope to continue this article and focus on the second major component of an outdoor theater – the sound. In the meantime I’d love to hear from the PSNation readers that might already be doing something similar as well as help answer any questions that interested newbies might have.*

**All of the above game images were taken from my outdoor theater.**

Written by Bill Braun

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  • Anonymous

    Isn’t it scary to look back and realize how much money and time we’ve spent on electronics in our lives? Even back before PC and hand held devices were the norm Nice article.

  • What material did you use for the sreen? I didn’t see it mentioned

    • Anonymous

      The screen is made from a white matte rubberized canvas. It has proven to be very durable over the years and makes for a great picture. Really, anything white that isn’t too thin that the picture would bleed through would work just fine.