LIDAR-RIFIC August 21, 2022

Wheel of Fortune’s Getting A New Puzzle Board That Uses Frickin’ Laser Beams

A new interview from Bill Monk talks about the lasers that power the new puzzle board.

A few weeks ago, I was in Los Angeles on vacation and took the Sony Pictures Studios tour. I noticed something peculiar when they showed off the Wheel of Fortune set: the puzzle board wasn’t there. The set is basically permanent, and the wheel and the puzzle board rarely get put into storage. Other tour groups who went after me noted the puzzle board back in action, with one significant difference: instead of being made up of multiple individual monitors, the puzzle board looked like one massive LED display:

Well, that’s interesting. Audience reports from those attending tapings heard Vanna and Pat talk about the board using Lidar technology to track where Vanna presses on the massive screen without needing touch actuators placed on the display. Lidar, which stands for “light detection and ranging”, is not unlike sonar or radar, where sensors send out energy pulses and times their responses to judge distance. If you’ve ever used an iPhone to scan a 3D object, you’ve seen Lidar in action.

Bill Monk, who IMDB notes is the head of electronics on the show, has given a new interview with the newly-formed National Archives of Game Show History. It not only spans Monk’s history with game shows and Wheel of Fortune specifically but briefly mentions the new laser beam system that will keep Vanna relevant for another 500 years. In this interview, which was recorded in December 2021, Monk talks about then-future plans for the puzzle board: “It’ll be a beam of light, if we change it out, where they put their finger through, we’ll know where the XY coordinates, so we’ll know to trigger that box.” Between this interview and audience reports, we can surmise that the puzzle board will use an array of lasers to determine where Vanna/Maggie Sajak in 3 years probably, presses on the board.

Fast forward to 1:18:30 to hear talk about the puzzle board. Or, start from the beginning for an in-depth discussion about the ins and outs of Bill’s career.

So, to sum up: the Puzzle Board is a single LED display screen, surrounded on the edges by an array of Lidar sensors projecting an invisible grid of lasers in front of said screen, that send detailed X and Y coordinates to a computer to trigger when the letter being touched should be revealed.

This process sounds futuristic, and it is; probably wildly so for a game show whose audience’s median age is 145—but other touch input technologies would be incredibly more expensive to install and maintain. To put a massive puzzle-board-shaped digitizer on the board would involve replacing the entire digitizer if it fails, or if they used smaller digitizers, they’d have to run multiple digitizer interpreters into a single input computer. It’s easier to swap out a few lasers in an array than to mess with digitizers. Granted, any of these are more expensive than having an intern click a mouse backstage. Still, it looks like incoming new executive producer Bellamie Blackstone had one simple request, and that was to have a puzzle board with frickin’ laser beams.

We think that’s the LIDAR sensor, encircled in red. There are several throughout the border, scanning for touch points.

When reached for comment, Sony let us know they’ll send more information closer to the premiere date of the new WoF season, starting September 12.