When you’re driving in Google Maps you’re re-enacting an ancient space combat sim

20.24, Friday 17 May 2024

This week I’m midway through my now-annual lecture series on folktales from the history of computing at AHO (the Oslo School of Architecture and Design).

The idea is that I trace an admittedly idiosyncratic path through the history of the personal computer by focusing on certain stories that were, once upon a time, handed down to me as being pivotal. (Though I try to be rigorous when it comes to the lineage: I love evidence for the interconnections.)

Then I unpack the tales to look at the world they were in, roads not taken, voices not heard, and I share a view on where I stand with respect to what we should take from it all.

With a dash of speculative design and storytelling.

Look, it’s this blog in lecture form, that’s all you need to know.

I’m pretty well grooved in now. This is my fourth time giving the talks with AHO, and I had a ton of fun doing the whole series on three successive nights for a tech conference back in 2021.

But: each year I keep notes of where I feel I hit speed bumps to fix for the next time. And the opening of the first talk has never felt satisfying to me. Too much exposition, not enough feel.

Anyway! I fixed that this year! I have a new story to open.

It’s about the little dart-shaped arrow that appears at the top of your iPhone when an app is using your location. You know the arrow I mean. The students all recognise it too.

The heart of this story is from research and a long read by Benj Edwards, tech historian and journalist.

Back in 2015, Edwards published this amazing history of the first ever in-car computerised navigation system:

Thirty years ago, a company called Etak released the first commercially available computerized navigation system for automobiles. Spearheaded by an engineer named Stan Honey and bankrolled by Nolan Bushnell, the cofounder of Atari, the company’s Navigator was so far ahead of its time that the phrase “ahead of its time” seems like an understatement.

So, that dart-shaped arrow…

…is also the arrow used in Google Maps turn-by-turn navigation to show your current location. You can see it if you use directions in the app today. You can see it in the Google Maps Navigation launch blog post from 2009.

And what Edwards spotted is that the same Google Maps arrow was used by Etak to show the current location of your car, way back then.

To give you an idea of how much 1985 was a different era: there were no GPS satellites. So you had to put magnetic sensors in your wheels to count rotations.

Map data was stored on audio cassette tapes in the back of the car!

The screen didn’t have pixels! It was a vector screen, with electron beams painting lines on directly on the phosphors, like an oscilloscope.

So check out his article, because there’s a photo of the Etak Navigator, and you can see the dart-arrow, right there in the mirror. So is that the origin?

Edwards goes further. In a follow-up article, he figured out the connection:

To Etak’s benefit, Catalyst’s shared office building encouraged the cross-pollination of ideas between companies. Alcorn, while working at Cumma, recalls being fascinated by the activities at Etak. During development, he snuck into nearby Atari’s coin-op division building with Etak engineers to show them the hit 1979 arcade title Asteroids. The game used a vector display that produced fluid animations with low-cost hardware. It’s little surprise, then, that Etak’s final on-screen representation of the car in its shipping product was a vector triangle nearly identical to the ship from Asteroids.

Asteroids? Asteroids (Wikipedia). The break-out coin-op arcade game. The dart-arrow is the spaceship, it’s right there!

Thank you Benj, amazing research!

btw: Benj has a new book out, a history of Nintendo’s OG virtual reality gaming device, Virtual Boy from 1995: Seeing Red (Amazon).

I think we can take another step back…

Before Asteroids there was Spacewar! (Wikipedia).

Spacewar was developed in 1962 for the PDP-1 – cost: $120k then, $1.2m in today’s money, only 55 ever made.

Spacewar was the first popular video game. (That is, it may not have been the first graphical video game, but it was the first one popular enough to be copied to other locations). It was played mainly illicitly… the PDP-1 was a research computer, and the game was played after hours.

It’s a simulation of space combat between two ships: the needle and the wedge.

But it pointed at a new application of real-time computers. Brenda Laurel (in Computers as Theatre) observes that Spacewar showed that

[the computer’s] interesting potential lay not in its ability to perform calculations but in its capacity to represent action in which humans could participate.

Its popularity broke through: Stewart Brand wrote about Spacewar in Rolling Stone magazine in 1972 (pdf).

Ready or not, computers are coming to the people. That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.

Brand used Spacewar as a subcultural phenomenon to introduce what was going on in those days with computing, and in particular at Xerox PARC. He got some good quotes. Here’s one:

Alan Kay: “The game of Spacewar blossoms spontaneously wherever there is a graphics display connected to a computer.”

And of course Stewart Brand, having been present at the birth of personal computing in 1968, went on to be the first person to use personal computer in print (to mean the thing we mean today) in 1974. Here’s the Twitter thread where I asked him.


Spacewar inspired Asteroids.

So. While “the wedge” spaceship in Spacewar isn’t visually identical to the ship in Asteroids, and therefore to Etak, and Google Maps, and the dart-arrow that appears in the iPhone, there’s the ancestry.

Update 21 May. It turns out that Benj Edwards already dug into the Asteroids-to-Spacewar connection – and he brings receipts.

“The ship was designed after the one in Spacewar!, which I played in 1971 at the Stanford AI Lab, which I believe came from MIT,” wrote [Asteroids designer] Logg in an email to How-To Geek. “I did not test any other shapes for the ship.”

Actual proof! Amazing.

Edwards also got his hands on the original pencil sketch of the Asteroids ship. See it over at that article.

So here’s what I said to the students:

When you’re driving around in Google Maps, you’re piloting a spaceship in an ancient simulation of space warfare.

That’s what I’m saying. And, like, does it matter? Does the connection mean anything?

I tend to believe that it does matter, yes, that vibe transmits somehow. A chair made by a carpenter who sits badly will impart their twisted stance on anyone who sits in it.

I can’t tell you exactly why I think it’s worth looking at, or what would have been different had the original game been a digital Ouija Board or a virtual loom or proto-Farmville.

And if we disagree on whether it matters then that’s worth talking about too!

Speculating on the counterfactuals, opening up whether it even matters, and finding joy in the interconnectedness of all things – that’s what the talk series is all about.

“Now” is never just a moment. The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you’re in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future.

The lecture series winds up in a meditation on the braided tendencies in computing of collaboration and control. These idealistic moments - effective and wrong-headed, we get both - in a technology that finds its evolution in ugly periods and repeatedly tends towards population control… can we take lessons from that, too?

Well. A story for another day.

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