Every time you use GPS navigation, it’s right in front of you ̵
Modern in-car navigation systems started at Etak
The triangular navigation cursor found in many GPS devices and in-car navigation systems originated with the Etak Navigator in 1985. The Navigator was the world’s first automated in-car navigation system. The Navigator didn’t use GPS, but instead used another clever method to track your position on a display while driving your car.
Here’s a great video of the Navigator in action, in this case rebranded as “Travel Pilot” for the UK market.
To make the Navigator’s screen sharp and easy to read with the technology available at the time (and due to the low available memory for cost reasons), the Etak team used a vector CRT screen, displaying images as lines drawn with an electron beam instead of a raster scan bitmap representation.
To mark your car’s location on the screen, Etak used an arrowhead-shaped cursor in the center of the screen that Stan Honey, Etak’s co-founder, likes to call the “ car owner. ” Since then, this navigation symbol has been filtered through the decades due to Etak’s pioneering influence in the navigation and mapping industry.
Today, you’ll find a modern version of the Etak “carsor” in Tesla’s navigation systems, at the top of your iPhone screen with location services turned on, and in dozens of different navigation apps and GPS devices.
It’s an iconic shape and few will likely ever wonder where it came from. But it turns out to have a very funny, gaming-related origin.
The Asteroids Link
Etak started out as a company funded by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell’s incubator firm, Catalyst Technologies. Three engineers from SRI, Stan Honey, Ken Milnes and Alan Philips, founded Etak with the goal of creating an in-car navigation system that can track your position on a map wherever you drive.
Due to Bushnell’s involvement, Etak’s engineers enjoyed a social crossover between ex-Atari engineers such as Pong designer Allan Alcorn (who worked at a Catalyst firm at the time) and himself. Alcorn even remembers Atari’s popular 1979 arcade game Asteroids being the main influence on the Navigator’s use of a vector representation.
“I really enjoyed the little help I could give to the Etak boys and their problems,” Alcorn recalls. ‘I remember the thing about the vector rendering on the Etak machine. That was really inspired by the Asteroids game, where we actually transfer them to Atari and [showed them] how we made that screen. “
Etak co-founder Stan Honey also remembers the Asteroids influence, but in a slightly different way. “When we were in the Catalyst building, we often went to a small place for lunch with an honest-to-god vector display Asteroids machine,” he says.
In Asteroidsyou control a triangular ship that must destroy as many floating space rocks as possible. If you go to the shape of the Asteroids ship and the shape of Etak’s navigation cursor, the resemblance is uncanny. They are both arrowhead shaped and each symbol is the star of its own respective graphic environment.
While it was a long time ago and his memory is blurry, Honey says Atari’s space shooter was the main influence on the triangular navigation cursor. ‘I remember it came from AsteroidsTo look at other possible influences, we asked several other early Etak engineers – including George Loughmiller, who coded the Navigator screen – about the cursor shape via email. None of them remembered where the shape came from, ”he says. came out of an initial design sketch, which was probably drawn by Honey.
“During the development of the Etak Navigator we had to overcome so many challenges that the shape of the cursor was not a problem that would have led to much discussion, ”says Loughmiller. So I probably just threw something together [based on the sketch] and went on without discussing it with anyone. “
Honey is amused by the connection with Asteroids, but he also thinks the shape was an obvious choice. “The easiest thing to do on a vector display is a triangle,” says Honey. “Asteroids probably for the same reason that shape uses. It’s the simplest thing you can do and still show direction. “
The origin of the Asteroids Ship
But where did the design of the Asteroids ship from? Was it really used because it was easy to draw, as Honey suspected? To find out, we asked Asteroidsdesigner, Ed Logg.
‘The ship was designed after the design of Space war!, which I played at the Stanford AI Lab in 1971, which I believe was from MIT, ”Logg wrote in an email to How-To Geek. “I have not tested any other shapes for the ship.”
To illustrate its origins, Logg shared his original pencil sketch of the Atari Asteroids send with How-To Geek. In a way, you are looking at the eventual birth of the triangular navigation icon, documented on paper.
“The numbers represent the coordinates for the vector generator,” says Logg. “In practice I would give a command to go to the specific spot on the screen where I want to draw the ship, then use these coordinates to go to a corner, turn on the beam and move the ship from one point to another. Pull. . If the flame were present, I would draw it too. “
Logg’s ship design was a simplification of a missile ship found in the leading 1962 mainframe computer game, Space war! In that game, a wedge-shaped ship and a needle-shaped ship faced each other in a one-on-one shooting competition around a gravity source in the center of the screen.
Unlike Logg’s ship, the Space war! missile ship included more details, such as a slightly rounded shape and two different fins. However, this detail was often lost when shown in action on the blurry computer screens of the time.
So the next time you look at an iPhone, say, and see the arrowhead navigation icon on your status bar, know that you are actually looking at a small spaceship on your screen. It’s a form that traces its roots back to one of the very first video games, and reminds us that the cultural history of computer technology is as rich as that of any other medium that preceded it.