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The ship from Asteroids is hidden in plain sight in your GPS system

The ship from Asteroids is hidden in plain sight in your GPS system


Pew pew pew!

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Photo by Steve Golson/The Verge

For those of a certain age, the iconic “pew pew pew” noises of the Asteroids arcade game bring a flood memories. The gameplay pales in comparison to the ultra-realistic video games of today, but there’s a quaint charm to flying around in a little space ship blowing up floating rocks.

Asteroids, first released in late 1979, was one of the first really popular video games, but its legacy goes much further than that. In fact, if you use most popular GPS navigation systems, you’re staring at a little bit of Asteroids lore every time you get in the car: the spaceship.

Fast Company’s Benj Edwards wrote an excellent story this week about Atari founder Nolan Bushnell’s Catalyst Technologies, a high-tech incubator in the early 1980s. In it, he shares a tale about the development of the Etak Navigator, the world’s first in-car computer navigation system — and the vector-based triangle shape that Etak used for the on-screen representation of a car.

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During development, [longtime Bushnell collaborator Alan Alcorn] 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.

More than 30 years later, that bit of Atari-derived inspiration lives on: Many car navigation systems today still use a triangle with a slightly inverted base as a symbol for your car, and it comes directly from Asteroids.

A version of the spaceship icon is used today in both Google and Apple Maps, as well as a number of other in-car navigation systems. Though they now have much more powerful graphics systems than were available in the early ‘80s, many companies choose to use drawings of actual cars instead.

And so, when you fire up your phone to get directions, you can thank Atari’s Nolan Bushnell, Catalyst Technologies, and the team at Etak for making it all possible.