It’s there right in front of you every time you use GPS navigation: a triangle-shaped cursor representing your location on a GPS display, moving where you move. But did you know the cursor originates from Atari’s 1979 Asteroids arcade game? Here’s how it came to be.
Modern in-Car Navigational Systems Began at Etak
The triangle-shaped navigational cursor featured in many GPS units and in-car navigation systems originated with the Etak Navigator in 1985. The Navigator was the world’s first computerized in-car navigation system. The Navigator didn’t use GPS, but instead, used another clever method to keep track of your position on a display as you drove around in your car.
Here’s a great video of the Navigator in action, in this case, re-branded as the “Travel Pilot” for the U.K. market.
To make the Navigator’s display sharp and easily readable with the technology available at the time (and the low memory available due to cost reasons), the Etak team used a vector CRT display, which displayed graphics as lines drawn with an electron beam rather than a raster-scan bitmap display.
To mark your car’s location on the screen, Etak used an arrowhead-shaped cursor in the center of the screen that Stan Honey, the co-founder of Etak, likes to call the “carsor.” Since then, this navigational symbol has filtered down through the decades due to Etak’s pioneering influence in the navigation and mapping industries.
Today, you can find a modern version of the Etak “carsor” in Tesla’s navigational systems, on the top of your iPhone screen while location services are enabled, and in dozens of different navigational apps and GPS units.
It’s an iconic shape, and few likely ever stop to wonder where it came from. But it turns out to have a very amusing, gaming-related origin.
The Asteroids Connection
Etak began 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 could keep track of your position on a map wherever you drove.
Due to Bushnell’s involvement, Etak’s engineers enjoyed some social crossover between ex-Atari engineers such as Pong designer Allan Alcorn (who worked at a Catalyst firm at the time) and themselves. In fact, Alcorn recalls Atari’s 1979 hit arcade game Asteroids being the primary influence for the Navigator’s use of a vector display.
“I really enjoyed what little help I could give to Etak guys and their problems,” Alcorn told me several years ago. “I remember the thing about the vector display on the Etak machine. That was really inspired by the Asteroids game, where we actually took them over to Atari and [showed them] how we made that display.”
Etak co-founder Stan Honey also recalls the Asteroids influence, but in a slightly different way. “When we were at the Catalyst building, we used to often go over and get lunch at a little place that had an honest-to-god vector display Asteroids machine,” he says.
In Asteroids, you control a triangle-shaped ship that must destroy as many floating space rocks as possible. If you look at the shape of the Asteroids ship and the shape of Etak’s navigational cursor, the resemblance is uncanny. They’re both arrowhead-shaped, and each symbol is the star of its own respective graphical environment.
While it was long ago and his memory is hazy, Honey says that Atari’s space shooter was the primary influence for the triangle navigational cursor shape. “My recollection is that it came from Asteroids,” he says. To check for other possible influences, we asked several other early Etak engineers—including George Loughmiller, who coded the Navigator display—about the cursor shape via email. None of them recalled where the shape came from outside of an initial design sketch, which was likely drawn by Honey.
“During the development of the Etak Navigator we had so many challenges to overcome that the shape of the cursor was not an issue that would have generated much discussion,” says Loughmiller. “So I probably just threw something together [based on the sketch] and moved on without discussing it with anyone.”
Honey is amused by the connection to Asteroids, but he also thinks the shape was an obvious choice. “The simplest thing to do on a vector display is a triangle,” says Honey. “Asteroids probably used that shape for the same reason. 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 come from? Was it really used because it was easy to draw, as Honey suspected? To find out, we asked Asteroids‘ designer, Ed Logg.
“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 Logg in an email to How-To Geek. “I did not test any other shapes for the ship.”
To illustrate its origins, Logg shared his original pencil sketch of the Atari Asteroids ship with How-To Geek. In a way, you’re looking at the ultimate birth of the triangle navigational icon, documented on paper.
“The numbers represent the coordinates for the vector generator,” says Logg. “In practice, I would issue a command to go to the specific spot on the screen where I want to draw the ship, then use these coordinates to move to a corner, turn on the beam and draw the ship from one point to the next. If the flame was present, I would draw that too.”
Logg’s ship design was a simplification of a rocket ship found in the seminal 1962 mainframe computer game, Spacewar! In that game, a “wedge”-shaped ship and a “needle”-shaped ship faced off in a one-on-one shooting contest around a gravity well in the center of the screen.
Unlike Logg’s ship, however, the Spacewar! rocket ship included more detail, such as a slightly rounded shape and two distinct fins. This detail was often lost, however, when shown in action on the blurry computer displays of the time.
So the next time you take a look at an iPhone, for example, and see the arrowhead navigational icon on your status bar, know that you’re actually looking at a tiny space ship on your display. It’s a shape that traces its roots as far back as one of the first-ever video games, reminding us that the cultural history of computer technology is just as rich as that of any other medium that came before it.