Aaron Hightower // CC-BY-SA-3.0
Aaron Hightower // CC-BY-SA-3.0

Recreating the Asteroids Video Game Using Lasers

Aaron Hightower // CC-BY-SA-3.0
Aaron Hightower // CC-BY-SA-3.0

Asteroids is an unusual video game. The 1979 arcade classic uses vector graphics instead of bitmaps. Vectors are lines, which are generated on a TV screen by magnetically moving the CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) and blasting a stream of electrons at particular points, painting glowing white lines on the black screen.

Using this vector-drawing technique, Asteroids created a distinctive look. It's also relatively hard to emulate because the physical display technology is tied to how the game looks—in areas where the electron beam lingers, images are brighter than areas the tube just zips by. It's also an extremely crisp, precise style of line art that's simply hard to draw on low-resolution bitmap displays.

In the video below, mathematician Matt Parker visits an arcade where programmer/artist Seb Lee-Delisle shows off his version of Asteroids using a giant 4-watt laser. The pair discuss how the original arcade game worked, and then explore Seb's modern laser version. Although this video is 17 minutes long, it goes by in a nerdy flash. Enjoy:

(Photo taken by Aaron Hightower (Ahigh), Lead Programmer of Rush 2049 Coin-op [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

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iStock
New Contact Lenses Could Let You Shoot Lasers From Your Eyes
iStock
iStock

If you ever wished you had Superman’s ability to shoot lasers out of your eyeballs, you can thank science for helping to make your dream more of a reality. Researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have developed an ultra-thin membrane that can be attached to contact lenses, allowing lasers to be emitted, Newsweek reports. Their findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

The membrane is made from an organic semiconducting polymer, and the lasers it emits are being billed as the world’s smallest and lightest. It was tested on a cow's eye, but researchers say they expect it to be safe for human use.

"In ancient Greece, Plato believed that visual perception is mediated by 'eye beams'—beams actively sent out by the eyes to probe the environment," Malte Gather, one of three researchers who conducted the study, said in a statement. "Plato's emission theory has of course long been refuted, but superheroes with lasers in their eyes live on in popular culture and comic books. Our work represents a new milestone in laser development."

When the membrane is illuminated by another laser, it’s able to produce a unique "digital barcode." Fighting off villains is probably not the most practical application of an ocular laser, but it could be used as a "flexible and wearable security tag," according to researchers. This could prove useful to the fields of biophotonics and photomedicine, and could even be used to detect explosives. Researchers discovered that the material could be attached to paper money in order to authenticate the bills and prevent counterfeiting. It was also successfully tested on fingernails, meaning that it could be used in biometric fingerprint scans.

Meanwhile, some companies are continuing to work on the development of "smart" contact lenses. New York-based company RaayonNova is developing lenses that would include special features to help the visually impaired, like the ability to magnify signs or issue a warning when they're in danger. Samsung and Google are also reportedly among the big companies racing to develop this technology, and startup Magic Leap is working on lenses that blend digital displays with your normal vision—"like dreaming with your eyes open," the firm’s director tells Herald Scotland.

[h/t Newsweek]

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ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
Hubble Captures Incredible View of Galaxy-Sized Maser
ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center recently released a stunning image by the Hubble Space Telescope of a megamaser—a galaxy that is basically one giant laser in space.

Iras 16399-0937, as the galaxy is called, does not blast visible light. It’s a little longer on the electromagnetic spectrum, in the microwave range. And there’s a lot going on out there. Unlike our own Milky Way galaxy, which has one core at its center, Iras has two, and they are merging slowly. The southern core, as one of the pair is called, is a star factory. The northern core, meanwhile, hosts a black hole that’s 100,000,000 times the mass of our Sun. The interaction of the two, and consequent galactic turmoil, gives the galaxy its beautiful shape.

The image was captured using two instruments on Hubble: the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (which was superseded by the more capable Wide Field Camera 3 in 2009) and the Advanced Camera for Surveys, which was installed on Hubble in 2002 and is still in use.

SET MASERS ON STUN

Maser is actually an acronym: Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. So was laser, at least initially: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. That's the difference between the two: microwave versus light. They're both coherent energy beams, but a maser emits microwave radiation, while a laser emits visible light. Einstein proposed the basic principle in 1917. Masers are used in everything from atomic clocks to NASA’s Deep Space Network. In the case of the latter, giant dishes receive weak signals from spacecraft as far from Earth as the interstellar medium. Cryogenically cooled ruby masers cleanly amplify the signals and allow data to be extracted.

You might not have heard of masers—only lasers—but there was a time when the opposite was true for many. “Phasers” on Star Trek are a shortened form of “photon maser.” Lasers had only been invented a few years before the debut of the television series. To the extent they were known, they certainly weren’t thought to be as powerful as the mighty maser, which was first built in 1953. (Gene Roddenberry worried during filming of the second pilot that people would say, "Oh, come on, lasers can't do that.") Even shortly after the laser was invented, theoretical work on masers led to a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964.

GOING GALACTIC

Sometimes stimulated emissions of radiation occur naturally. Vaporized molecules in comets can mase, as can protostars in stellar nurseries. Sometimes masers go big time. A megamaser like Iras is 100 million times brighter than the dinky masers of the Milky Way. With that kind of power, the host galaxy itself is basically a cosmic maser beaming microwave emissions across the universe. There are also gigamasers, which are a billion times brighter than our masers, but that’s just showing off.

Extragalactic masers are useful to astronomers for, among other things, the independent calculation of the galaxy’s distance. Iras, for example, is 370 million light-years from Earth. For comparison, the closest star to our own—Proxima Centauri, of the Alpha Centauri star system—is 4.4 light-years away. Because of how nicely light-years scale, if the Earth were one inch from the Sun, Iras would be 370 million miles away. While we won’t be visiting anytime soon, we can still enjoy its natural, tempestuous beauty.

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