The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

The Secrets of Space Invaders

The gripping sounds, key to this videogame’s success, were an accident

2 min read
Vertical
space invaders game in yellow cabinet with black and white screen, other arcade games blurred in background
Wirestock/Alamy
DarkGray

While the sound of footsteps slowly growing louder may be a sure sign of impending doom in any horror film, the pulse of video game players quickens to a different beat: the drumming of approaching space invaders.

“My heart used to beat in time to that sound,” says one fan of the 1978 hit game, Space Invaders. So, apparently, did many others. In Japan, where Space Invaders was invented by engineers from Taito Inc., people became so addicted to stuffing the game with coins that the government reportedly faced a yen shortage. Within a year after Space Invaders was introduced in the United States, the game could be found behind a crowd of people in arcades and bars across the land.

Designers can only speculate on why players found Space Invaders so engaging. Perhaps it was the predictable march of the aliens; if a player was annihilated, he could not blame bad luck—only himself. Next time, he swore, he would do better. Or perhaps Space Invaders was a hit because it was among the first games with a “character”—a player did not just move blocks around; rather he was on the screen, a lone earthling besieged by approaching aliens.

This article was first published as "Space Invaders: the sound of success." It appeared in the December 1982 issue of IEEE Spectrum as part of a special report, “Video games: The electronic big bang.” A PDF version is available on IEEE Xplore.

Most gripping, however, was the sound. The more aliens a player shot, the faster they approached; their drumbeat quickened, the tension mounted. Ironically, says Bill Adams, director of game development for Midway Manufacturing Co., of Chicago, Ill., which licensed Space Invaders for sale in the United States, these features of the game were accidental.

“The speeding up of the space invaders was just a function of the way the machine worked,” he explained. “The hardware had a limitation—it could only move 24 objects efficiently. Once some of the invaders got shot, the hardware did not have as many objects to move, and the remaining invaders sped up. And the designer happened to put out a sound whenever the invaders moved, so when they sped up, so did the tone.”

Accident or not, the game worked. As of mid-1981, according to Steve Bloom, author of the book Video Invaders, more than 4 billion quarters had been dropped into Space Invaders games around the world—“which roughly adds up to one game per earthling.”

The Conversation (0)

Computing With Chemicals Makes Faster, Leaner AI

Battery-inspired artificial synapses are gaining ground

5 min read
Array of devices on a chip

This analog electrochemical memory (ECRAM) array provides a prototype for artificial synapses in AI training.

IBM research

How far away could an artificial brain be? Perhaps a very long way off still, but a working analogue to the essential element of the brain’s networks, the synapse, appears closer at hand now.

That’s because a device that draws inspiration from batteries now appears surprisingly well suited to run artificial neural networks. Called electrochemical RAM (ECRAM), it is giving traditional transistor-based AI an unexpected run for its money—and is quickly moving toward the head of the pack in the race to develop the perfect artificial synapse. Researchers recently reported a string of advances at this week’s IEEE International Electron Device Meeting (IEDM 2022) and elsewhere, including ECRAM devices that use less energy, hold memory longer, and take up less space.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

Practical Solid-State Batteries Using Pressure

Mechanical stress exploits workaround to electrochemical failure

4 min read
Illustration shows a grey disk  with two metal circles on each end and a thin piece of metal attached to each. Thin grey strips branch out of one of them. Above and below the disk are illustrative red arrows facing the disk.

Researchers solved a problem facing solid-state lithium batteries, which can be shorted out by dendrites, metal filaments that cross the gap between metal electrodes. They found that applying a compression force across a solid electrolyte material [gray disk] caused the dendrite [dark line at left] to stop moving from one electrode toward the other [the round metallic patches at each side] and instead veer harmlessly sideways, toward the direction of the force.

MIT

Solid-state lithium-ion batteries promise to be more safe, lightweight, and compact than their conventional counterparts. However, metal spikes can grow inside them, leading to short-circuit breakdowns. Now a new study finds that applying pressure on these batteries may be a simple way to prevent such failures.

Conventional batteries supply electricity via chemical reactions between two electrodes, the anode and cathode, which typically interact through liquid or gel electrolytes. Solid-state batteries instead employ solid electrolytes such as ceramics.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

Designing Fuel Cell Systems Using System-Level Design

Modeling and simulation in Simulink and Simscape

1 min read
Designing Fuel Cell Systems Using System-Level Design

Design and simulate a fuel cell system for electric mobility. See by example how Simulink® and Simscape™ support multidomain physical modeling and simulation of fuel cell systems including thermal, gas, and liquid systems. Learn how to select levels of modeling fidelities to meet your needs at different development stages.