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Behind the Design of the Tron Videogame

This iconic arcade game proved the power of reusable code

2 min read
Screenshot shows a blue ring with 6 pink floating disks, 3 on each side. A game avatar throws a disk from one side towards an avatar in motion on the other side.

In the Walt Disney film Tron, an evil Master Control Program schemes to take over the Pentagon and the Kremlin, telling its human henchman that it can run them 900 to 1200 times more efficiently. In the Midway Manufacturing Co.’s Tron arcade game, a master control program, known as the executive, makes more efficient use of game programmers’ time by taking care of all of the routine functions of accepting quarters, recording game scores, switching between players, and displaying messages on the screen.

Before the standardized executive was developed, programmers would write the computer code for each game from scratch. The executive allows them to concentrate on writing the code for the game play, which is unique to each game.

This article was first published as "Tron: the master control program takes over." 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.

While the executive must be altered somewhat for each game, it still saves a great deal of time. For example, when a new weakness is discovered in arcade games, it only needs to be dealt with once, according to John Pasierb, vice president for engineering at Midway.

“We were having a problem where if someone tampered with the game by turning the power switch on and off really quickly, our battery backup didn’t maintain the information,” noted Bill Adams, Midway’s manager of software development. “Normally, you can turn one of our games off, come back two weeks later, and it will still remember all the high scores.

The solution was to change the software, Mr. Pasierb said, adding, “We did this in the executive, and that solved the problem in all the games.”

The same executive was used by Midway in one game before Tron, and it is now being used for all arcade games the company has in production. Copies of the code have also been distributed to freelance programmers who develop games for Midway.

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Video Friday: Humanoid Soccer

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

4 min read
Humans and human-size humanoid robots stand together on an indoor soccer field at the beginning of a game

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

CoRL 2022: 14–18 December 2022, AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND
ICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDON

Enjoy today’s videos!

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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.

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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.