The devices we use to control our computer games have, over decades, morphed into much more sophisticated designs. And they are finding uses outside of video games – from surgery to defusing bombs. Peter Ray Allison investigates.
Games controllers can end up in the strangest places. Just this week, the US Navy announced it had approved a laser weapon to be deployed on an amphibious vessel serving in the Persian Gulf. The weapon is essentially the kind of death ray that science fiction has been promising for decades. And, as the demonstration showed, this space age weapon is guided by something every self-respecting 14-year-old is familiar with: a controller just like those used to play video games.
They used to be such simple devices. A single control stick and a few buttons were all a gamer needed to blast aliens or score a winning goal on the primitive, pioneering games consoles.
But in the last few decades, they have grown up. They’ve become more intelligent, more pleasing to hold and use, and able to adapt to the increasing complexity of the gameplay they are meant to be controlling.
And their effect is starting to be felt a long way away from the first-person shooters and football simulations that spawned their ongoing design. Video game controllers can now be found in an astonishing range of places, from pilots controlling drones to medical students training through virtual surgery.
But how did we get here? Today’s Xbox or Playstation controllers took a long time to achieve their current, ergonomic form. In 1958 the American physicist William Higinbotham created the interactive game Tennis for Two. The game paired an early analogue computer with an oscilloscope (the kind of instrument you’d see in a mad scientist’s lab in a 1950s B movie) serving as a basic monitor. Players played the game by using an aluminium controller to hit the ball.
The first commercially available game controller was released over a decade later in 1972, with the Magnavox Odyssey’s pair of gaming paddles. The Odyssey’s 2D games were crude simulations of sports such as tennis or basketball.
Each of the paddles was fitted with two dials on either side. One dial controlled horizontal movement on screen whilst the other would control the vertical. Each dial was connected to a device which regulated the flow of electricity, within the controller. Twisting these dials would influence the electrical flow which would in turn translate into the appropriate movement on screen.