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The iconic GPS triangle actually comes from the retro classic Asteroids

It all started in 1985.

asteroids game
Image: Atari

We all love retro gaming. Some of you will have dropped hundreds of quarters into Space Invaders over the years, while others might still love GTA: San Andreas. Yes, sadly PS2 games are classified as retro in 2021. It turns out GPS developers were fans of classic titles, too, as the triangular cursor that represents your location was apparently based on Atari’s Asteroids.

Someday, Q*Bert will have his time in the sun, but for now, let’s take a look at how this came about in the first place. It’s surprisingly not as weird as you might think.

Tracking your movements

Back in the coke-filled days of 1985, the Etak Navigator was recognized as the world’s first computerized in-car navigation system. When the story starts that long ago, the idea that it used the sprite from a game released six years earlier, in 1979, doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch anymore. Anyway, modern GPS systems use an advanced system of satellites, the internet, and (probably) Voodoo. The Navigator didn’t. Here it is in action:

What set the Navigator (known as the Travel Pilot in the UK) apart was a victor CRT display, which displayed graphics as lines drawn with an electron beam. This was for a few different reasons. First off, the technology 36 years ago wasn’t quite as advanced as it is now. The second reason was to keep costs down.

Getting to the point…

Anyway, the cursor on the display of this system was an arrowhead. It was also nicknamed the car-sor, by Etak’s founder, Stan Honey (which is a fucking fantastic pun if you ask me). Etak actually got their start through Catalyst Technologies, which was Nolan Bushnell’s incubator firm. Yes THAT Nolan Bushnell. Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell.

asteroids from atari
Image: Atari

There was already some social crossover from time to time, as Ex-Atari developers often rubbed shoulders with the Etak engineers; Stan Honey, Ken Milnes, and Alan Philips. With this level of closeness between the two, it’s no wonder they took inspiration from one of the greatest arcade games of all time.

According to How-To Geek, Stan Honey has even admitted that Asteroids was the primary inspiration for the cursor’s final design. In fairness, he also says that “the simplest thing to do on a vector display is a triangle,” so it may have some degree of necessity behind it, too.

The Asteroids triangle is basically everywhere at this point

Sadly, after Q*Bert’s 1985 snub, the arrowhead logo is now used in practically all modern GPS systems. Google Maps uses it. Apple uses it. Teslas use it. Hell, 99% of specialized GPS units use it.

I’m not sure telling the police that my car is a tiny spaceship will let me off with a ticket next time I’m stopped for speeding, but you can be damn sure I’m gonna try!

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A gamer since I've been able to hold a controller, I can usually be found with a PlayStation, Xbox or Switch controller in my hand.

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