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Playing 'Space Invaders' with Real Lasers Is Scary and Awesome


Thirty-seven years after its debut, it’s still a lot of fun to watch the iconic Space Invaders aliens blink out of existence when your shot lands on screen.

But watching them catch fire? That’s better. Way better.

Using a laser cutter, an Arduino mini-computer, and a terrific sense of imagination, a hobbyist in the U.K. has created a real-world version of the arcade classic that literally burns the aliens up when your aim is true.

"It’s got aliens, lasers and general destruction so what’s not to love, especially if you could replicate most of that functionality in the real world," said creator Martin Raynsford.

The project took about four months to conceptualize, but once Raynsford knew what he had to do, it took him just a few nights to put together, he says.

The bug-like creatures are made out of paper in this version, and when hit by the laser, they burst into satisfying flame. The ‘shields’ are made of foam, and just like the game, they block the first shot by the player. That initial volley burns a hole through the shield, though, making subsequent blasts through it possible.

There’s one big difference between this real-world version and the arcade game: the invaders don’t shoot back, so it’s basically a massacre. There is, however, a practical reason for that decision, as a reflecting laser could do some serious damage to the player’s vision.

"I thought about mounting a rotating mirror behind the space invaders so they could shoot back but I decided I like my eyes a bit too much," says Raynsford.

Players play the game on a laptop, but what they’re actually doing is controlling an 80-watt laser cutter that’s firing beams at paper invaders clipped to metal plates. Those plates move left and right (and up and down) courtesy of stepper motors.

When you’re playing with real lasers (and real fire), the consequences can be a lot more severe than a wasted quarter. So before launching the game, Raynsford conducted a test run (or, test burn, as he calls it). Good thing he did, as he learned the aliens were too tightly grouped, so hitting one would set off a chain reaction, burning down the entire row.

While fire can still spread in the current version, he says, it’s much less likely now that he has reduced the size of the aliens.

The bad news? Raynsford isn’t planning on manufacturing this thing, so unless you live near his workspace, odds are you’re not going to get a chance to play it yourself. Until then, you’re going to have to stick to more traditional electronic versions of the game.

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