Air Force Builds Supercomputer with Gaming Consoles – 2010 AD

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Air Force Builds Supercomputer with Gaming Consoles

Mark Barnell (dates unavailable), Gaurav Khanna (dates unavailable)

“It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. In 2010, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in Rome, New York, built a “budget” supercomputer called the Condor Cluster using commercial, off-the-shelf hardware consisting primarily of 1,716 PlayStation 3 (PS3) game consoles. Motivated to save money while advancing his research programs, Mark Barnell, director of AFRL’s high-power computing division, took an unorthodox approach to achieve the number-crunching capacity required for AFRL’s use of radar data to create images of cities.

The PS3’s computer power came from its “cell” processor, which relied upon numerous specialized cores. Barnell’s team connected the PS3s along with 168 graphical processing units and 84 coordinating servers in a parallel array to realize a capability that could perform 500 trillion floating-point calculations per second. Put another way, the Condor was 50,000 times faster than an average laptop. At the time, the Condor Cluster was considered the 35th- or 36th-fastest computer in the world and cost just $2 million—almost 30 times cheaper than a proper supercomputer, which would typically set an organization back $50 million to $80 million.

The idea to build a do-it-yourself supercomputer using linked PS3s did not originate inside the Air Force, however. In 2007, an engineer at North Carolina State University created a scientific research cluster with eight connected PS3s that cost $5,000. That same year, University of Massachusetts physicist Dr. Gaurav Khanna networked 16 PS3s to model black-hole collisions. Named the Gravity Grid, this was the cluster that caught the attention of the Air Force team. Dr. Khanna would go on to publish a paper in the journal Parallel and Distributed Computing and Systems showing how the PS3 processor sped up scientific calculations over traditional processors by a factor of 10.

The high price tag of “proper” supercomputers includes lots of other hardware, of course, such as power conditioners and cooling. Dr. Khanna’s team found a cheap, off-the-shelf way of keeping their PS3s cool: they put them in a refrigerated shipping container designed to transport milk.”

SEE ALSO Connection Machine (1985), Hadoop Makes Big Data Possible 2006)

Photograph of the supercomputer built by the Air Force Research Lab from PlayStation 3 game consoles.

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Video Game Enables Research into Real-World Pandemics – 2005 AD

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Video Game Enables Research into Real-World Pandemics

“In September 2005, programmers of the popular World of Warcraft (WoW) game introduced a blood pathogen to an area accessible only to high-level players. Due to a programming bug, the disease jumped beyond the intended area, infecting and killing many lower-level players. With a dramatic spurt of digitized blood, those who were in range of the carriers died. It did not take long before entire cities were decimated, littered with the computerized corpses of players’ characters, with survivors either running about in pandemonium or disappearing into the countryside.

The event was triggered by a programming glitch that allowed players’ “pets” and “minions” to catch the so-called Corrupted Blood disease and pass it back to other humans, combined with the ability of characters to teleport out of the restricted area—an interaction that had not been anticipated by the game’s programmers.

In the chaos and shock that ensued, several unexpected behaviors emerged as players had to make decisions about the safety and survival of their characters, and opportunities arose to pursue murderous and destructive activity. Blizzard Entertainment®, the game’s developer, set up voluntary quarantine areas when it realized what was happening, but players ignored them. Some characters with healing powers tried to help those who were sick and dying, while others who were infected but immune intentionally spread the disease by teleporting to densely populated places along with their infected pets. Thousands of virtual characters died.

These observable behaviors were incredibly useful to epidemiologists who rely on computer simulations to model pandemics. Such simulations are difficult to construct and cannot reliably predict human behavior. Infected chickens propagate diseases differently than vengeful people intent on using their infection as a weapon. Realizing that teleportation was the equivalent of modern-day air travel, epidemiologists studied the Corrupted Blood incident, exploring how the digital disease could be used to model other diseases that can jump from animals to humans, such as SARS and avian flu.

Back at Blizzard, the plague itself was contained only when programmers created a “spell” to cure the patients. If only fighting disease were so easy in the real world.”

SEE ALSO Morris Worm (1988)

A programming bug in World of Warcraft unleashed the “Corrupted Blood” disease, which spread through the online community much like a real virus in an actual pandemic.

Fair Use Sources: B07C2NQSPV

Balicer, Ran D. “Modeling Infectious Diseases Dissemination through Online Role-Playing Games.” Journal of Epidemiology 18, no. 2 (March 2007): 260–1.

Lofgren, Eric T., and Nina H. Hefferman. “The Untapped Potential of Virtual Game Worlds to Shed Light on Real World Epidemics.” The Lancet, Infectious Diseases 7, no. 9 (September 2007): 625–29.


Sony Releases First PlayStation Console – 1994 AD

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December 3, 1994 – Sony releases its first PlayStation console in Japan – to date, over 100 million units have been sold.

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Artificial Intelligence History Software Engineering

TRON Movie – 1982 AD

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Steven Lisberger (b. 1951), Bonnie MacBird (b. 1951), Alan Kay (b. 1940)

“Like a modern Alice in Wonderland, game designer Kevin Flynn is kidnapped and beamed into computer company ENCOM’s mainframe, where he is forced to fight for his life as a player in the games he created.

The video-arcade craze was in full swing when Walt Disney Productions released TRON in the summer of 1982. The movie resonated with an audience enamored with the world of technology, just as “high-tech” became accessible to the masses. While the look and feel of the movie worked brilliantly for some, the story was simply too ahead of its time for others. Critical reviews were mixed. With its glowing space-age combat suits and high-concept narrative about a regular guy doing battle with anthropomorphized software, the movie was celebrated by technophiles and panned by many critics as a stunning visual display without a credible plot.

TRON broke ground in computer animation. It was the first movie to include whole scenes that were synthetically generated, totaling about 20 minutes of the movie, as well as scenes that seamlessly mapped live-action actors into a computer-generated world. Several animators refused to work on TRON, fearful that digital animation would soon put conventional, hand-drawn animation out of business. At the time, the technique was considered so radical that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disqualified the movie as a contender for a special effects award nomination because it felt that computer-aided visuals were a cheat.

Computer pioneer Alan Kay from Xerox PARC was a consultant on the film and helped to edit the movie script on the “Alto”—a prototype personal computer. Written by Bonnie MacBird and directed by Steven Lisberger, the film did not do well at the box office. The arcade games based upon the movie were incredibly popular, however, and out-grossed the movie — a harbinger of things to come. The film went on to develop a cult following among computer game geeks and spawned a franchise including the sequel TRON: Legacy, released in 2010.”

SEE ALSO Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920), Star Trek Premieres (1966), Xerox Alto (1973)

Poster from the movie TRON, written by Bonnie MacBird and directed by Steven Lisberger.

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History Software Engineering

Colossal Cave Adventure – Text-based “Video” Game – 1975 AD

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William Crowther (b. 1936), Don Woods (b. 1954)

Adventure, later renamed Colossal Cave Adventure, was an interactive, text-based simulation of exploring Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave created by William Crowther, a programmer who helped develop ARPANET. Adventure wasn’t just any simulation—it was a wildly popular game in which the player navigated through the cave on an expedition looking for treasure. Players typed short instructions into the command line using plain English—no need to read a manual—and then received responses back in plain English.

A caving enthusiast, Crowther had already mapped the inside of Mammoth Cave when he decided to use it as the subject for the game. He used the natural features and artifacts in the cave as guideposts for the player as he or she made decisions about where to go next. Adventure launched what would come to be known as “interactive fiction” games. These were games that weaved narrative, logic, and puzzles into a larger story that could branch in different directions, depending upon what the player wanted to do. Adventure was also the inspiration for other games, including Rogue, a rather addictive dungeon-exploration game that shipped with Berkeley UNIX and inspired its own subgenre (“roguelike”) of dungeon-exploration games.

Originally developed for the PDP-10, Adventure consisted of 700 lines of FORTRAN code and 700 lines of data that described 78 map locations, 66 rooms, and 12 navigation messages. The first expansion of the game was done by Don Woods, a grad student at Stanford in 1976. With Crowther’s permission, Woods amplified the fantasy elements in the game, reflecting his affinity for the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien. Different versions of Adventure were created over the years, and the game led directly to Zork and other popular games by Infocom, an MIT spinoff founded in 1979.

Adventure’s historic influence is notable in the hacker community, which continues to perpetuate unique phrases and words from the game in other contexts. Two favorites include the magic word xyzzy and “YOU ARE IN A LITTLE MAZE OF TWISTY PASSAGES, ALL DIFFERENT.”

SEE ALSO Spacewar! (1962), ELIZA (1965)

The Colossal Cave Adventure video game—one of the first interactive fiction games—on a VT100 terminal.

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History Software Engineering

Pong Game from Atari – Nolan Bushnell – 1972 AD

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Allan Alcorn (b. 1948), Nolan Bushnell (b. 1943)

“In the late 1960s the idea of putting a computer into an arcade hall to make money was still quite novel. Nolan Bushnell, a huge fan of the highly influential Spacewar! game, had tried it with Computer Space — generally accepted as the first coin-operated video game. While Computer Space never achieved commercial success, Bushnell’s next attempt — Pong — would be the first product from Atari, a new company he cofounded with Ted Dabney (1937–2018).

Pong is often referred to as the game that helped launch the video game industry, bringing into focus a new kind of entertainment that would revolutionize electronic “play” and drive advancements in other fields, including AI, which benefited from the innovations in computer graphics technologies that run modern games.

As legend goes, Bushnell wanted to create a game that was blazingly simple to understand by anyone. He was familiar with the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home console game, and its version of table tennis. However that influenced his thinking (which resulted in a series of protracted lawsuits), he asked new employee, Allan Alcorn, to design an arcade version with similar game mechanics. Alcorn figured out that he could build such a game purely with digital circuitry—no programming involved. He took a black-and-white television set and placed it inside a wooden cabinet, soldering the circuiting to boards as needed. It was good enough to develop a prototype and test out, so Bushnell and Dabney installed a coin collector in the case and charged 25 cents per game. It was “launched” in 1972 in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Silicon Valley as a test run.

The game consisted of a screen interface divided in half as two sides of a playing court. On either side were two vertical sticks or paddles that players moved up and down as a ball bounced between the sides of the screen. Scores increased each time a player’s opponent failed to volley the ball back to the opposing player. The game was an instant hit. Two weeks later, the bar’s owner called up and told the engineers to come and fix their contraption: nobody could play it anymore, because the coin box was jammed with quarters.”

SEE ALSO: PDP-1 (1959), Spacewar! (1962)

The Pong arcade game and coin box placed in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Silicon Valley in 1972. Each player controls their paddle by turning the respective knob.

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History Software Engineering

Spacewar! Video Game – 1962 AD

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Steve Russell (b. 1937), Martin Graetz (dates unavailable), Wayne Wiitanen (dates unavailable)

It was obvious to Steve Russell and friends at MIT that the best way to demonstrate the power of the new PDP-1 machine would be a multiuser video game in which players tried to shoot down one another’s spaceships. So Russell, along with his friends Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen, came up with Spacewar!, inspired in part by American and Japanese science-fiction and pulp novels.

The basic program took about six weeks to develop and featured two spaceships, the Needle and the Wedge, both orbiting around the gravitational well of a sun, with a starfield as background. The program required more than 1,000 calculations per second to compute the spaceships’ motion and location, plot the relative positions of the stars and sun, and apply the player inputs. Players could launch torpedoes using a toggle switch on the computer or by pressing a button on a control pad. Because the game followed Newtonian physics, the ships remained in motion even when the players were not accelerating them. Part of the challenge then was to shoot down the opponent’s ship without colliding with a star. Spacewar! featured hyperspace, gravity-assist powers, and forced cooldowns between firings, so it required some strategy to win rather than just aiming weapons and firing at the other player as quickly as possible. There was even a lone asteroid that the players could fire upon.

First unveiled to the public at MIT’s 1962 Science Open House, Spacewar! could soon be found on most of the PDP-1 research computers in the country. Considered one of the 10 most important video games of all time by the New York Times in 2007, much of Spacewar!’s success is evident in the decades after its creation—Stewart Brand (b. 1938) and Rolling Stone sponsored a Spacewar! tournament in 1972, reporting on it with the excitement of a physical sporting event. In 1977, BYTE magazine published a version of Spacewar! in assembly language that could run on the Altair 8800, and Spacewar! was the inspiration for one of the first-ever arcade games, Computer Space, in 1971, designed by the same person—Nolan Bushnell (b. 1943)—who would go on to launch Pong® and the Atari Corporation®. And that lone asteroid in Spacewar! became the inspiration for the video game Asteroids®, which would become Atari’s most successful game.

SEE ALSO PDP-1 (1959), Pong (1972), First Personal Computer (1974), BYTE Magazine (1975)

Dan Edwards (left) and Peter Samson (right) play Spacewar!—one of the earliest digital-computer video games—on the PDP-1 Type 30 display.

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History Software Engineering

Whirlwind Computer – 1949 AD

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Jay Forrester (1918–2016), Robert R. Everett (b. 1921)

“In 1944, the US Navy asked the MIT Servomechanisms Laboratory to create a flight simulator to train Navy pilots. MIT tried building an analog computer, but it was soon clear that only a digital machine could possibly offer the speed, flexibility, and programmability required to create a realistic simulation. So, in 1945, the Office of Naval Research contracted MIT to create what would be the world’s first interactive, real-time computer.”

Museum of Science, Boston, MA - IMG 3168.JPG

“Called Whirlwind, the machine was a massive undertaking: the project involved 175 people with a budget of $1 million a year. The machine used 3,300 vacuum tubes and occupied 3,300 square feet in MIT Building N42, a 25,000-square-foot, two-story building that MIT bought specifically for the project.” Fair Use Source: B07C2NQSPV

“The MIT Whirlwind (c. 1951)[1][2] was quite possibly the first-ever 16-bit computer.” (

Whirlwind had the first computer graphics display, a pair of 5-inch video screens on which the computer could draw airspace maps. It also had the first graphical input device, a “light pen” (invented by associate director Robert R. Everett), for selecting points on the screen. When Whirlwind was partially operational in 1949, MIT professor Charles Adams and programmer John Gilmore Jr. used its graphics capabilities to create one of the first video games: a line with a hole, and a ball that made a thunk sound every time it bounced. The goal was to move a hole so that the ball would fall in.”

Project Whirlwind core memory, circa 1951

“Soon, however, it was clear that the electronics technology of the day needed improving. Whirlwind’s vacuum tubes kept burning out. The lab performed an in-depth analysis and determined that trace amounts of silicon in the tube cathodes were at fault. The lab had the contaminant removed, and the lifetime of the tubes was extended by a factor of a thousand. When it became clear that the computer would need memory that was larger and more reliable than storage tubes, Forrester invented magnetic core memory, which would become the primary storage system of computers for the next two decades. Later, when it became evident that Whirlwind needed code that would permanently reside in the computer, load other programs, and provide basic functions, the project drove the invention of the first operating system.”

Circuitry from core memory unit of Whirlwind

Whirlwind was fully operational in 1951. Although it was never actually used as a flight simulator, its graphic display showed that computers could present maps and track objects, demonstrating the feasibility of using computers for air defense.”

Core stack from core memory unit of Whirlwind

SEE ALSO Core Memory (1951)

“Created to run a flight simulator for the US Navy, Whirlwind was the world’s first interactive computer.”

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