Sonic the Hedgehog new movie character

Sonic Boom: games take technology to the next level

Image credit: Paramount Pictures

Little blue hedgehogs aren’t the only important innovation to have come from gaming.

Sonic arrives on the big screen this month after 30 years battling Robotnik on the small screen and, indeed, the very small screen. While it may be outside his comfort zone, it’s not really a bigger pond for the little blue hedgehog. The games industry was the new kid on the block back then, but today it’s bigger than the movie and music industries combined.

Did anyone see that coming? When I was covering the defence and aerospace sector in electronics back in the 1990s, they weren’t the big volume drivers but they were vital in terms of investment and technological innovation. Defence suppliers would place orders for silicon (or more likely gallium arsenide) chips in the mere dozens, but the defence industry was doing the research and development that would one day spin off into everything else, including computer games. It was in the ’90s though that chipmakers started saying sorry, no, we don’t have the time or the inclination to drop everything and make you a few dozen devices any more. We’re just too busy making parts for Nintendos and Segas, thank you very much.

Somewhere along the way the flow of innovation and inspiration got switched around. Professional flight simulators that once cost thousands made their way onto PCs for just a few dollars. Virtual reality, head-up displays – you name it, it started in defence and aerospace. Yet it wasn’t long before changing industry economics meant defence and aerospace were looking to off-the-shelf developments from the games and entertainment industry.

It’s an observation echoed by BAE Systems principal technologist Jean Page in her interview with Nick Smith. Three decades ago, she says, “when I first started in this business, these technologies were driven by the defence industry. But today, it is increasingly the gaming industry that is driving the technology.” They are also taking inspiration from consumer technologies like augmented reality and autonomous vehicles, as well as medical technologies.

But gaming's influence is to be found everywhere in electronics. Chris Edwards looks at how gaming technology has profoundly changed computing over the last three decades.

Siobhan Doyle talks to experts at the UK’s first dedicated wargaming centre for the combined defence services. Could hacking games be a gateway into serious cyber crime? Is what seems like a victimless crime having more serious consequences? Ben Heubl talks to hacker Jake Davis (aka Topiary) about how his career started with ‘3D Pinball’ on his own PC.

This month’s author interview in our reviews section is with Pete Etchells, who argues that gaming provides many positives and doesn’t deserve the negative press it receives for its effects on our society. Like most parents, I remain sceptical. Admittedly, I once stayed up all night reading ‘Catch 22’, but reading at night usually just sends us to sleep – not so playing games that involve more interaction and adrenaline. But perhaps I am just the sort of prejudiced parent he argues has got gaming all wrong.

timeline of games consoles

Image credit: IGN/Graphic News

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