Last Update: 02 JULY 2007
Laser Tag History
(Please note, "Lazer Tag" is a brand name and registered trademark, originally created by Worlds Of Wonder and now owned by Shoot The Moon products. Laser Tag and Lasertag are generic terms for any game or sport in which players attempt to tag one another with infra-red or visible light beams.)
In The Beginning...
The earliest form of Laser Tag was probably something that somebody whipped up in their garage and used for some fun with their friends. Unfortunately, they didn't patent or market the idea, so we don't know anything about it.
Then, in the 1970's, the United States Army released a requirement for a system that would enable them to conduct realistic force-on-force combat training, such that harmless blank ammunition could be used (for realism) but there would be a way to tell whether or not shots fired by the soldiers would have struck their targets. MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) was born, and entered operational use in the late 1970's. It used a laser module which was mounted to the barrel of a real gun, a blank-firing adapter for the guns, and an integrated receiver consisting of sensors on the helmet and load-bearing vests of the soldiers. When a blank shot was fired by the guns, it caused the laser to fire a coded burst in the direction that the gun was aimed. If that burst was sensed by the receiver of another solier, the "hit" soldier's gear becan making a very irritating noise to let them know they were "dead."
MILES was very succesful for the Army, but it had some drawbacks -- when hit, the receiver did not prevent the further firing of the weapon, and it was allegedly very easy for soldiers to "cheat" by turning the receivers off and back on again, ressurecting themselves. In addition, no data about the engagement was kept so it was impossible to positively identify who shot whom on the battlefield, a critical piece of information when attempting to develop new tactics.
I have relatively little information about the original MILES system so if you know anything about it and can provide some good definitive links about it, please e-mail me!
There was also a MILES type system called the Engagement Simulation System (ESS), which was used by the Department Of Energy in the late 1970's and early 1980's for training the police forces who protected the nation's nuclear power plants. This should not be confused with "Electronic Survivor Shot" (also ESS) which was a Laser Tag type toy released by Tomy and Hasbro in the late 1980's.
In 1993 the Army released a requirement for a next-generation training system, to adress the shortcomings of the original MILES gear. In 1995 Cubic Defense Systems was awarded the contract to produce MILES-2000, a system which was technologically superior and overcame virtually all of the problems with the original MILES system. MILES-2000 was operationally tested at Fort Benning GA in 1998, and entered full operational status in 1999. It remains in use and is expected to be the primary force-on-force training system for the US Army for the forseeable future.
Early Toys and Arcade Systems
The ealiest gear that I know of which could reasonably be considered to be "The First Laser Tag System" was the STAR TREK PHASERS produced in 1979 by South Bend Toys. Inspired by Star Trek: The Motion Picture, these phasers used Infra-Red light (as do all modern systems), had sound effects for firing and being hit. It also claimed to generate a different sound effect for "near misses" to alert the player that they had just ALMOST been hit -- a feature only found on MILES, MILES-2000, and some of the very high-end Laser Tag equipment -- but in actuality it was just randomly substituted for the "hit" sound effect when a good hit was detected.
Here are some pictures of the STAR TREK PHASERS (Box from eBay, actual phasers from my own collection):
In 1984, PHOTON opened their first arcade-type or arena-type laser game location in Dallas, Texas. Riding the popularity of science-fiction themes which were sweeping the US, PHOTON became an instant hit. PHOTON centers began springing up across the US and around the world, and as far as I know there are several of them still around.
More PHOTON history can be found here:
History of PHOTON and similar Arena Laser Tag companies
The Golden Age
1986 was THE big year for home-style laser sports.
PHOTON introduced their own home version, produced by MCA and Enertech. This system used Helmet and Vest sensors, tethered together and to a gun unit, as in the arena PHOTON system.
Worlds Of Wonder also produced the original Lazer Tag brand of home laser game, giving the sport the name by which it would be known throughout the world. The Worlds Of Wonder gear had a seperate sensor which was worn on the chest or belt (as well as additional ballcap or helmet sensors which could be purchased) and were not tethered to the gun.
At about the same time, several additional systems came on the market which were technologically inferior to PHOTON and LAZER TAG. These used visible light, either from xenon strobe flashers or in some cases just from flashlight bulbs. There were some Infra-Red systems, but they were technologically inferior to the groundbreaking PHOTON and LAZER TAG gear, and lacked the marketing of both, so they came and dissapeared again quickly.
In the late 1980's a market recession, lawsuit, and other factors combined to put Worlds Of Wonder into bankruptcy. Ironically, this only helped the popularity of the sport, as WOW Lazer Tag gear could be purchased for $10 a set at close-out from stores such as KB Toys -- so those who were not willing to spend $50 per player (a LOT of money in the 1980's!) were now willing to give it a try, and they liked what they found.
In the late 1980's, the only real contemporary compettitor to PHOTON and LAZER TAG popped up: This was the "Electronic Survivor Shot" (ESS) gear produced and marketted in Japan by Tomy and in the US by Hasbro. But the market timing was not good, as ESS was introduced just as the Laser Tag craze was beginning to die down and the glut of cheap Worlds Of Wonder gear sucked up the potential customers. Still, it was a popular toy for about a year and a half, and many clubs still use this gear today. But again, from what I have read (I wasn't paying attention at the time since I was more involved in paintball or "The Survival Game" as it was then known), much of the popularity of ESS may have been due to it's being available very cheaply at close-out after it ceased production.
David Small left Worlds Of Wonder after it failed to emerge from bankruptcy, and worked briefly for Galoob Toys, where he produced (amongst other things) the LASER PRO 9000, a spaceship-like lasertag toy which had the unique innovation of having the target integrated into the gun, and the ability to sense when it's own IR was being reflected by a printed target that was supplied with the gun. These advances greatly reduced the cost of a system by eliminating the plastic and extra electronics for the sensor, and eliminated the fragile wires whose failure had plagued tethered laser tag type toys from the beginning. Laser Pro 9000 was produced in 1991 but it never achieved the popularity of LAZER TAG, in part because it was targetted at a younger audience and in part because it was not really compatible with other systems already on the market (although it could hit and take hits from WOW gear at close ranges).
The Dark Days
When ESS ceased being produced in 1991 or so, there was no other manufacturer producing quality tag gear at a consumer price. There were dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of cheap knock-offs around, but these used receivers which were incapable of dealing with sunlight and fragile guns with cheap optics and low-power emitters, so the performance and reliability were poor at best. No innovations were made to the game play, and basically everything stagnated.
A New Hope...
In late 1991, Worlds Of Wonder founders David Small and Paul Rago reunited to form Shoot The Moon Products, a toy invention company. It was not long before they had begun working on a new version of Lazer Tag, as they had in the meantime purchased the rights to the Lazer Tag name (which they had created) from the now-defunct Worlds Of Wonder.
Originally the plan was to develop the new Lazer Tag system for ToyMax to produce. But ToyMax ultimately went their own way, developing instead the first system that would be known as Laser Challenge. Laser Challenge appeared on the market in 1993 and rapidly found a following. It worked well indoors and was at least useable outdoors, and was much less expensive than previous systems. In addition, it was the first system that I am aware of that had an effective anti-cheat feature: Once you were tagged out, your OPPONENT had to send your gun a signal re-energizing it so that it could play again. Since they were unlikely to do such a thing except at the very start of a game, this made it impossible to cheat by resetting your gun and rejoining the game after you had been tagged out.
At about this time, the fourth "lasting name" in consumer IR tag gear appeared, at first only in Japan: the Sega / Bandai Lock-On system (which was appearently also known by some other names, such as "Virtual Shooter"). It was popular in Japan and Europe, but for some reason never became widespread in the US -- possibly because of the remaining stocks of cheap WOW and ESS gear and the higher cost compared to Laser Challenge. But Lock-On brought one new innovation to the game that was worth mentioning: the gun constantly emitted a signature, so that if your opponent had you in his sights you received a warning of the fact BEFORE he opened fire on you. It was like being "painted" by a fire-control radar in a jet fighter plane, you have a chance to take evasive action. Furthering the "jet fighter" aspect of Lock-On, the players wore a see-through heads-up display type visor, in which they could see a reflection of an LED digit showing how many hits they had left until out. The system worked well even in sunlight, and had team switch settings so that multiple players could be in a game without risking "friendly fire" from their team-mates. From a gameplay standpoint, it was very evolved gear for the time, technologically sound, and ruggedly built.
While Laser Challenge was in the final stages of development, Shoot The Moon partnered with Tiger Electronics (at the time not yet a division of Hasbro) to develop the new Lazer Tag. This system had the receiver mounted on the gun like in the Galoob Lazer Pro 9000 that David had earlier developed, but with the receiver placed top-center for a full 360 degree view and having better sunlight performance. Unlike the original Worlds Of Wonder Lazer Tag, the new Tiger Lazer Tag (as it is commonly called) would shut down the gun once theplayer had been tagged out. The new Lazer Tag was well received in the toy market, but never caught on with the established Lazer tag players as it was not compatible with the original Worlds Of Wonder Lazer Tag and had a flaw in the software by which a player could effectively shield themselves from hits by simply firing constantly. It also did not have any anti-cheat features beyond the basic "make a loud sound at start-up" which had been in the original WOW Lazer Tag, and in the TLT it was not even as piercing a noise as it had been before. Still, its performance in sunlight was considerably better than that of Laser Challenge, it actually lived up to the stated range performance under real world conditions, and it had the brand name.
With Laser Challenge and Tiger Lazer Tag energizing the market, a slew of new compettitors popped up again with cheap systems which came and went. As before, most had very poor performance and basically were just attempts to cash in and make a quick buck in a hot market segment. There were a few, however, who brought new ideas and technical improvements to the game.
Laser Challenge and Lazer Tag continued to battle it out, taking different approaches to building their respective brand names. Both pushed their designs to achieve better range performance, while Laser Challenge began developing new game features, and Lazer Tag licensed the Star Wars designs. Both produced bigger, badder, longer-range blasters in a toy version of an arms race, culminating ultimately with the V2 Firestorm from Laser Challenge and the B.L.A.S.T. Bazooka from Lazer Tag.
After about four years of battling it out in the toy aisles of the world, Lazer Tag lost the battle to Laser Challenge. Lazer Tag had failed to evolve the GAME in addition to the gear, and was left vulnerable to Laser Challenge's lower price on the one end (the basic LC sets) and better capabilities at the other end (the V2 sets and ELS computer), while never having won over the brand-loyal enthusiasts of WOW Lazer Tag due to the incompatabilities. After several quarters of diminishing sales Tiger decided to cease production. Lazer Challenge was left alone in the market, aside from the never-ending stream of cheap gear trying to make a quick buck. But the market had withered as most toy markets do eventually, and by the start of the new Millenium Laser Challenge had ceased developing and producing gear as well.
A New Millenium, A New Tag!
As 1999 rolled over to 2000 and beyond, there was little happening in the world of Tag Sports from a consumer standpoint. But a LOT was happening in the hobby world, where numerous talented people turned their skills to the development of new gear. Entire new protocols were developed, many open-source or royalty-free designs wereposted on the internet, and local clubs continued to meet and play games acreoss the country. Still, there was no new gear available for a reasonable price to the consumer, and the clubs suffered a steady decline.
Then, in 2003, Shoot The Moon decided to re-develop Lazer Tag. David and Paul were determined to learn from past mistakes and to "push the envelope" as far as technology would allow, and so we set about creating a system with features that had not been seen before and would stand the test of time.
The result was Lazer Tag Team Ops, which was conceived as a way to fully deliver the experience that tag sports had always been about: taking video games out of the computer and putting them into the real world. LTTO kept a full score for the game, even including who tagged who and how many times, without the need for any external computer or data handling system. Players could define their own games, and a communications protocol was developed that allows future gear to teach old gear how to play new games so that older gear will not become unusable with new gear.
To date, no other major player has come onto the market in the roughly one year that LTTO has been available. Jakks Pacific purchased Toymax, acquiring the Laser Challenge line in the process, but to date has not done anything other than change the packaging style to a new design that looks suspiciously close to that used by LTTO. There have been rumors that they might resume development and production, but so far these rumors have failed to pan out.
Several would-be compettitors have demonstrated the expected cheap systems at various trade shows, but to date they do not seem to have made it to the shelves. It may simply be that without any compettitive content to deliver, they are not finding any traction for their products with the retailers.
Of course, this can't go on forever! Eventually either one of the "lasting names" will come back, or some new company will pop up with a worthy compettitor. But for now, LTTO is enjoying it's day alone in the sun...
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Lazer Tag Team Ops Yahoo! group
02 JUL 2007 -- Update picture and description of South Bend Phasers. Update email address.
22 OCT 2005 -- Update pictures of South Bend Star Trek Electronic Phasers.
23 MAY 2005 -- Note Jakks Pacific purchased all of Toymax while Toymax was still an operating company. Also made numerous minor spelling/typo corrections. Changed page title and several other uses of "Lazer Tag" where it should have been "Laser Tag".