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VR Cultural Icons: Lightcycles

Light cycles are an icon of VR, that crop up again anf again, in all manner of media. Two-wheeled motorcycles that leave a solid wall of light behind them, as a type of exhaust.

The original light cycles are from a Disney VR film. Tron, airing more than 26 years ago, in 1982, first heralded these bikes. They were used in a segment of the game zone of the film, and were used in the great escape from detainment by the MCP. Perhaps that is part of it; vehicles used in elaborate car chases do seem to stay in the public subconscious.

Two lightcycles about to enter the game grid

The other part of it, has to be the wall of light itself. Generated as part of the game the light cycles are themselves part of, the wall of light emanating behind the bike, flows in a straight line, and is semi-permanent. Hard light, solid to the touch, that remains in place as the bike speeds off.

The object of the light bike game, is to run the other rider or riders into your light walls. In the original Tron, light cycles was a game for six players: three on the gold team, three on the blue team. Each team launched onto the game grid from opposite ends, their tight formation of bikes leaving trails of their colour behind them. The objective was to kill the other team members off, by manoeuvring your bikes round them, trapping them in your light trails.

When a light bike hits a hard light trail, the bike explodes violently. Stopping is not an option whilst on the grid, so the only way to survive is to ensure you have space ahead to drive in. Hitting your own trail is the same as hitting anyone else's trail: your bike is destroyed. Thus, strategy is vital.

When a bike is destroyed, its trail is destroyed with it: flowing smoothly into the ground. Once the trail is gone, that space is usable by other bikes.

In this image, an earlier blue light trail blocks off the right. The orange bike's trail blocks off the left.
The blue driver knows they are dead. There is nowhere to go, they are running out of grid, and stopping is not an option

The way a light cycle is entered, is iconic to say the least. The drivers-to-be stand on a glowing platform, with a glowing yellow bar in front of them, just hovering in space. Without leaving the platform, they reach forwards and grab a hold of the yellow bar. This then sinks down towards the ground, and as it does so, the bike literally unfolds from it, a wireframe of increasing detail that flows around the driver, adding in more and more detail in successive waves, until a perfect, form-fitting motorcycle sits where the person once stood.

All the person has to do, to get out, is not be on the game grid, and let go of the glowing bar - which now serves as the handlebar. If both conditions are met, the bike folds up into the glowing bar once more. It can then be taken in one hand, and placed into a pocket. Grasping it with both hands, unfolds the bike again.

A wireframe light cycle unfolding

The bikes were originally designed by Syd Mead, the same mind as created the vehicles for Blade Runner, so the cyberpunk feel was really pretty much a given. They almost feel like basic primitives in a graphical environment, and their simplicity again, makes them compelling.

The light cycle game itself has been programmed hundreds of times by different people, over the past 20 years. It is one of those classics that never goes away, and is quite probably the inspiration behind the game 'snake' as well.



In Pictures: Tron


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