Oscilloscope Fun and Games

As I mentioned yesterday, I got slightly obsessed with researching oscilloscope hacks yesterday, after seeing this jaw-dropping graphic demo released at Assembly 2007:

The author released the audio files (FLAC and WAV), allowing other people to try it on their own hardware or software scopes and post the results.

Digging around for oscilloscope art led me to one of the first video games (but not the first), William Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two from 1958. Though it looks like Pong, its controls were more complex, letting the player set the force and trajectory of their stroke. Here’s a simulator for Windows, if you want to try it yourself.

Since oscilloscopes are X-Y vector displays, it’s not surprising that people have attempted to play classic vector games on their scopes. Moose hacked MAME to render frames as audio to the PC soundcard, letting him play Asteroids and Star Wars on his Cole S1001 scope.

Clones of Pong, Breakout, Snake, The Game of Life, and Duck Hunt have all been ported to oscilloscopes, but I think my favorite is Scopetris.

In “Altercations,” Ray Sweeten uses an oscilloscope and a tremendous amount of noise in real-time performance art. This one’s for fans of Merzbow.

Finally, this is more of an audio visualization of a software hack, but Mike Kan created a real-time visualization of a Mac OS booting up and accessing the filesystem and memory. Beautiful.

For more oscilloscope fun, see Phil Torrone’s great roundup on Make, and related coverage. You can use freely-available software to make your own oscilloscope, or hack together one with a PIC controller, an old hard drive, or an old TV.

P.S. I typed this entry on an oscilloscope terminal.

February 15 Update: Inspired by this post, Matt Comi wrote a Ruby script called Oscillofy that turns any image into an oscilloscope-ready audio file.

February 14, 2011: NintendoScope plays GameBoy games on an oscilloscope.

15 thoughts on “Oscilloscope Fun and Games

  1. What intrigues me is that laser scanners, like oscilloscopes, are inherently X/Y-driven. I would be astonished, overjoyed, and other words like that, to see some of these things “displayed” on a distant wall with a laser beam.

    Got galvos?

  2. I guess I need to get a better video card for my oscilloscope. (I did keep expecting them to pan across to a real oscilloscope playing Doom. Truly a lol moment @ the reveal.)

    Watching the wav file using WMP and Winamp’s oscilloscope visualization is pretty cool too. Nothing like the real thing, but still neat looking. You can definitely make out the section that display the cube.

    I do fear for my speakers, but it sounds awesome.

  3. Hey Myself,

    You can easily build a ‘laser projector’ with a laser pointer, a mirror, and a pair of loudspeakers. Use the speaker cones to ‘wobble’ the mirror, giving some sort of x/y control (with serious tombstoning). I built one of these with some friends at school years ago. We ran a couple of signal generators to the speaker and had some nice Lissajous running across the room. Try it, it’s fun!

  4. Just to clarify.

    ‘What intrigues me is that laser scanners, like oscilloscopes …’

    Oscilloscopes are not laser scanners. They work by firing a beam of electrons onto a phosphorous coated screen (the part you can see). When the phosphorous is hit by the electrons it fluoresces.


  5. rgh, make sure you have plenty of tasty arrows when wandering through fields populated by time flies.

  6. True, but both are driven by analog X-Y inputs.

    I have a set of Cambridge galvos in the garage (along with an equally dusty argon laser), maybe I need to get those out again and play…

  7. can anybody show me how to make lissajous figures like this and is cost/material effective because this is really interesting and i chose to do this for my physics project but i dont exactly know how to make it

  8. this is cool…i actually chose to do my physics project on this but only problem is i dont know how to make it…could somebody show me how to make this step by step and is cost/material effective?

  9. I live in Woodburn, Oregon. Willy Higginbotham was one of my dads distant cousins. Dad told be about him back in the late 50’s….about Willy working on the Manhatten Project – he didn’t mention anything about ‘pong’. Understandable.

  10. Last night I bought a Tektronix 2213 (60 MHz) scope from a guy on Craigslist – my first real scope (I have a Radio Shack Probe Scope as well as a couple of Parallax USB Scopes); I plan on using it for serious work, but I found this page wondering what kind of “tricks” people have done – that demo looks awesome; I’ll have to try it out!

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