How Do Laser Tag Guns Work?

Laser tag is an incredibly fun game, but how exactly do these light guns and sensors actually work?
Trevor English

Everyone loves a good old game of amplified light through stimulated emissions of radiation chasing. If that sentence was confusing for you to read, you're not alone, because it was confusing for me to write. What we're talking about here is laser tag.

Laser tag has become an immensely popular game in the last several decades. It has become a fan favorite for birthday parties for both kids and adults alike. We can barely imagine a better way to bond with your friends than by shooting beams of light at them, hoping to score sweet victory - all in good fun, of course.

But while playing laser tag is awesome on its own, have you ever wondered just how these real-life shooter games work? Let's delve into the science of laser tag.

The invention of laser tag

Laser tag as a technology and a game is actually a recent innovation, sort of. It was 1982 when the first conceptual idea of laser tag came into the mind of George Carter III, who quickly started building an arena where a game consisting of laser guns could be crafted.

The invention of laser tag was actually inspired by sci-fi ideas from the likes of Star Trek and Star Wars at the time. 

After George Carter finished constructing the guns, sensors, and arena, the first game was played in Dallas, Texas, in 1984. But it wasn't until 1986 that the first laser tag guns were first available on the market... so how do they work?

How laser tag systems work

Before we can dig into the idiosyncrasies depicting just how laser tag systems work, we need to get one thing clear right away. Laser tag guns don't use lasers (usually), rather they use infra-red beams of light.

Now calm down, I know that's infuriating, but there's more to it than that.

Each laser tag gun contains an emitter of collimated beams of infra-red light that is highly directional. Essentially, laser tag guns function as flashlights, if the beam of light was super thin, straight, and also on the infrared spectrum.

The sensors are simply infra-red receivers that absorb the light rays and use optical filters to modulate or detect.

How Do Laser Tag Guns Work?
Source: Laserblast/Pexels

There are a few reasons why these systems use infrared light beams rather than real lasers. First, lasers are dangerous to use, especially in gun form. Even at low power, they can cause eye damage, which doesn't make them suited for a game where you usually aim at people's heads. The second reason is that lasers can be distracting in the game, as it's often played in dark spaces, which can create a disorienting environment.

Additionally, in laser tag, at the end of the game, you get a printed stat sheet about how you did and who shot you. That's possible due to the fact that each gun emits a known and a specified beam of infra-red light which can be identified by the sensors and traced back to a specific gun or person. This means that whenever you fire off a laser tag gun, you're shooting a beam of infrared light encoded with identifying information about you or the gun that the sensor can then pick up.

At the end of the day, laser tag systems involve guns that shoot encoded infrared beams of light along with IR sensors that receive that light and signal, process it, and register it as a "hit." Laser tag engineering involves some fairly basic circuitry, leveraged to make an incredibly fun game.

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