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Interview with an Industry Innovator: Martin Shoebridge

Martin Shoebridge has had a tremendous influence on the laser tag industry. He was the designer, technical director and co-founder behind the Actual Reality laser tag system and his work had great influence on other laser tag systems including Veqtor, Laser Force UK and Pulsar. Mr. Shoebridge is one of only two recipients of the International Laser Tag Association's Industry Innovator award which he received in 2012. I am very appreciative that he made the time to answer a few interview questions and share some background in his own words about his time and work as a true innovator of the laser tag industry.

Interview (conducted by email Nov-Dec 2017, all photos courtesy of Martin Shoebridge)

TiviaChick: Could you tell me a bit about your background and what led you to work in the development of laser tag?

Martin Shoebridge: I’ve been involved in electronics for over 50 years...It started when I was 11 and my Uncle bought me a transistor radio kit to put together with his help. I think that gave me the bug... At 15, I started to work for a small local company in my home town of Aldershot making valve amplifiers for record players. I used to go to his shop on a Saturday, collect all the bits and take back the completed amplifiers the following Saturday. At 16 I left school with a few O Levels and gained an electronics apprenticeship at the world famous Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough Hampshire. This gave me core training in electronics. Skip a few years and a few jobs and I set up a company in Fleet Hampshire to sell home computer bits and pieces. This was 1980. We had a retail shop and offices above that we used to make things. I gave myself just 3 months to get profitable and make enough money to support the family. A big gamble that paid off handsomely. We made a lot of money in a very short time thanks to the boom in home computing explosion- Commodore, IBM/clones Apple Macs, Amstrad, BBC Home computer, etc. I designed and made several ‘add ons’ most notable memory packs for the Commodore VIC20. We went to a World of Commodore exhibition in Toronto and sold out all of our stock in a few days. Our prices were significantly cheaper than any other products. It wasn’t long before we owned three factories in Fleet and employed 18 people designing and making all sorts of computer related products.

One of the major sellers was a plug in memory expansion card for IBM clones. In those days, the standard RAM configuration was a mere 256K! We designed and sold shed loads of 256K and 512K add in cards.

In another factory nearby, there was a guy who was making a very crude laser tag system, having seen a product in New Zealand (or was it Australia?). I think that was an early Laser Force system?..... Anyway he came to me for help assembling the kit and I was fascinated.... It was very crude. Built with HeNe laser tubes that required high voltage to make them laze (very dangerous and difficult to manufacture without arcing). The functions were very crude with almost no flexibility as to options. In fact none. Packs were hard wired with ID and the game time was fixed using crude chip timers that had +/- 10-15% timing tolerance. They managed to sell a few but got into deep trouble when they took a contract to deliver a radio based version that was impossible to deliver and that was the end of them.

So I thought I could do a far better job (I didn’t realize just how hard it would be to make something reliable). I went on holiday with the family and spent the week writing the core code for a laser tag system on bits of paper. This basic core code is still being used today in various laser tag companies including Veqtor. When I got back from holiday, I set about getting the code into a computer for editing. I also set about designing the hardware and it wasn’t long before I had prototypes working. The basic hardware design was very flexible with all the basic parameters being set up as variables so they could be changed by using a hand held custom programmer. We could change the game time, shots, lives, etc. We soon started selling systems and very soon the software bugs started to show.....

I had been doing some work with a guy called Pete on a project that would automatically record medical programs overnight from TV transmissions. His software work impressed me immensely. I asked him to look over my code to see if he could find the software bugs which he duly did in next to no time. That was amazing as he had not seen the code at all. (He had a small amount of prior knowledge as I had commissioned him to write the scoring program).

Following that, I offered him a full time job which he accepted. It was to be one of the best decisions I had ever made. His comments were that what I had written was ok, but he could do a far better job and had a vision of a new super system which was later to become what is known in the industry as the AR system. His vision and enthusiasm was staggering and I had doubts as to whether he would be able to deliver such complexity. How wrong I was. To this day (radio excluded) I think the AR system would stand up against the best. Not many people know the true extent of the capabilities of the AR system and just how clever it was/is. All or most of the software is modular across all the components of the system- the gun processor, jacket processor, network controller, network targets, scoreboards, etc. How Pete managed to conceive that structure across all the devices is beyond me.

One little known feature is the ability of the guns to be used in a ‘round robin’ laser tag game as used in inflatable mobile arenas..... each gun knows what game it has been playing and knows if another competitor’s gun is in the ‘current game’ or is from a ‘previous game’. If it was from a previous game, it automatically knows that.

And so the AR laser tag system was born......

TC: What was the progression of your involvement with the various tag companies you worked with?

MS: Firstly, I felt that most of the companies that I worked with were intent on taking advantage of my naivety and their own financial greed. Veqtor was the only company that to this day, have conducted themselves in an honourable and ethical way when dealing with me/Fleet Micro Computer Systems Ltd.

My first involvement was with Laser Force UK and for a while, things went well.

(Clarification: Laser Force UK was unrelated to the Laserforce company out of Australia with a similar name)

They decided to get a copy made using the software in the guns and redesigned hardware. The company they took it to, to get the job done may or may not have been aware what was going down. Whatever... but the down side was that I had a big drop in sales and we relied on sales to support a loan from Laser Force that would enable us to continue with development and support on the Laser Guns. For my goodwill, I had to repay the loan which caused substantial hardship and nearly took us to the wall.

Then along popped Pulsar. A new start, or should I say another bad move. They wanted me to design something different to the current design. They had produced a vacuum formed gun shell (that was a nightmare to put together) and had visions of a ‘V’ shaped vest electronics display and target arrangement. (This was later taken on by Veqtor). So their system was duly designed and manufactured and they had good success with the sales and we were back up and running. But then Pulsar decided it would be more profitable to get the system manufactured elsewhere.... I thought I had the system reasonably secure at that time by introducing a dongle based scoring system but Pulsar managed to bypass that.

Eventually Laser Force (UK) went bust, having had some substantial investment from a company in Holland to develop a radio based system which they were unable to deliver. As far as I know, the Dutch company forced the winding up of Laser Force, but the directors started up a new company and a new venture involving/combining laser tag and Go Karts (as far as I remember).

Pulsar, in the meantime also went bust but the details escape me.

Around this time must have been when someone from Laser Chaser came to get hold of my technology and start to develop his own system. I only came across this by accident when someone told me how much it sounded like my system. Sure enough, when I came across his system at an exhibition, I discovered that my hand held controller would operate his guns/jackets. Thus proving that his I/R communication control had been copied from my system....

Having made good progress in the reliability of the laser gun systems, I came across Tim Dallyn at an exhibition (who at the time was working for Tim Shurruck if I remember correctly). He had decided to go on his own and do his own Laser Tag thing and chose our system to start out in Canada.

TC: How did Actual Reality (AR) get started?

MS: So this is how Actual Reality Inc came into being. The first system he bought went into a mobile inflatable operation that was a big success and from there he employed more people and premises to deal with sales and servicing. What had been in my mind a really reliable gun cord turned out to be bad news. It was to be a long time before I came up with the coiled, easily replaceable cable idea as used on the AR system.

TC: Who else was involved in the start up and in what capacity?

MS: I’m not sure, but you can find the information on the Laser tag museum archives. I remember his brother was involved in the early days in looking after repairs. While we were developing the new AR system, we agreed to pay half of a software programmer’s wages for a year to help with development costs. That guy was Al Levsen, who was just amazingly enthusiastic and was tasked with writing the core software known as PROSITE. Our programmer designed the comms system structure and spent a lot of time in Canada working with Al getting everything together. One of the major tasks was porting the software from Windows 98 to Windows XP. (Or was it Windows 95 to 98?) Al also designed the Prosite Games Wizard which basically allowed anyone to develop any game strategy that could be loaded into the guns and targets just prior to starting the game, giving great flexibility.

TC: How did you approach the development of this system? Can you describe the process for creating both the hardware and the software and what made AR unique compared to other laser tag systems?

MS: The approach to developing the hardware and software was to end up with a modular system that had great flexibility and reliability. We had our own injection mould tooling produced that would allow easy reliable assembly of the gun housing.

One critical feature that was essential for safety was the inclusion of a front safety touch trigger. This meant that to operate the gun, one had to make contact with the two front ‘touch buttons’ before the main trigger would operate.

This prevented anyone from using the gun as a ‘physical’ weapon and smash someone in the face. This had happened in the past with ‘pistols’. Touch sensitive buttons were used as it would improve the reliability over mechanical switches which would always be liable to fail....

The other design upgrade was the manufacture of the front/rear covers. In the past, we used off the shelf boxes and we had to up the image so we came up with the ‘octagon’ design with recessed windows for protection.

An injection mould tool was then designed along with an aluminum back plate to which everything was bolted. There was also a separate aluminum back plate to cover the battery pack in case of any malfunction of the pack or associated electronics.

We also looked long and hard at the connecting cable between the gun and jacket as this had been our ‘Achilles heel’ for a long time. We eventually decided on both a hardware and software solution. The hardware solution was to utilize a standard RJ45 network cable, but implemented using a custom made coiled version. The customer would also be able to use a regular off the shelf cable as a backup.

The software was something special.... It was implemented in such a way that the jacket processor software would know if it lost communication with the gun ( i.e. the gun/jacket cable was defective). This allowed a cable to be replaced in the middle of a game with no loss of historic information for that game. When a cable was replaced, the jacket processor would update the gun display with all the current information and carry on as if nothing had happened.

As part of the jacket system software, it was able to discriminate three separate incoming I/R sources using software polling. It had been said it couldn’t be done, but it was. At the time, it was perceived to be impossible with the available technology, but our programmer Pete achieved the impossible..... With today’s technology, it would be simple to have, say, eight or more separate I/R channels.... I think we were also one of the first (if not the first) to introduce the feature ‘Good Shot’! Another superb achievement by Pete!

With careful design, we didn’t suffer from ‘cancelling’ either and never had done. Our I/R transmission and reception algorithms were infallible in this respect.

Downloading was another area that we put a lot of effort into making it simple. Our early designs (including current Veqtor systems) relied on utilizing a custom download ‘box’ into which you had to point the gun and pull the trigger at the end of the game. Pete came up with a scheme (in conjunction with Prosite and targets) whereby one only had to point the gun at a target and the download process would be automatic, ending with a voice confirmation ‘download successful)’. This meant no more queues waiting to download as the arena targets were automatically switched over to ‘download stations’ at the end of the game and a player could point his gun at any target to download. It wouldn’t matter how many concurrent targets were designated as download stations as they all buffered the incoming I/R data before passing it back to Prosite for processing.

The ‘download box’ was a black box that took score data from the guns and fed it back to the scoring PC. It was a feature of all our equipment ( up to AR kit) including laser force, Pulsar, Veqtor and probably many others.... Planet Trog was the full blown AR kit with targets that could be designated as download stations at the end of the game - essentially a SMART download box.

Another interesting feature was that of partial downloads.... Whenever a player went to a target to reload, or get a feature, the data accumulated in the gun was sent to the target as well and then forwarded to Prosite for intermediate processing, giving a sort of real time update on the scoreboard. As close as you can get to radio based scoring without radio..... That was my biggest regret- not bringing a radio based system to market. We did some development work that was very promising but it never came to fruition....

Other notable features? I’m not sure, but certainly at the time the Games Wizard allowed infinite variations to be put into a game scenario at game start time. I don’t know of any other manufacturer at the time that could do that. Nowadays it’s old hat with the advent of radio based systems.

TC: What would someone need to know about this system (and the games) to be successful playing AR?

MS: Depends on how much you want to ‘cheat’. It was possible to cover up the front gun I/R sensors and front jacket sensors and thus could only be hit from behind.... I never used to do that but saw plenty who did. That detracts from the fun. Hiding and sniping the unsuspecting is always good and making sure you get off a few good shots to wipe out their shields. Having good rock solid designed software meant we could achieve a fast rapid fire or machine gun fire. Limiting the shots prevented players from going round just using the machine gun feature to wipe out players.

TC: What was the biggest challenge your company faced?

MS: Making the whole system as reliable as possible and future proof with the advent of the Games Wizard.

TC: When was the height of success for AR?

MS: For me personally, being invited to quote for the Disney Toy Story Laser Tag themed arena....

TC: Could you please share more about the Disney Toy Story laser tag arena?

MS: AR, somehow, were spotted by Disney scouts and were asked if they would be interested in putting in a bid to build the Toy Story Laser Ride in Disney Orlando. I had just arrived back in the UK from a visit and had to fly back to Edmonton the next day to help get a bid back together. The outcome was that we would have won the bid, but Disney were not happy with the equipment being designed/built in the UK so the bid went to a company in Orlando....

TC: What were some other successes?

MS: Installations in Sweden (Cybertown and two others). Cybertown is still going almost 20 years later, all be it with an upgraded radio based system from Holland. And the Robot installations in Holland.

The Robot was a special feature ‘target’ that was bought by the company that put our systems into Holland. They had one Green and one Red that acted as reload stations once they were ‘destroyed’.

The installation in West Edmonton Mall. AR overcame numerous obstacles before getting approval.

And I guess all the other installations in the USA and Canada that I know little about. Especially Planet Trog that somehow is still managing to function with equipment ‘out of the Ark’.

TC: How many laser tag sites used AR and how many were located in the United States?

MS: Sorry, I don’t know

TC: Can you talk about expanding into Xtreme Themes and Design (arena building)?

MS: This was a Tim Dallyn dream that as far as I can tell never came to fruition, although I did do some work on the electronics design.

TC: What was the laser tag industry like when your company started and how did that compare to the state of the industry in 2002?

MS: We started around 1989 and there was only Laser Quest and Laser Force in the UK. (as far as I know). By 2002 there were countless offerings.

TC: What was AR's relationship to Darklight?

MS: Tim Dallyn tried to team up with Darklight with a view to being able to offer a radio based system to potential customers in the USA and Canada but it never came to anything.

TC: What was AR's relationship to Veqtor?

MS: They didn’t have one, but Fleet Micro did. During the AR development years, Fleet Micro continued to assemble and build the Veqtor systems who were very successful.

TC: What are your thoughts about the state of the laser tag industry today?

MS: It seems to be healthy and well alive, although I have not had any direct involvement for years. It’s nice to see it is still a thriving industry for many.

TC: What did you go on to do after your time working on AR?

MS: In 2007 ish, I decided to retire and sold out to Veqtor. In 2009 I came out of retirement to work as a test engineer for a large electronics manufacturer. Originally it was for a three month contract, but I stayed there for seven years and ended my time as Principle Test Engineer. Very rewarding and interesting time. I finally retired in December 2016.

TC: In 2012 you became the second recipient of the Industry Innovator Award for your contributions to the laser tag industry (the only other recipient was George Carter III in 2005). Tell me about your reaction to being honored at the ILTA dinner where you were recognized.

MS: I was absolutely dumbfounded to the point where when I was asked to speak to the assembly, I just couldn’t. I regret that sincerely. I should have at least said something to all those that were there. But I will be forever grateful for the award.

TC: Do you have any additional thoughts to share?

MS: I wish Tim Dallyn had not taken me for a ride in the final throws of ARs existence. My wife has always said I should have stuck with Veqtor and by and large I agree with her. The problem with that is Veqtor would not move away from their custom network system and I advocated that they should switch to the AR network system. Had I and Veqtor gone down that route, who knows what magic could have been developed. That’s not to say that Veqtor hasn’t succeeded. They have. And both Fleet Micro and AR have disappeared into the ether. They now have some truly unique and innovative products that not many people know about. They keep their heads down and get on with bringing new products and ideas to the market.


This concludes my interview with Martin Shoebridge and I wish to extend my thanks and appreciation to him for taking the time to answer my questions and share his insight from some of the early days of the laser tag industry. For more information about the history of Actual Reality please visit the Laser Tag Museum website, specifically the page linked below.

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