In 2002, while stationed with the Air Force in Frankfurt, Germany, I started working on a home-built laser tag system. I thought it would be an interesting project and a fun outdoor activity for my kids and their friends (and me).

Commercial outdoor laser tag guns were far too expensive, while consumer toy systems were too fragile and lacked the features I wanted, and neither option was upgradeable or expandable. I was fairly confident I could build something better.

Part of my Air Force training involved use of the MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) during annual field exercises. MILES is like laser tag on steroids, so I incorporated some of its capabilities into my system. I also borrowed ideas and inspiration from first-person shooter computer games my son was playing, like sound effects, automatic respawns, ammo dumps, and health pickups.

The electronics hardware is based on a Microchip PIC microcontroller, and the firmware provides a comprehensive set of parameters that can be edited before each game. As a result, each tagger can be set to inflict various degrees of damage and rates of fire. A backlit LCD display shows your remaining rounds, health, elapsed time, and who tagged you last. A Winbond ISD2560 ChipCorder provides realistic sound effects that can be easily programmed with .wav files borrowed from video games, movies, or virtually any source.

The body of the tagger is built mainly from aluminum channel and sheet, which are rugged and easy to work with common hand tools. To keep the system eye-safe, an infrared LED and dual-convex (magnifier) lens are used instead of a real laser. The optics assembly is simply a short PVC tube with the lens at one end and the infrared LED on the other.

I started building MilesTag as a hobby, but it’s turned out to be more than that. I’ve spent more time with my kids, become more active, and even launched a small side business. I continue to improve the MilesTag DIY laser tag system, which is in use by many hobbyists around the world. But I also now design hardware and firmware for one of the largest outdoor laser tag manufacturers in the world.