After the surprise announcement on Friday, January 13, 1984, that Jack Tramiel is stepping down as the President and CEO of Commodore, he and a group of investors buy the ailing consumer division of Atari for $240 million, taking the reins of the newly renamed Atari Corp. as CEO on July 2. The next day Atari presents its new CEO, holding a press conference at the 1984 Summer CES in Chicago and billing it as “The Day the Future Began”. The future of the coin-op division is that it is spun off the next year to Atari’s old arcade game partners at Namco America, and is renamed Atari Games, Corp. Tramiel remodels the 2600 into the even smaller $50 2600jr the year after. Production of the Atari 2600 ends in 1991; its 14-year run marks it as the longest lasting home video game system in history.
Rewinding back to 1976, Nolan Bushnell is getting tired of the day-to-day operations at Atari, and his constant run-ins with the suits at Warner. He finds his interest drawn to a new project within the company, to develop a national chain of pizza parlours/arcades that intends to be a more family-friendly place to play video games than seedy bars or bowling alleys. He convinces Atari to set up a new department called the Restaurant Operating Division, headed by Gene Landrum. On May 16, 1977, they open a prototype restaurant at the Town and Country Village in San Jose, the grand opening of which is attended by local dignitaries, including San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes. Getting as close as Bushnell ever will to realizing his youthful dreams of becoming a Disney Imagineer, the restaurant concept includes a cast of animatronic characters playing in a musical band for the customers. Atari is wary of expanding the restaurant experiment further, so Bushnell purchases the Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre concept from Warners for $500,000 in June of 1977, and after he leaves the company the following year, Bushnell furthers expansion of PTT. After a successful IPO, share prices rise to over $25 per share through the video game boom. When Bushnell’s non-compete clause from his departure from Atari in 1978 expires, he forms new video game company Sente Technologies in 1983. Like his former company, the name of his new gaming venture comes from the game Go, this term meaning to make the first move. Plans for the new company include arcade games called SAC or Sente Arcade Computer, which would allow operators to change their offerings with just a swap of a cartridge. Riding on the coattails of smash laser game arcade hit Dragon’s Lair, the planned model III SAC games would be laserdisc machines. Sente manages to release a couple dozen conventional arcade games, such as hockey game Hat Trick and the roller-ball controlled Snake Pit, before being folded into Bally/Midway as Bally Sente. Pizza Time Theatre eventually goes bankrupt in 1984, done in by the crashing videogame market and mounting debts via overzealous expansion and acquisitions. Bushnell’s company is then picked up by competitor Showbiz Pizza Place, and the two entities eventually merge into the modern Chuck E. Cheese franchise.
Doing the Robot
Bushnell engages in a myriad of other comeback attempts of varying success, including Androbot, a San Jose-based consumer robotics company that in 1983 produces Topo, the “world’s first personal robot”, with a price tag of $1595. Sporting dimensions of 36.5″ x 24″, the 33-lb, battery operated Topo can move and speak via a remote IR interface card inserted into an Apple IIe or II+ computer, controlled by either joystick or keyboard. Interfaces for the IBM PC, C64 and Atari 8-bit computers are also promised by Androbot. Topo’s speaking ability uses text-to-speech, to simplify the programming process. The robot comes with TopoBASIC, which includes intuitive movement commands such as TFD (forward) and TRT (turn right) and TLT (turn left). Also made available is TopoSoft, a programming language based on Forth, and a TopoLOGO programming package can be purchased for $125. This simplified language allows users without programming skills to easily input directional commands for the robot. The computer needed to program your new electronic buddy is not included in the price, but there is an emergency stop switch on the top of his head in case his programming goes wonky. Topo’s name is derived from the word “topology”, meaning the study of spaces or surfaces. Part of an overall incubation think-tank called Catalyst Technologies, Androbot only manages to sell a few thousand Topos, as well as B.O.B.s (Brains On Board), Topo’s 43 pound, nearly four-foot high big brother that doesn’t require an external computer and runs about $4,000. The brains referred to in his name are represented by three onboard 16-bit CPUs, as well as 3M of RAM. Available options include the Androwagon and Androfridge, which BOB can pull behind him, weaving in and out between party-goers offering pretzels and beers. BOB has a certain amount of autonomy in comparison to his cousin, in that he contains five ultrasonic sensors, such as the autofocus sensors found in cameras, which allow him to move around freely while mapping the dimensions of his environment and the objects within it. He also has two infrared sensors to help him identify living things. Utilizing this feature, programming BOB’s movements can be simplified using his ‘Follow Me’ mode, where the unit will follow the user and remember the path and repeat it on command. Voice synthesis seems out of reach to BOB’s designers, so instead, he draws on a pool of over 100 pre-recorded, digitized phrases. Cartridges are to made available for BOB soon after his release, such as AndroSentry, which turns the robot into a mechanical night watchman for your house.
At the Summer 1983 CES Androbot announces a cheaper robot version called Androman, a 12-inch robot buddy for your 2600. Controllable by joystick, a cartridge for the 2600 would put obstacles on the screen for the device to avoid, and interact with an included 6′x8′ cardboard game playing field and set of data coded game pieces. Androbot also announces a $350 robot named F.R.E.D. (Friendly Robotic Educational Device) that includes a drawing pen attachment and a keypad for programming. It can also talk and sense drop-offs so it won’t roll off a desk. Androbot, however, eventually rolls off a cliff and goes bust, along with the idea of personal robots running households. Bushnell tries again with the company Axlon, that had originally gotten its start making add-ons for the Atari 8-bit computers, including the RAMCRAM memory expansion module. They retool F.R.E.D. into a new robot named Andy, selling for only $120. Also from Axlon comes a line of robotic pets called Petster, as well as the stuffed animal A.G. Bear, which responds to a child’s voice in gibberish “bear language”, as well as converse with others of its kind when in close proximity. The company also makes Party Animals, a line of six hand puppets with a light sensor in the mouth that triggers noise as the child makes them “talk”. Selling for around $25 each, kids can pick such animal pals as Silly Goose, Tetrazzini Turkey, and Dippity Dolphin.
Navigating His Way
Bushnell also gets in on the ground floor of in-car navigation systems, bankrolling the founding of Etak for $500,000. A pioneering company in the field, the idea behind Etak comes to electronics whiz Stanley Honey while navigating aboard Bushnell’s racing yacht. The Etak system uses the old-school nautical navigation method of “dead reckoning”, using the vehicle as a static point and considering the relative speed over time through the landscape around it to determine its position. Since the Polynesians had used dead reckoning to travel large swaths of the Pacific Ocean, Honey appropriates the Polynesian navigational term etak for his invention. In 1985 the company produces two versions of the first practical in-car navigational systems made available on the market, licensed to General Motors: one with a 7″ screen meant for commercial vehicles, selling for $1,595, and a $1,395 system for consumers that contains a 4.5″ display. Information on vehicle speed and direction is fed to the devices via a roof-mounted magnetic compass and magnetic sensors placed near the wheels. Various EtakMap videotape cassettes, sold for $35, are produced providing map coverage for the Bay Area in California, with an eye towards eventually covering SoCal and beyond. Drivers can input their destination via twelve buttons placed around the edge of the CRT display. The dead reckoning system can provide accuracy up to 50 feet, but errors accumulate over time which requires a position reset at the touch of a button. Eventually rendered obsolete by GPS navigation systems, Etak does pave the way for the later ubiquity of in-car map devices. After a series of acquisitions, Etak ends up being sold to Tele Atlas in 2000. Bushnell later pins his hopes on a venture spawned from the failed startup Playnet Technologies, started on July 1, 1999 and called uWink.com, developing Internet-based gaming kiosks. The focus of uWink moves to developing electronic kiosk dining bistros, and after the opening and closing of several restaurants, eventually ends up licensing its technology under the name Tapcode.
Bushnell’s contribution to the modern videogame landscape via the company he created and the console that company produced cannot be overstated, even though we now look back at the blocky graphics and limited colour palette of the VCS/2600 with nostalgic wonder that such a system could be the wellspring of today’s powerhouse monstrosities. It’s not often that a game console, or the company that produces it, penetrates the public consciousness to such an extent that a powerful Hollywood actor produces and stars in a film about its history. However, such a rumour is floated, concerning fervent video game player Leonardo DiCaprio producing and starring as Bushnell in Atari, developed by DiCaprio’s Appian Way production company and optioned in 2008 by Paramount. It makes sense to put the breakneck, roller-coaster story of Atari to film, since the company and its VCS console marked the ascendancy of video games to the top of the entertainment market, along with the programmers that wrestled with the restraining technology to produce some of the greatest games of all time.
Sources (Click to view; inert links kept for historical purposes)
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Bruce Davis… announced that Mediagenic has reached an agreement with the successors to the Magnavox Company, providing for long term payments of $6.6 million in patent infringement damages awarded to Magnavox over eleven video game cartridges released by Activision (Mediagenic) for the Atari 2600. Mediagenic will make monthly payments of $150,000 to Magnavox from July 1990 to December 1993, with a balloon payment due in December 1993. Hunter, David. “Robots Come Home.” Softtalk Aug. 1983: 144-57. Softalk V3n12 Aug 1983. Internet Archive. Web. 18 Feb. 2016. Half an hour after opening the box and removing the thirty-three-pound plastic and steel robot…;Topo is controlled at this point through a remote radio link that connects to the Apple via an expansion board in slot 5.;Programming Topo in its TopoBasic is a snap…the commands are easy to remember – TFD moves Topo forward…TRT turns Topo right; TLT turns topo left…;Topo also works with Androbot’s special version of Logo – TopoLogo.; …the robot can also be programmed with TopoForth…;With AndroSentry, on of the planned plug-in cartridges, B.O.B. with reportedly be able to patrol and safeguard your house.Ahl, David H. “1983 Summer Consumer Electronics Show.” Creative Computing Sept. 1983: 200-22. Creative Computing Magazine (September 1983) Volume 09 Number 09. Internet Archive. Web. 25 Feb. 2016. Androbot also introduced AndroMan…designed to be used with an Atari VCS and comes with a game cartridge, transmitter, 6′x8′ cardboard game playing field, set of game pieces imprinted with coded data…“Hotline: Atari to Market Robots.” Electronic Games May 1984: 8. Electronic Games – Volume 02 Number 12 (1984-05)(Reese Communications)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 09 Feb. 2016. Atari has entered into an agreement with Nolan Bushnell to market a line of products from his new company, Androbot, Inc. Image of Stan Lee playing Spider-Man from Blip: The Video Game Magazine, “Spider-Man Plays SPIDER-MAN!”, photographer Michael Tweed, pg. 3, Vol. 1 Num. 2, Mar. 1983 Herrington, Peggy. “The Robots Are Coming.” RUN Aug. 1984: 70-76. Bombjack.org. Web. Dec. 2016. B.O.B. stands just under four feet tall… One of it’s [B.O.B.] best features is a Follow Me mode, which makes teaching it to follow a path very easy – you walk and it follows. It will remember the route and repeat it by itself on command. …F.R.E.D., which is programmable with its own seperate keypad… [F.R.E.D.] can talk, draw and sense a void so that it doesn’t fall off the table. It sells for under $400. Image of Etak navigational system, as well as other information, from New York magazine, “Star Tech: Directional Signals” by Phoebe Hoban, pgs. 14-16, Jul 15 1985 Leyenberger, Arthur. “The New Atari.” ANALOG Sept. 1984: n. pag. Web.Byte, “Byelines: Reader’s Digest Buys The Source” by Sol Libes, pgs. 214-215, Dec 1980. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Byte magazine collection Antic, “Dial-A-Game” by Deborah Burns, pgs. 82,84, July 1983 Discovery Online, You Shoulda Been There — Pong – www.discovery.com/stories/history/toys/PONG/birthday1.html Electronic Games, Kaboom! ad, Winter 1981, back page Compute!, “Atari’s New Add-On Computer For VCS 2600 Game Machine” by Tom R. Halfhill, pgs. 44-46, May 1983 New York magazine, “On Madison Avenue: The Grant Tinker Show” by Bernice Kanner, pgs. 16-20, Nov 29 1982 Atari 2600 History and Commentary – www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Heights/9176/2600essy.html Newsweek, “It’s All Fun and Games” Bushnell Interview, pg. 12, Aug. 18, 2003 Bushnell, Nolan. “How to Do It Your Way.” MicroKids Mar. 1984: 40-43. MicroKids – Issue 02 Volume 01 No 02 (1984-03)(Microkids Publishing)(US). Internet Archive. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. Image of Bushnell holding pizza and tokens, and image of Bushnell at Catalyst Technologies, photos by Roger Ressmeyer.InfoWorld, Androbot advertisement, pg. 26-27, dec. 26, 1983 Popular Science, “New add-ons turn video games into computers”, by Myron Berger, pgs. 114-115, 166, Oct 1983