Monthly Archives: December 2014

Breaking Good

Connecting the Dots: How Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak Break Out

After he dropped out of Reed College in Oregon,  in 1974 Steve Jobs joined a small tech company by the name of Atari, working at their Los Gatos facility in California. Legend has it that he showed up in their lobby, scruffy and lacking in perfect bodily hygiene, and stated to the receptionist that he wouldn’t be leaving the premises until he got a job. Instead of calling the police, she brought Al Alcorn to talk to him, and was eventually hired. In spite of being brash and over-confident (or perhaps, BECAUSE of those traits), Atari CEO Nolan Bushnell took a liking to young Steve. One day he approached Jobs with a game idea. We break into the TDE archives to continue the story:

In 1976 Nolan Bushnell offers the young Jobs $750 to put together the hardware for Breakout, a variation on PONG designed by the Atari founder, but instead of knocking the ball back and forth the player uses the paddle to send the ball at a wall of bricks across the top of the screen. The game is black and white, utilizing the old pre-1979 chestnut of overlays on the screen to simulate colour. The main mission is to reduce the amount of dedicated chips used in the construction of the game, thereby greatly reducing the cost to mass manufacture it. Bushnell promises Jobs a bonus of $100 for every chip he eliminates from the design. Even though he is not much of an engineer or ace programmer, Jobs promises to finish the game in four days, when a typical game’s development time would be several months. It is his ace-in-the-hole Wozniak who actually builds the machine, spending four consecutive nights assembling the hardware and still holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The two meet the four day deadline, with Woz shaving the number of required chips down to 45. Jobs receives his money, and setting the tone for their business relationship, he fails to tell his friend about the now $5000 bonus. He pays Wozniak his share of $375 from the original $750 payment and furthermore takes all the credit when Breakout becomes a hit 15,000 unit seller for Atari. But Woz receives far more than simple currency with his fling with Breakout…for instance, one night as he watches technicians apply the overlays onto the Breakout screen in order to simulate coloured bricks, Woz starts thinking about how he could have a computer generate real colours on the screen. The way his later computer designs would introduce colour to the world of personal computers stems directly from his work on the arcade game, as well as his love for gaming in general. His work with Breakout also gives him a valuable education in logic design and its integration with a TV signal. And he uses his version of BASIC language to manipulate his computer version of Breakout, and is amazed how powerful a tool software is in creating games. Woz’s amazingly tight design for Breakout baffles Atari engineers, and it has to be redesigned with more chips added to actually allow it to be manufactured. 

Jobs would later approach Bushnell with the idea of Atari producing a new computer he and Woz had developed, but the Atari boss passed on the offer. Atari would end up competing against that product with their 8-bit 400 and 800 computer lines.  Woz and Jobs did just fine with their own computer: the venerable Apple II, by the Apple Computer Company.

For more information on Breakout!, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Ralph Baer and his amazing Odyssey

Video Game Pioneer Ralph Baer Passes Away

When I started this site 16 years ago, when it came time to cover the Odyssey, the first home video game console, I was fortunate enough to get in contact with its creator, Ralph Baer. I had already written the Odyssey article when I started corresponding with him, and he was gracious enough to give me a lot of feedback on details of the revolutionary system’s development, as well as provide corrections to my research.  I remember being amazed how meticulous Mr. Baer was in his note keeping, and that such a historical figure would take the time to school me on the subject of how the first home video game system had been developed.  It was his precise and detailed reminisces, as well as his generosity of time, that propelled me forward in the early days of The Dot Eaters.

It is with a heavy heart, then, that I relay that Ralph Baer has passed away at the age of 92. I recently profiled Mr. Baer and his amazing invention in a post, so I will repost it here and just say farewell to the man who’s pioneering work set the stage for all the enjoyment video games have delivered over the years:

 

If you’re enjoying a current generation video game behemoth like the PS4 or Xbox One (or, yes, even the Wii U) in your home these days, you might be curious where home video games began, and the person who invented them. Well, let’s set the Wayback Machine to 1966, Sherman, and see how it all started [cue wavy lines]…

Born in Germany in 1922, Ralph Baer and his family escape amidst the growing Nazi tyranny and emigrate to the United States in 1938, when Baer is 16. Graduating from a correspondence course in radio repair, in 1939 – 40 he runs his own radio repair service in New York City. With the outbreak of the war in Europe, Baer serves three years in the US Army, from 1943 – 1946, the final two years overseas during WWII assigned to Military Intelligence. After leaving the army, via the G.I. Bill, in 1949 he graduates from the American Television Institute of Technology (ATIT) in Chicago with a B.S. in Television Engineering. In 1951 he is employed by U.S. defense contractor Loral Electronics Corporation, based out of New York City. Among other assignments at Loral, he is given the task to develop “the world’s best television receiver”, which would include so many technical advances that the public couldn’t help but want it, no matter what the price. It is during this project that his thoughts turn to the passive nature of television and how to tap into the market of 62 million homes already with TV sets, but his idea of working an interactive on-screen sports game into the design comes to naught as Loral brass decide the market wouldn’t bear the ultimate cost of their revolutionary projection TV. Having moved to New Hampshire based military contractor Sanders Associates by 1966, Baer continues to mull over his interactive television concept and one day while waiting for an associate at a New York City bus terminal he scratches down his concepts for a TV based videogame system, which he later transcribes into a 4 page paper. In this he outlines a low-cost device for attaching to a standard TV set, along with a list of game categories that would become staples in the industry, such as Action, Puzzle, Instructional and Sports.

Photo of The brown-box prototype

The brown-box prototype

 

By now the division manager of electronic design at Sanders, Baer has nearly 500 engineers and technicians at his disposal, along with the ability to authorize various projects dealing with electronics. He draws up a schematic based on his TV game design and begins developing the system on the side, and by late 1966 has breadboarded a symbol generator creating manually controlled spots of light that can chase each other around on a TV screen. With the help of fellow Sanders employees Bob Tremblay and Bob Solomon, Bear continues his work in a secret lab inside Sanders known as the “Game Room”, to which only his team has the key. By December of that year they are ready to demonstrate a system that uses the moving spots in a rudimentary game. By using two circuits known as Spot Generators, they create a simple electronic game of “tag” with two spots chasing each other, if one is caught by the other it is wiped out. In January of 1967 Baer puts technician Bill Harrison to work to build the first multi-game unit. It plays chase games, has a light gun and a variety of other games, including a version of hockey where both impact velocity and angle geometry of shots are replicated. Through its various numbered iterations, the game system is titled TV Game Unit. It is more commonly referred to in the lab as The Brown Box, due to the wood-grain adhesive vinyl applied around the chassis by Harrison in an attempt to make the whole thing more attractive as a consumer device. After demonstrating the system to Sander’s Corporate Director of Research and Development Herbert Campman, the project is approved and funds for further research are forwarded. Now working alongside Baer and Harrison is engineer Bill Rusch. Rusch designs a new game, and it is perhaps not surprising that it too harkens back to an archetypal playground activity, using three spot generators to produce two onscreen paddles along with a ball in a game of “catch”. Baer and Harrison further refine the play so that the ball can be served from off-screen when it has been missed by a player, creating a simple ping-pong game. 

After adding a light-gun and some other games, Baer’s Brown Box would be licensed exclusively by Magnavox and released in 1972 as the Odyssey, the world’s first home video game console. It sold 333,000 units up until its discontinuation in 1975, but that wasn’t where the real money was; possessing control of the first home video game patent, Magnavox was able to collect millions of dollars in licensing and lawsuit judgements from anyone attempting to enter the market after PONG became wildly successful.  That includes Nolan Bushnell and Atari, who created PONG.

For more information on the Odyssey, consult your local Dot Eaters entry. We’ll leave you with an amazing video of Ralph Baer demonstrating the Brown Box prototype at Sanders in 1969.

Click image to see early 70's footage of Baer demoing the TV Game Unit

Click image to see 1969 video footage of Baer demoing the TV Game Unit

 

R.I.P. to the father of video games, Ralph Baer.