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Holograms, tanks, psychics… Atari’s unexplored creative paths

By Howard Scott Warshaw. Posted

One of the remarkable things about being at Atari was sharing a pervasive sense that we were changing the world. We felt it happening. We could see it happening. It was obvious we were changing the landscape of entertainment and the meaning of television, yet time would prove we grasped precious few of the myriad ways video games would come to shape the world around us.

One arena in which the video game industry has created a dramatic shift is simulation technology. This used to be the exclusive province of government-funded academic programmes and defence contractors. But the technology and tools created to facilitate the production of video games yielded drastic changes in the economics of simulation. This makes sense, since most video games are about creating new environments or simulating existing ones in which the games may be played. The exciting and inspiring nature of what we produced served as a beacon to innovation seekers of all sorts. They came knocking on the doors of digital consumer entertainment producers in the hope of finding help with (and support for) their special projects. Atari was one of the early leaders in this regard. 

For instance, one day the US Army showed up on the doorstep with a ‘secret mission’ request. They wanted a simulator for training tank commanders, so they commissioned the makers of Battlezone to create a higher-end version, later known as the Bradley Trainer. And to think I came to Atari to avoid military applications. Gotta love that irony.

And it wasn’t unusual to see unusual characters show up with more exotic requests or ideas. A great example is the time a noted physicist and his psychic sidekick came to Atari seeking help with Mindlink, their ESP-based game concept. The physicist was an interesting character: he was an extremely tall and thin man with a mop of sandy hair and bottle-bottom glasses. The psychic was short and muscular with an extraordinarily ordinary bearing. Together, they were quite a pair – the long and the short of it. 

The physicist specialised in paranormal phenomena, and the psychic had apparently proved himself by accurately predicting movements in the silver market for several months (which may have been the source of their initial funding). They wanted a game that used, tested (and ideally developed) psychic abilities, and they hoped Atari could help them move forward with it. The whole affair had a decidedly Last Starfighter-esque quality. After reviewing many video games, they came to me because they felt my games were “the most visually generous.” I found the concept intriguing and was flattered to be chosen for such an opportunity, but I also felt the game would be a total dog and avoided it assiduously. There were several times like this, where I saw a project coming and abruptly turned away. But not E.T. – I really tied myself to the tracks for that one.

Designed as a way of teaching military personnel how to operate a real tank, the Bradley Trainer was an adaptation of Atari’s 1981 arcade game, Battlezone.

Open your mind

The Mindlink episode was an example of how Atari did not change the world. Of course, Atari didn’t need anyone else’s help to not change the world. There were developments and explorations inside Atari which also failed to move the cultural needle, like the holography lab.

Atari created the greatest holography lab the world had ever seen, at a time when everything seemed to be moving in that direction. Once the lab was established, there was the issue of what to do with it. In previous writings, I’ve mentioned my ‘Shower with the Stars’ brainstorming proposal (see issue 29). It might have revolutionised the entire personal hygiene industry! Alas, we’ll never know.

Atari spent several years experimenting with holography; the Cosmos tabletop game system was the result. Briefly shown off in the early eighties, it was never officially released.

Atari also spent an enormous amount of time and money trying to create a handheld digital dictionary. They hired a high-profile scientist to commute from Southern California and create this innovative piece of handy tech. Nowadays, everybody carries one around all the time, but 40 years ago this was a breakthrough concept. 

Atari changed the world, for sure, but not in every way it tried. Even in the world of video games, Atari was late to the market with a next-gen system (which was really a warmed-over version of last-gen tech), so the 5200 never really took off the way it needed. These were nice ideas and they gave Atari places to throw some of the money with which it was being inundated, but none of these projects ever produced much value for the company. 

Sometimes we’re born to greatness, and sometimes we accidentally stumble into greatness when we’re really looking for a restroom. Then there are times when greatness comes crawling to our door, begging us to let it in… and we laugh, slam the door in its face, and send greatness packing. This happened many times at Atari. Let’s review some of the tech innovations Atari refused along the way. 

Ever hear of spreadsheets? The makers of VisiCalc came to Atari with the first prototype spreadsheet. Who needs one of these? I can add. It didn’t take long to reject these people. After all, they weren’t even displaying graphics in their ‘groundbreaking’ project. Interestingly, they ended up releasing it on the Apple II. 

Another unreleased Atari experiment, the Mindlink system would have brought controller-free gaming to eighties living rooms. 

And there was the time late in the game (so to speak) when Nintendo offered Atari the exclusive rights to distribute their NES game system in the United States. After some unsuccessful negotiations and a bit of paranoia, Atari rejected them, too. 

Then there’s the pièce de résistance: can you guess where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak worked just before they opened Apple? Yup, that’s right: Atari. They offered Atari their home computer, but nothing doing. Atari was too smart for that.

One could do an entire series on the big ideas that Atari walked away from. Oh well, we all miss now and then. I guess it comes down to a couple of famous quotes: the unattributed, “Genius must be allowed to fail.” And the golden maxim of Hollywood: “No one ever got fired for saying ‘no’.”

Boom and bust

One of the interesting ways Atari changed the world was by legacy. It took some 10,000 employees who all understood what it was like to work at a company that can literally change the world, and spread them all over the tech industry. One of the key inputs enabling the dotcom boom (and bust) was the legacy of these 10,000 seeds, each one looking to sprout a second round of economic lightning strikes. How many people fell down a rabbit hole while following an ex-Atari dreamer?

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