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High Times Interviews Father of Video Games

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Interview by Lauren Gonzalez, High Times

In 1951, Ralph Baer, an engineer for the military electronics company Loral, came up with the idea for interactive TV-based entertainment, but was under directive to focus on other things, like computer components for Navy RADAR systems and other military-use technologies. Baer laughs when he says he “didn’t use the word ‘interactive’ because back then,” because no one would have understood what he meant. His idea surfaced again in the mid-sixties, while he was a division manager at Sanders Associates. “The math was simple,” Baer says. “Forty million TV sets in the U.S. Multiply that by one percent. If I could plug something into 400,000 sets, hell, that’s a business.”

Baer, Sanders and Magnavox produced the first home console system in 1972, the Odyssey, the marketing name for Baer’s “Brown Box,” which has been at the Smithsonian Museum for years. While most people refer to Baer as the “Father of Video Games,” you don’t have to search too long to find someone who will argue that Nolan Bushnell, Atari’s founder, started the whole shebang.

Joe Santulli, the editor of Digital Press, finds the question of who fathered the video game a tough one. “I look at Ralph Baer as the father of the video game—the home game system, the video game that you play on your TV set,” he explains. “I look at Bushnell as the father of the video game industry. He really kind of got everything going in the arcades and got a business started out of it first.” Baer, who takes us back to the roots and forward to the future here, tells his side of the story in a book Rolenta Press will publish in Summer 2004.

High Times: How do you like the title, “Father of Video Games?”

Ralph Baer: Well, if somebody wants to give me credit for that, I’ll take it.

HT: A lot of people give you credit for that.

RB: I hope so, but you know about that long battle with you-know-who from California. He had a knack for getting his face on the cameras back in the ‘70s.

HT: Nolan Bushnell.

RB: Yeah. He can’t remember from one year to another what he says, but I like the guy; he’s a nice guy. But he’s also a promoter.

HT:: Anyone who understands the developer and publisher dynamic knows that you were the creator of the technology that made the industry, and he was the one who brought the industry to the public.

RB: I still wonder how much of what he did back in ’68 and ’69 actually made it. When he finished building Computer Space in his daughter’s bedroom, he handed the schematic to Alan Alcorn [Atari programmer] and told him to build a Ping Pong game. Alan Alcorn took one look at his schematics and said, ‘I think this is crap’ and threw them away.

HT: What was Bushnell doing then?

RB: I don’t know what the heck he was doing, and he would never let on. I don’t know how good an engineer he was. Let’s say he was a terrific engineer. So what? He’s one amongst many - myself included. It’s what you do with it that counts.

HT: Let’s talk about you. You came up with the idea of interactive TV entertainment--playing games on the TV set. How did that start?

RB: I had that idea way back when, when I built the [complete black and white] TV set receiver in 1951. I didn’t use the word “interactive” because back then; nobody used that word [laughs]. It was just a vacuum tube then. But I wanted to do something with a TV set other than turn it on and off. I think it was by the fact that we used test equipment and connected two television sets and put a pad on it so you could straighten out the linearity, focus, convergence of the colors, and all that stuff. But this wouldn’t mean a thing to people today because of course they think TV sets have always been like they are, right? You turn them on and they produce a beautiful picture and there aren’t any knobs on front on the back for that matter. But it hasn’t always been that way, you know, it’s like the Model T…you crank to start the thing.

HT: Did the idea come from what you were doing with technology at the time or had you seen something similar? Was it total science fiction at this point?

RB: I think being able to put up patterns and move them around on the screen must have prompted the idea. Here was something you could do with a set, other than stare at it. Chief engineer Sam Lackoff hired Leo Beiser and me to build a TV. Leo and I produced these TV sets based on a one-inch projection—imagine a one-inch tube projecting it on a 70-inch diameter black and white picture because thick tubes were expensive. Then, in 1951, I said to Lackoff, ‘When are we going to start doing something interactive?’ He said, ‘Forget it. We’re already behind schedule. Let’s get this finished.’ That was the end of that. That was the last time that I had television work for many years. The next thing I know, I’m building an analog computer piece for a military RADAR system for the Navy [to track submarines].

You can read the full interview here:


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interesting interview dude-as........he obviously still has a problem with nolan bushnell and who could blame him.....lots of money, kudos and recognition involved...not to mention ego....

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