Friday, May 31, 2013

The Magnavox Odyssey

A particularly memorable episode of  What's My Line? aired in 1972. In it, the panelists try to suss out what host Larry Blyden and his mystery guest are doing with a television that's out of view. It becomes apparent, as they grasp at straws and ask increasingly irreverent questions, that none of the panelists have any earthly idea what the correct answer is. When Blyden finally reveals that they're playing tennis, the confused looks on the panelists' faces show they still don't follow. And why should they? As far as they knew, television was only for watching. Finally, the other shoe drops: The TV is turned around to show the panelists an image of two white boxes batting a third box across a white line in what could charitably be called a tennis simulation. The mystery guest is identified as Product Manager for Magnavox Inc and the strange, white box on the desk is described as the world's first "electronic beam simulator that's attached to a television", the Magnavox Odyssey.

The Odyssey is the brainchild of Ralph H. Baer, a radio repairman-turned engineer and inventor. In 1966, while working for a defense contractor caller Sanders Associates, Baer began to develop his idea for a consumer-level interactive electronic device which used a television as its display. Working with fellow Sanders engineers Bob Solomon and Bob Tremblay, he created the prototype console and nicknamed it the Brown Box. It was initially capable of drawing two boxes on screen which controlled by the players, with the idea that one player would chase the other in a game of electronic tag. Later in its development, a third "ball" box was added which could move around independently, but still be influenced by the players' actions. After a few more tweaks and added features, the Brown Box prototype was ready for prime time by 1968. Baer patented his idea and shopped his prototype around to several major electronics manufacturers. After a deal with RCA fell through, Magnavox purchased Baer's invention and both Baer and Magnavox engineers spent the next four years developing it into a marketable product.

The production Odyssey was now completely solid state and capable of only black-and-white images, (the Brown Box supported limited color) but otherwise fairly faithful to Baer's prototype. It hit Magnavox dealers' shelves in August 1972. Unfortunately, it met with a tepid consumer response due in part to poor marketing (The commercials left impression that the Odyssey would only work with a Magnavox television.) and an astronomical price tag of over $550 adjusted dollars. Deep discounts and a renewed ad campaign failed to generate much more consumer interest in the Odyssey, and only about 300,000 units were sold before it was discontinued in 1975. Magnavox kept the Odyssey name alive though, applying it to a series of Pong consoles released in the mid 70s and ultimately to a new, completely programmable game console called the Odyssey 2. Though the Odyssey 2 sold many more units than its predecessor, the Great Video Game Crash hit Magnavox hard, and it bowed out of the video game biz altogether in 1983. Ralph Baer went on to develop Milton Bradley's phenomenally popular electronic game, Simon, in 1979. He also spent a great deal of time in court defending his patent from competing game console manufacturers like Atari and Nintendo. He was ultimately successful, and these companies were required to pay royalties for each game console sold, until Baer's patent expired in the early 90s.

So now let's check out the Odyssey. At first glance, it doesn't look all that different from later game consoles, though it's battery-powered and it's completely silent. There's a cartridge slot on the front and a couple of ports in the back that connect to two big, chunky controllers. The controllers themselves are a little more unusual: Horizontal and vertical knobs move the player's block around, Etch-A-Sketch style. A third knob, labeled English, allows you to steer the ball as it moves across the screen, while a reset button typically puts the ball back into play if it leaves the screen. A third port on the console connects to Videogaming's very first hardware add-on, a disturbingly realistic-looking light rifle that actually needs to be cocked each time the trigger is pulled.

It also comes loaded with accessories. In addition to the console, the box contains dice, poker chips, game boards, tokens, score counters, card decks, Monopoly money, and several transparent plastic overlays that fit on the TV screen. There are also six game cartridges included in the box, imaginatively named 1 through 6. The rather thick user manual explains the rules for each game, as well as which cartridges, accessories and overlays are needed to play. In total, 12 games are available out of the box: Table Tennis, Tennis, Football, Hockey, Ski, Submarine, Cat & Mouse, Analogic, Roulette, States, and Simon Says. The light gun accessory adds two more, and a handful of additional games were sold separately. That sounds like a lot, but every single game employs some combination the same basic objects: two player-controlled blocks, a ball, and a vertical wall. This is because the game cartridges contain no program data at all, and the Odyssey has nothing remotely approaching a CPU. Each of the above screen objects is quite literally generated by its own discrete circuit board. When inserted, the game carts simply switch the circuits on and connected them together in such a way to create the desired objects. It's incredibly primitive in design, and yet ingenious in its simplicity. It is a video game console in the most basic sense imagineable.

Of course this means that the Odyssey is dumber than a toaster. It can't keep score or time, enforce a game's rules or even limit where on the screen the players can move. There is of course no AI, so every game requires two people to play. I'll describe a few of the games in detail: In Ski, one player maneuvers his or her dot through a course laid out on the overlay while the other player keeps time and score. It sounds simple enough, but the Etch-A-Sketch controls do add a bit of a challenge. The two tennis games and Hockey are enjoyable, as they play like a sort of proto-Pong. Of course, nothing stops either player from cheating by constantly resetting the ball, noodling with the english knob or running all around the screen. Football is a complicated mess of a game, requiring a game board, several decks of cards, tokens, sticky tape, dice, and about six pages of rules to play. Here,  most of the action takes place on the game board, and the Odyssey is basically used as a down marker. At the other end of the difficulty spectrum, States and Simon Says simply involve one player drawing a card and asking the other to point to a specific US state/body part using the Odyssey. These two games are clearly aimed at a much younger crowd, but I have difficulty imagining that any little kid in the '70s would get much out of steering a white block toward Delaware. My guess is that marathon Odyssey-playing sessions eventually devolved into two people noodling around with a couple of glowing blocks on a TV screen and forgetting the rulebook. Maybe that was entertainment enough in 1972, but judging by the sheer number of closet-fresh Odysseys available on eBay, I'm guessing it wasn't.

So in the end, perhaps the Magnavox Odyssey should be best remembered for what it represented: the birth of a whole new entertainment medium. Edison's earliest films were just glimpses of daily life at the end of the 19th century, but they laid the foundation for a new form of expression and an industry which changed the world overnight. Likewise, the Odyssey demonstrated to the public that there is the potential to do so much more with our televisions than merely watch them. 40 years ago, a panel of celebrities couldn't imagine what life with an interactive electronic device would be like. Today, we can't imagine life without them.

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