Saturday, December 18, 2004

Video game history: with and without patents

Jason McIsaac has a discussion of the first video game, stated to have been created in 1958 by William A. Higinbotham at Brookhaven National Labs.

-->The black-and-white game consisted of just two lines and a dot. The lines were shaped like an upside-down “T,” forming the net as though viewed from the side. The dot was the ball. The first video game was also the first multiplayer video game — two players bounced the ball back and forth over the net. No paddles or players were visible onscreen. And you had to keep score in your head, unlike the somewhat similar Pong, which wouldn’t be released for another 14 years.

To play, gamers were given a box with a knob and a button. The knob controlled the angle at which you returned your shot, and you pressed the button to hit the ball. The ball could even hit the net and bounce back. Later, Willie Higinbotham modified the game so that it had a larger display. He also added different levels of gravity. You could play a game “on the Moon,” where the ball would bounce higher because of the weaker gravity, or “on Jupiter,” where the ball appeared to be much heavier. Pretty sophisticated for 1958.<--

Willie Higinbotham did not file patents on the game, because he was a government employee and would achieve no direct benefit. [remember this theme in the history of radio patents, wherein one of the pioneers was an employee of the U.S. weather service and lost out big time?] Higinbotham did have US patents in other areas.

The first patent application for a video game was filed by Ralph Baer on January 15, 1968. PART of the first ever commercially available home videogame system did superficially resemble Higinbotham's game [but was developed by Baer] and was released to Magnavox dealers as the 'Odyssey' in May 1972. Of relevance to the Nichia blue LED saga, Baer offered the deal to RCA, and they turned it down.

Higinbotham did become involved in patent activity. When video games became big business in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, several lawyers interviewed and took depositions from Willie Higinbotham, as the issue of who owned video game technology and who truly created Pong erupted between Atari and Magnavox. In July 1976, Magnavox offers Atari a settlement of a pending suit claiming that PONG violates several Magnavox Odyssey patents. For $700,000, Atari became a "prepaid licensee". Magnavox's generosity in consideration of Atari's fledgling size will work out as a coup for Atari. Soon, Atari grows substantially and retains rights to the patents as a prepaid licensee.

Some patents of Ralph H. Baer include 3,659,285 [Televison Gaming Apparatus], 3,728,480 [Television Gaming and Training Apparatus] , 3,737,566, 3,921,161, 3,993,761, RE28,598 and 4,034,990 [Interactive television gaming system, cited by 32 patents between 1977 and 2004]. Ralph Baer was at the independent inventors conference on August 21, 2004.

from an interview with Ralph Baer on gamerdad:

During the lawsuits, the opposition (Bally-Midway, Seeburg, etc) tried to make the judge believe that our circuits were analog and theirs were digital and hence they didn't fall under the Claims of our patents. The judges ruled otherwise and saw through this ploy in a hurry.

So forget analog computers as a means of playing home "video" games, except in the context of a demo in a lab environment where one or more analog computers were sitting around and one could temporarily borrow one for a "fun" ballistics demo (like Higginbotham's so-called tennis game).

After ten years of litigation in courts from Chicago to San Francisco we collected many tens of millions of dollars. I spent a great deal of time working with our lawyers and testifying in court. The outcomes of all of our lawsuits were completely successful (for our side) and the infringers uniformly had to cough up large sums of money. At the same time, we (Magnavox under the Sanders patents) had well over a hundred patent licensees all over the world in the mid-seventies and collected large amounts of license income from those licenses, also.

We won our lawsuits because our patents covered both what is termed "means plus function"...i.e. we showed in the patents and claimed the concepts of the interaction of machine controlled screen symbols (such as a ball) and player controlled symbols such as the player paddles ( the functions). We also showed how this interaction could be accomplished (the means). Any game made by a manufacturer that exhibited the type of interaction defined by our patents was found to be infringing...and the judges in Federal District Courts and in the Court of Appeals all saw it that way.

I/We did not see it but heard about the demo of the first Pong unit built by Alan Alcort about September of 1972. The minute we got wind of its existence, it was clear that there had to be some reason why a ping-pong arcade game (of all things) popped up from nowhere. It did not take long to find out that Nolan Bushnell and other Nutting Associates employees had signed the guest book at a Magnavox new-product demonstration at the Airport Marina in LA (on May the 26th, 1972 I believe) and that they (including Nolan Bushnell) had played the Odyssey ping-pong gamed hands-on there. Later denials by Bushnell and others in court or in depositions (or to the press) that playing the Odyssey ping-pong game had nothing to do with creating the Pong game were found less than credible by the courts and, in any event, defy logic and common sense. Bushnell's 1972 Computer Space game (being produced by Nutting Associates) was a commercial failure because it was too hard to play. When the visitors saw and played the Odyssey game, at least one light went on in Nolan Bushnell's head: Hey this is neat and easy to play! And secondly, somewhere along the line Bushnell recognized that there was such a thing as a consumer home game market (as introduced by the Odyssey game) and that 40 million homes are a slightly larger base for a new business than a few thousand arcades. And so Atari entered the home video game business in 1975 and made big success of it. But Odyssey had shown the way! With 360,00 games out there by early 1975, it was also a resounding success.


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