by NAT FRIEDLAND
Nolan Bushnell, the Silicon Valley legend who
brought out the first videogame, "Pong," and founded the Atari company
has tooled up for his first major push into the consumer electronics market
since his Atari non-competition contract ran out in November 1983.
He's gambling that significant numbers of computer hobbyists are eager to step into 3-D interaction with what he calls "the peripheral of the '80s" - robots.
But judging from the tremendous reader response to the three-part Antic robot series (12/83, 1/84 and 6/84) as well as the eager questions about robots that we are asked every time someone from Antic speaks at a users' group, Bushnell may well be right again.
Bushnell's Sunnyvale-based Axlon company is producing the first mass-merchandised low cost computer-programmable robot, the $119.95 Andy.
Before this summmer, Andys made in Hong Kong are supposed to start arriving at major retail outlets like Toys 'R' Us. Bushnell believes that the price can eventually be brought down to $70, after enough robots have been manufactured to create economies of scale.
However, unlike so many of the "coming soon" products Antic covers, a preview edition of Andy is available right now. Axlon has the components to assemble 10,000 Andys at its Sunnyvale workshop. And these robots are now being marketed via mail-order ads in Antic and other key computer magazines as well as via direct mailing to our subscribers.
The Antic Editors have seen Andy in action both at the magazine office and at Axlon. We've seen other affordable robot models too and Andy is clearly the most programmable and most versatile "training robot" so far.
Andy's long cord plugs into joystick port 2 of an Atari 800, 800XL, or 600XL with 48K expansion (or a Commodore 64, for that matter). Direct joystick control is available via port 1. But most programmers will probably be more interested in getting Andy's responses to a series of instructions in BASIC.
The included disk software also includes a "Personality Editor" that lets the non-programmers in the family set up robotic behavior patterns by using English, Logo-like, or BASIC-like commands plus menu options.
Andy has feedback sensors for light, sound and touch. The robot can wheel its way through mazes, roll through a complex programmed route, automatically back off from immovable obstacles it touches head-on. It makes sounds as it maneuvers at two speeds on all floor surfaces.
Andy admittedly can't do much that's immediately useful. Andy is being marketed as the first home introduction to current robotics technology. The theme is, "Andy can't bring you breakfast in bed, but he will give you food for thought."
Nolan Bushnell loves having fun with technology His black-glass desk is like what the boss of the computer company had in "Tron." The desk has two built-in computer monitors, a pull-out keyboard and a full line-up of LEDs and switches that control things like window shades and the hidden video projection screen.
"It's great when it's all working, but like most prototypes it breaks down a lot," said Bushnell. He's a tall, bearded former engineer from Utah. And even people who disapprove of his flamboyant business style have to concede that the man has monumental charm and charisma.
Antic's exclusive interview started with Bushnell wanting to know all the latest Atari gossip. "You never forget your children," he laughed. The Atari 400 and 800 computers were developed while he owned the company, but marketed under the Warner Communications management.
"I think the biggest mistakes Warner/Atari made were closing off the architecture and the serial bus of the computers," he said. "It was wanton mishandling of technologically superior machines. At least now I can be cautiously optimistic that Atari will prevail under Jack Tramiel. And all those evangelical Atari users will be vindicated."
Historical commentaries having been made, Bushnell swiftly turned the conversation to robots. "I believe that personal computers are essentially robots without limbs," he said. "And it's going to take an breakthrough in useful home robots to move computers onto a ten-times greater level of acceptance during the next five years."
Bushnell admitted this breakthrough hasn't been made yet. "What we really need is the right software-a VisiCalc for robots," he said.
But he feels that even now robots can be challenging experimental tools for personal computer users. "It's a new horizon for the hobbyist, artificial intelligence and personality simulations. It can develop an additional level of awareness about how people perceive emotional states."
Bushnell said, "True robot pets are just about here. It's a lot easier to simulate a stalwart pal that's more entertaining than a real pet, than it is to computerize actual high-level reasoning or operation of an opposable thumb."
Going along with this line of thinking, Axlon also has a 1985 line of MicroPet toys for the non-computing public. They're cute enough to make Cabbage Patch Dolls look like wallflowers-sort of like miniature Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater characters on hidden wheels.
The MicroPets aren't programmable. But since they were designed after Andy, they tend to have slightly more sophisticated sensors which will obviously be showing up in later Andy models.
One goofy looking cat, MicroPet, purrs when you stroke its fake fur. The MicroPets roll around making silly noises. They'll come towards you if you clap your hands. When they get stuck in dark corners under the furniture, they simply turn off their motors and go to sleep until awakened by a handclap.
The projected price is $59.95 and MicroPets will have their own "Pet Shop" displays at department stores with little yards where they can roll around.
We also spotted lying around Axlon a $49.95 baby-talking Teddy Bear that responds to your speech rhythms. And there were various infra-red beam guns that are apparently part of some cops-and-robbers type of survival game.
With all this electronic creativity coming out of Axlon, it looks as if Nolan Bushnell once again has a shot at dramatically changing the way we interact with our world.
His associates, a number of them formerly key executives at Atari, say that Bushnell is in the office daily and is totally involved with everything going on. This dedication contrasts with Bushnell's past track record-which he freely admitted-of getting bored with his companies after the start-up phase.
It's possible that Bushnell may be settling down as he gets a little older. He probably also has a an intense need to prove something. Something that's only a bit more subtle than Jack Tramiel's overwhelming drive to beat his former Commodore partners by making Atari #1.
Much of the established business press has written off Nolan Bushnell as a one-hit wonder who fell out of touch with the market after classic arcade videogames lost momentum. The pundits say that after all, Bushnell lost interest in running a fast-expanding restaurant chain and Pizza Time Theater wound up in bankruptcy.
I think it's clear that Bushnell is now fiercely determined to go all-out and prove decisively that he's still the leader in electronic entertainment technology.