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10 Things You Might Not Know About Atari


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Forty years ago, on November 29, 1972, a startup called Atari announced the release of Pong, a coin operated “video game.” The company’s name was taken from the ancient Japanese board game Go, and vaguely translates as “to hit the mark.” In celebration, here are ten things you might not know about Atari.

1. In today’s dollars, you could found Atari for the price of a MacBook Pro.

Nolan Bushnell founded Atari in 1972 with a princely investment of $250. (His co-founder, Ted Dabney, put in an equal amount.) Within five years, the company was worth $28 million. Within ten years, its annual sales reached $2 billion. Many consider Bushnell to be the father of the video game industry.

2. There were early hints that Pong might be a success.

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The Pong prototype was installed at Andy Capp’s, a local bar. Its coin slot came from a Laundromat. The screen was a repurposed television. Quarters dropped into a milk carton. A week after the machine went live, Atari got a call from the bar with bad news: the machine was acting up. When Al Alcorn, the engineer who built Pong, checked on it, he figured out the problem: it was overflowing with quarters. He replaced the milk carton with a bread pan.

3. “Have fun, make money.”

In 1974, an unkempt, sandal-clad hippie walked into Atari’s lobby and demanded a job. He was answering an ad in the San Jose Mercury that read “Have fun, make money.” The hippie wouldn't leave until he got a job. Al Alcorn was called in to help. “I was told, ‘We’ve got a hippie kid in the lobby. He says he’s not going to leave until we hire him. Should we call the cops or let him in?’ I said bring him on in!” The hippie would earn $5 an hour and work as a tech.

Had the personnel director called the cops, they would have arrested Steve Jobs. Other Atari employees: Ron Wayne and Steve Wozniak. The trio would, of course, go on to found Apple.

4. The Gospel According to St. Pong.

Atari’s in-house newsletter was called The Gospel According to St. Pong. (“Founded in service to the Atari family,” read the masthead.) There had been a company-wide contest to come up with a name, and “a committee of Atarians” chose from a list of candidates. Dennis Flinn of the purchasing department was the winner.

5. Wii Fit was great ... when it was invented in 1982.

Atari's Corporate Research Department created the first computerized exercise device. It was called Puffer, and was designed by Tim McGuinness. As written in an internal memo from the company: “There is a whole generation of kids (and adults) out there who aren’t into sports and/or don’t get enough exercise. At the same time there is a huge fitness market. We have seen how kids can become addicted to our video games. We are going to hook up an exercise bike to a video game, where the bike is the controller.”

6. Atari had a fierce competitor ... secretly owned by Atari.

Pinball distributors in the 1970s demanded exclusive deals for products before they would sign contracts. This would have impeded Nolan Bushnell’s ambitious plans to establish an entire industry. To get around the exclusivity requirements, Bushnell and his neighbor, Joe Keenan, secretly formed a second company that would “compete” against Atari, selling slightly modified Atari games to other distributors. They called it Kee Games. Ironically, Atari would later run into management trouble, while Kee Games continued operating smoothly and successfully. As a result, Joe Keenan was brought to Atari and promoted to president of the company.

7. Atari culture set the tone for Silicon Valley.

Atari was well known for its egalitarian work environment. It had a casual dress code, hot tub parties, and beer bashes to celebrate meeting revenue goals. “T-shirts and jeans were something of a status symbol at Atari,” wrote Bill Haslacher, a former writer at Atari. “I swear my boss had a whole T-shirt wardrobe. He even had a T-shirt with a tie painted on it.”

According to Jim Huether, a former Atari game designer, “When I started they just said, 'We want you to do a game in about six months... you have no set hours, we don't even want to see you until the game is almost done.' It was great.”

8. There have been a lot of Pongs.


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Pong’s longevity is notable, and there have been versions of the game on just about every platform out there. In 1975, Atari built a home version that connected to televisions. Other Atari-designed variants include Pong Doubles, Super Pong, and Quadripong. Steve Wozniak programmed the prototype of a single-player version, called Breakout, in a sleepless four-day engineering marathon. Super Breakout followed. Pong’s visibility isn’t limited to consoles and arcades—Paddle 1 and Paddle 2 recently spent time on the silver screen in the film Wreck-It Ralph.

9. The magazine might have been called Atari Power.

When Nintendo’s executives decided to expand to the American market, it considered partnering with Atari for its first console, and releasing it with the Atari brand. The deal fell through, and the Nintendo Advanced Video Gaming System project was stripped of its keyboard and tape-storage, redesigned, and released as the Nintendo Entertainment System.

10. Clean out your desk, Bill.

In a million dollar deal, Atari contracted a company called Microsoft to port the BASIC programming language to the Atari 800. A young developer named Bill Gates was responsible for the project. One year later, the software had yet to be completed, and Alan Miller, an Atari game designer and programmer, took over the project. This very likely makes him the only person to have fired Bill Gates.

Special thanks to Dr. Tim McGuinness for his contribution to this article.

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Stop Your Snoring and Track Your Sleep With a Wi-Fi Smart Pillow
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Everyone could use a better night's rest. The CDC says that only 66 percent of American adults get as much sleep as they should, so if you're spending plenty of time in bed but mostly tossing and turning (or trying to block out your partner's snores), it may be time to smarten up your sleep accessories. As TechCrunch reports, the ZEEQ Smart Pillow improves your sleeping schedule in a multitude of ways, whether you're looking to quiet your snores or need a soothing lullaby to rock you to sleep.

After a successful Kickstarter in 2016, the product is now on sale and ready to get you snoozing. If you're a snorer, the pillow has a microphone designed to listen to the sound of your snores and softly vibrate so that you shift positions to a quieter pose. Accelerometers in the pillow let the sleep tracker know how much you're moving around at night, allowing it to record your sleep stages. Then, you can hook the pillow up to your Amazon Echo or Google Home so that you can have your favorite smart assistant read out the pillow's analysis of your sleep quality and snoring levels the next morning.

The pillow is also equipped with eight different wireless speakers that turn it into an extra-personal musical experience. You can listen to soothing music while you fall asleep, either connecting the pillow to your Spotify or Apple Music account on your phone via Bluetooth or using the built-in relaxation programs. You can even use it to listen to podcasts without disturbing your partner. You can set a timer to turn the music off after a certain period so you don't wake up in the middle of the night still listening to Serial.

And when it's time to wake up, the pillow will analyze your movements to wake you during your lightest sleep stage, again keeping the noise of an alarm from disturbing your partner.

The downside? Suddenly your pillow is just another device with a battery that needs to charge. And forget about using it in a place without Wi-Fi.

The ZEEQ Smart Pillow currently costs $200.

[h/t TechCrunch]

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Forget Horns: Some Trains in Japan Bark Like Dogs to Scare Away Deer
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In Japan, growing deer populations are causing friction on the railways. The number of deer hit by trains each year is increasing, so the Railway Technical Research Institute has come up with a novel idea for curbing the problem, according to the BBC. Researchers there are using the sound of barking dogs to scare deer away from danger zones when trains are approaching, preventing train damage, delays, and of course, deer carnage.

It’s not your standard horn. In pilot tests, Japanese researchers have attached speakers that blare out a combination of sounds designed specifically to ward off deer. First, the recording captures the animals’ attention by playing a snorting sound that deer use as an “alarm call” to warn others of danger. Then, the sound of howling dogs drives the deer away from the tracks so the train can pass.

Before this initiative, the problem of deer congregating on train tracks seemed intractable. Despite the best efforts of railways, the animals aren’t deterred by ropes, barriers, flashing lights, or even lion feces meant to repel them. Kintetsu Railway has had some success with ultrasonic waves along its Osaka line, but many rail companies are still struggling to deal with the issue. Deer flock to railroad tracks for the iron filings that pile up on the rails, using the iron as a dietary supplement. (They have also been known to lick chain link fences.)

The new deer-deterring soundtrack is particularly useful because it's relatively low-tech and would be cheap to implement. Unlike the ultrasonic plan, it doesn’t have to be set up in a particular place or require a lot of new equipment. Played through a speaker on the train, it goes wherever the train goes, and can be deployed whenever necessary. One speaker on each train could do the job for a whole railway line.

The researchers found that the recordings they designed could reduce the number of deer sightings near the train tracks by as much as 45 percent during winter nights, which typically see the highest collision rates. According to the BBC, the noises will only be used in unpopulated areas, reducing the possibility that people living near the train tracks will have to endure the sounds of dogs howling every night for the rest of their lives.

Deer aren't the only animals that Japanese railways have sought to protect against the dangers of railroad tracks. In 2015, the Suma Aqualife Park and the West Japan Railway Company teamed up to create tunnels that could serve as safer rail crossings for the turtles that kept getting hit by trains.

[h/t BBC]

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