Time warp: the birth of games consoles

The forerunner of today’s killer gaming machines was hatched in the labs of an American defence-electronics company by Ralph H Baer forty years ago. His prototype ‘Brown Box’ made it to market some time later (1972) as the Magnavox Odyssey and enjoyed moderate success, but it was the arrival of the table tennis-like Pong in 1975 that really kick started the games phenomenon. Today, the games industry is massive, with worldwide profits rivalling those of the movie entertainment business.

The first ‘video games systems’, as they were called, were primordial compared to the Xbox 360, PS3, Nintendo and PC gaming ‘platforms’ that dominate today. The popular machines from the 1980s – including those from Atari, Intellivision, Nintendo and Sega – progressed from 8-bit processors to 16-, 32- and 64-bit processors over the space of a decade, but even at their best they had less power than a current-model mobile phone. The graphics processors now developed specifically for games are so powerful that they’re being used in supercomputer chips capable of solving mathematical puzzles beyond what today’s computers can do.

The need for superior processing power was – and still is – fuelled by the demand for more realistic games, and the growing sophistication of games over time tracks the increasing power of the console. The hit titles of the early years – Pong, Pac Man and Space Wars, for example – are the artistic equivalent of a child?s scribblings compared to the Renoir-like 3D graphics and surround sound of Halo, Gran Turismo and Final Fantasy. And naturally, this software evolution had an impact on the console’s development.

Initially, for example, games were hard-coded into the console, and that’s all that you got. No more could be added. The ability to amass a vast library of games arrived only with the cartridge, a plastic case containing the game and which slotted into the the console. Used by all major games platforms of the 70s and 80s, this dominated until the growing complexity of games required media with greater storage capacity. In 1988, the first CD-ROM games appeared, and in 2000 Sony’s Playstation 2 debuted the DVD. This year, Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 are supporting high definition games on Blu-ray and HD DVD discs.

Faster, more realistic 3D gaming demanded more complex interfaces too, and so controllers developed from simple buttons and joysticks to ‘game pads’ with combinations of a number of each. Controllers changed shape too, becoming steering wheels, guns, guitars and buzzers. They developed the ability to vibrate in response to the game, communicate wirelessly and, with the Nintendo Wii (2006), transmit player movements to the onscreen action via motion sensors.

The rate of advance in the video gaming arena has been breakneck. Four decades after Pong’s simple pair of paddles batted a single ball across a line on the TV screen we have entertainment consoles that, with their online capabilities, can grab games from the internet, serve as media hubs, network with home computers, and allow scores of people from different continents to simultaneously play the same game, and even talk to each other in real-time.

It’s a fair bet that no-one foresaw what Baer’s Brown Box would become.