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Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast
Interviewer: Kevin Savetz
KS: I’m Kevin Savetz, and this is an interview episode of Antic, the Atari 8-bit podcast. Steve Davis worked in the Atari’s advanced research lab under Alan Kay for five or six years, where he worked on several skunk works projects including a laser disc player controlled by an Atari 800, an Atari 800-based local area network, and artificial intelligence projects. This interview occurred May 11, 2015.
SD: I give you a background and you can say great, went too long, and just hang up I guess. I started out… I worked at Warner Communications in New York, and worked my way west. Went to the cable company in Columbus, where we were doing a two-way cable interactive system called “cube.” That was in 1977, and then I wanted to… there were some software problems, so I got transferred out transferred out... transferred myself out to the west coast, to work with the group that was doing the software on the West Coast. That was my intent, was to try to get out to the west coast. So I had an office in Burbank, at the back studio lot. At that point Warner had purchased Atari, I believe. That was around 1978-ish… that area. So I then worked for a guy named Alan Kay, who ran the advanced research for Atari, but he was in charge of advanced research, and I had the secret little lab in Burbank back lot, in a trailer. It was a building, it was a trailer made of trailers next to… Right in middle of a movie lot. We had software development and hardware development in that little facility. So we had to use Atari stuff, since we were owned by Atari. We developed what I think was the first video disc controlling system using an Atari 800 for it. Where you could… It was a video disc of space-travel, and you can go from… visit the planets and pilot yourself, using the Atari 800, and it would take you to it using a Pioneer video disc system.
KS: Now was this meant to be like an educational sort of title?
SD: It was supposed to be “arty.” You know like you could zoom into planets and so the computer knew what was on the disk, and it would direct the video disc to play it. That was a large 12 inch video disc. That was demonstrated actually, in Paris. It was great working for them. It was demonstrated at the Pompidou Museum in Paris. Again it was the first computer-controlled video disc, video system… commercial. We did… we had an office network, LAN, tying all of the Atari animators together. This is in the same…1980-ish. It may have been the first LAN. I don’t know.
KS: This was a LAN of Atari 800s?
SD: 800’s. You know, all talking to each other.
KS: Wow. So you could share files? Or what would it do?
SD: You could share files, and to communicate back-and-forth; send messages. The other thing you used… during that time, I got involved with wireless games, and we actually used the Atari 2600. You know all the stuff about all the cartridges being dug up, and all that. The idea there was, and I made a proposal, and then my partner that we were in the lab, a guy named Jerry McLaughlin, to replace those cartridges, with a wireless cartridge.
KS: Ok, so tell me more.
SD: The wireless cartridge concept was, instead of having to “hope” to sell 10-million games, and manufacture millions of cartridges which may or may not sell, they had the idea… gee, let’s make it wireless, and you will just be able to download games, and you’d pay for it that way.
KS: So was this the kind of thing where it was delivered over cable, television cable or…
SD: No, it was over FM subcarrier. There is no other way to get information to the home. So we built a few of those cartridges and developed some high speed subcarrier stuff and we loaded… Put it on local radio stations, and sent demos of the games over the air. It sort of worked. It worked okay. The reception was always an issue, but you get a menu of, you know; we’d play the top 20 games, let’s say. So you’d get a rotating menu of 20 games and you would select one, then it would get downloaded to your cartridge, and it would be stored in your cartridge.
KS: Could the cartridge store multiple games? Or if you want to change games, would have to go back to the receiving mode?
SD: Yeah you’d go back to the main menu and download another game. Because it didn’t have much storage. It just had RAM I think it. It would just would save it. It would emulate a cartridge. I don’t think they had flash memory, so it just would load it onto the Atari game, basically.
KS: Was there a provision built in for actually buying, or purchasing, a game? Or did you just purchase access?
SD: No you would buy it. I think the concept was, I think you had a code. It was scrambled, so you had a code, they would give you access to these games, you’d pay for a monthly fee. I don’t know… That was neat. At that time Atari was falling apart. I was spun off from Atari, Warner gave us some money to start our own little lab. I think it was Manny Gerard, gave us some money… some funding… to salvage some of this technology. We had a little lab in Santa Monica for a while, and did some more wireless stuff, and that lasted about five years.
KS: Was that a separate company from Atari? Or was that…
SD: Yeah. It was a separate company, but if we ever were successful, we would share with Warner. It was called Golem Labs. Logo was a one-eyed happy face.
KS: I want to get back to the… I want to go back to the first thing you mentioned, the laser disc thing. So I’ve heard… I’ve seen pictures… a couple of pictures of like a kiosk. It was like a kiosk like for a store where you could... that could show off the features of the Atari, that used a laser disk thing, and I believe that laser disk may have been shown at the Consumer Electronic Show or something like that, could you…
SD: Again, it was piloted by an Atari 800. There was… Pioneer Electronics was the inventor of the laser disc. So, I’m trying to remember… I know they had a kiosk made up with it inside, and that kiosk was what was dragged over to Paris. So then the guy that ran that, was in charge of all that program, was Alan Kay.
KS: I still need to talk to him. So I heard a story in an interview I did, and I like verification on this, and I’m trying. But it was someone who said that there was… the laser disc player needed to be ready for some show, maybe it was CES, and it was almost ready, but it wasn’t quite working. So for the show, they put a guy, they hid a guy, under the table or something to manually control laser disc.
SD: I wouldn’t doubt it, but I never heard the story. I wouldn’t doubt it. No, I never heard that, so I can’t verify it. But I wouldn’t doubt it. I would tell you… just visually things that stick in my mind. Again my office was sort of… There was an old TV show called “Fantasy Island,” and I was on that set, so I mean I met Ricardo Montoban was always in our office, but things I remember flying up… I would fly up to Atari, to their main office, to see my boss you know once-a-month or once every couple weeks, whenever it was, and I remember people wearing snakes around their necks. Like pythons. Which I thought was strange, but I was east coast, so I guess I wasn’t really…
KS: Why were you involved with the Fantasy Island people?
SD: That’s where the set was.. That’s where our office was right next to “the plane.”
KS: “The plane”. That’s wild.
SD: The plane was about 6-feet long. That’s all it was. In the ocean was a little dish of water. That’s my involvement with that. Everybody was sort of very smart, except for myself I guess, and they all sort of spun off and did their own thing afterwards.
KS: How did you get hired originally?
SD: Originally I was in New York, and I worked for… I worked for a small company out in Connecticut and that company was… I got some involved in some very weird stuff, and the company sort of… I want to go off and do my own thing, and I met somebody who introduced me to some people at Warner Communications, and they were doing this two-way interactive communications system I mentioned. So I developed all of the computer systems for that, and began to work with Pioneer Electronics on their cable converter box. So that’s how I got involved… then Atari… then I wanted to be on the west coast, so I talked myself… talked everybody into sending me to the west coast, and since I was there, they put me under Alan Kay, and the only other strong memory I had was the guys in New York asked me to look at was going on at Atari. What my thoughts were. That’s when there were falling apart. I forget the guys’ name. Who was the underwear salesman… sock salesman… Ray…
KS: Ray Kassar.
SD: First name was Ray. I went out there, and I went to look at what was going on in the offices. This is a true story: open the door, there nobody was there… that I could find. But the parking lot was full of Mercedes… 240D’s. You know I wandered around the building, and there was nobody there. I open up in this one door, and there is like hundreds of people partying. With party hats on. Not exaggerating. And I said okay. I called… I left the building… I called the guy in New York, and said “it doesn’t look good.” He said “what would you suggest?” I said “How about getting a bulldozer and demoing the building with everybody in it.” He didn’t take me seriously. That was Manny Gerard.
KS: You’re harsh, Steve. Bulldoze the whole place.
SD: I guess everybody was always partying, so there was... I guess if you make a lot of… they make millions of dollars on the cartridges, they would not want to work.
KS: So did you have a sense of the LAN product, and the laser disc thing, and the wireless thing… You helped develop these amazing things. Why did they not ever come out as products? Do you have any sense of that?
SD: Well, really….take the wireless thing. You need a network. You need a serious investment in a wireless network, you know similar to building cell phones, and cell phone towers. There was nobody… and Warner Communications was an entertainment company, really. They look at things short term. They would say “we’re going to make a movie,” and they would make $100 million on a movie, and move on. Atari was pretty successful. It was like making a big movie, they made $1 billion and they moved on. They were very smart, and they weren’t a high-tech company in that way. They were a company to make entertainment and show business. So I don’t think that there was that management; that focused investing of a lot of money into long-range technical advances. People had hoped that they would do that, but… I know Alan Kay did. But they did not have the persistence, it wasn’t their thing. You know they were very, very successful. They made a lot of money, they didn’t really want to lose it all investing into something that was not a sure thing. So no, it was never pursued. You know Pioneer developed this laser disc, but never pursued it. They didn’t reduce it in size, make it a different size, and you know going down to a whole different... But I guess there was enough spinoffs or ideas from that percolated throughout the industry.
KS: That’s true. Can you think of other “skunk-worky” type things that you guys worked on?
SD: Was there any quirky things… Well they were into artificial intelligence. There was a battle about that. Whether that would really be real or not. Alan Kay was really looking at that, but there was no real long-range plan on that. Lots of people writing software for artificial intelligence. Quirky things... Most quirky thing was the wireless stuff I think; the wireless games; that was the most interesting, and hardest to do. I mean the quirky things were the artificial intelligence, there was an immense amount of money spent on that. It was not that I’m aware of.
KS: You misheard me, but you asked almost a better question. I said “skunk-worky”. No quirky. But quirky is good.
SD: Skunk-works. No, I guess. Our little lab was skunk-works, and most people had never heard of it. They may have had other little groups that were spun off, and Alan believed it, like HP used to spinoff groups that were successful. You know Xerox Park is where all these people came from. So there was a philosophy to spinoff small groups, just give them some seed money and see what happens. You know, not have any control and just let them go. So that was a philosophy there for a while. When you’re making billions of dollars you can do that.
KS: Sure. So I have here on the timeline it that said… I just want to kind of verify. It said you were part of Atari’s “cyan engineering.” Is that what like the department you were in? Was that inaccurate or…
SD: It was in our department. It was advanced research and development, owned by Alan Kay, that would be the formal… I don’t know if there’s a name for that. Maybe it was cyan… He had a bunch of… He had a lot of people.
KS: Did you… how long were you there at Atari?
SD: I moved to California in 1978-ish and was there for 5 to 6 years until they sort of folded, which was in the early 80s. So I was there during… I came there when things had been flying high. There was another spinoff guy who I stayed in contact with who did Chuck E. Cheese. Are you familiar with that?
KS: Sure, yeah. That was Nolan’s other big venture.
SD: Yeah, yeah. There were very smart people doing that. But a lot of those people at worked on that came from Atari.
KS: So after they shut down the advanced research department, what did you do?
SD: They gave me many I started my own little company. I brought in two or three guys, and we tried to perfect that wireless system.
KS: And how did that go?
SD: We actually sold a bunch of the stuff to, here’s a weird one: the Association for the Blind in Spain. They called it “Once”. They would distribute lottery information to kiosks, with this technology. We made 10,000 of these things, and we shipped them to Spain, and they refused to pay us. That was one whole thing. Then sued them and they paid us. But they did pay us, so it worked out. Then the cell phone came out, and obsoleted all the stuff. It still has a niche. Every time you get traffic information in your car, that’s sent over sub-carrier. Open to your radio. That’s sort of a funny little spinoff.
KS: Cool. What haven’t I asked you about your Atari days, that I should have?
SD: I don’t know, I think it was a neat time. You dealt with… just very smart people. It was fun to talk to them, and meet them. They were quirky. People had strange ideas, and most of them were... I mean they’re real creative people… they were just really creative people, and it was fun being around them. It was just a neat time, actually. Forget about the business side, about people making money from it. Of course never much into that, I was into the creativity part.
KS: What was that?
SD: Most of the creative people really weren’t into making money, they were just into being creative.
KS: It seems like you are on the fun side of business. You just got to spend money and try to invent things?
SD: Right, it was nice. You know all the success and all the hard work of people making games, paid terrific. It was a good opportunity that they sent us a budget to support strange ideas, basically. I don’t know very many companies now that do that.
KS: Well, I don’t think a LAN is a strange idea. That was a very forward-thinking concept.
SD: Right, because people didn’t have home computers; networks in their offices. Also, the same little group, we put a system in Mexico.
KS: Can you say that again?
SD: We put one of these wireless systems in Mexico, that was wild. Where they sent stock information to offices. Over the same type of FM networks.
KS: That was part of your follow-up business?
SD: Yeah, that was part of this little company that I formed.
KS: Atari users listen to this podcast, and if you were going to send them a message, to the Atari community that still exists, what would you tell them?
SD: Ok, if anybody remembers the Burbank Bank Lot give me a call. It’s a very select few. Just like every day they would burn the building down next to us, then un-burn it.
KS: Every day they would what?
SD: There was a building next door they used to have fires. They would simulate burning it down. So you’re having a meeting, and you look out the window, and this building is burning. For a movie or a set. Then they would turn off the gas, and it would stop. So it was being part of like a big major concert. That was my feeling. A lot of fun. I tried to sell Apple something, and they actually tried it out.
KS: Say that again, you tried to…
SD: I tried to get them interested in some of this stuff. I mean they had their… much better ways today of transmitting information. The only thing neat about it is if you want to send something to 10 million people… a hundred million people at once, at no cost basically, this was the way of doing it.
KS: It seems like if anyone had any sort of infrastructure to distribute something to a large number of people, it would be Warner.
SD: Right, that was the concept. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to run this.
KS: Thank you. I appreciate your time this morning.