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Atari Breakout: The Best Video Game of All Time?

Breakout—as designed by Steve Wozniak—was a manufacturing nightmare

2 min read
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atari breakout game screen showing a paddle at bottom and rows of colored bricks and two score fields at top
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Breakout was the best video game ever invented, many designers say, because it was the first true video game. Before Breakout, all were games like Pong—imitations of real life. With Breakout, a single paddle was used to direct a ball at a wall of colored bricks. Contact made a brick vanish and the ball change speed. The game could never exist in any medium other than video.

Like Pong, the specifications for Breakout—its look and game rules—were defined by Nolan Bushnell at Atari Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif. But along with the specs came an engineering challenge in 1975: design the game with less than 50 chips, and the designer would receive $700; design the game with less than 40 chips, and the designer would receive $1000. Most games at that time contained over 100 chips. Steven Jobs, now president of Apple Computer, Santa Clara, Calif., was hanging around Atari at that time. “He was dirt poor,” recalled Allan Alcorn, who joined Atari at its formation. Atari’s design offer was “good cash”—to Mr. Jobs. Mr. Alcorn remembered that Mr. Jobs quickly designed the game with fewer than 50 chips. He had help. He called on his friend, Steven Wozniak, who later designed the Apple computer.

This article was first published as "Breakout: a video breakthrough in games." It appeared in the December 1982 issue of IEEE Spectrum as part of a special report, “Video games: The electronic big bang.” A PDF version is available on IEEE Xplore.

Mr. Jobs had to make a trip to Oregon, Mr. Wozniak related, “so we just had four days.” Mr. Wozniak went to his regular job at Hewlett-Packard during the day and joined Mr. Jobs at Atari at night. “We got it down to 45 chips, and got the bugs out, but after four days we wouldn’t have done anything to get it down further,” Mr. Wozniak said.

They got their bonus, but, Mr. Alcorn recalled, the game used such minimized logic it was impossible to repair.

Larry Kaplan, a designer who was also at Atari at that time, explained; “What Woz or Jobs liked to do was to design things that were parallel sequential, so at a given point in time this chip was used in one part of the circuit and three microseconds later it was used in a different part of the circuit. It’s a dream, but it’s impossible to debug or produce.”

Breakout sat in the Atari lab for eight months. Then the same design was reworked with 100 ICs before it was put into production.

Editor’s note (January 2022): The financial terms described were those explained to me by Steve Wozniak in 1982. Years later, Wozniak discovered to his dismay that the actual bonus received was $5000—and Steve Jobs kept it for himself.

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Vanadium Anodes for Faster-charging, Longer-lived Batteries

Startup TyFast aims for 3-minute charging, 20,000-cycle life

3 min read
A foil rectangle labelled Tyfast, with two silver squares coming out of the top.

Startup Tyfast is making batteries based on a new anode material that allow it to charge in minutes and last for several thousands of charge cycles

Tyfast

To fulfill the vision of EVs that travel a thousand miles or phones that run for days on a single charge, most battery developers are racing to make batteries that can pack twice the energy in the same weight.

Not startup Tyfast, which is “approaching next-generation battery development in a counter-current direction,” says GJ la O’, CEO and cofounder of the 2021 spinoff from the University of California, San Diego.

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IEEE STEM Activity Kits Are In Demand at 150 U.S. Public Libraries

Kids can build robots, write code, and design video games

4 min read
Two boys and one girl standing in front of a computer monitor. On the left side of the monitor is a backpack containing a science activity kit.

These youngsters are checking out one of their local library’s IEEE-funded science activity kits.

John Zulaski

More than 150 public libraries throughout the central United States now lend out activity kits that let children explore just about any aspect of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The kids can check them out just like they would a book. The kits teach youngsters what engineers do, as well as how to code, build robots, design video games, and create animations.

The collections have been made possible by the IEEE Region 4 Science Kits for Public Libraries program with funding from Region 4 members and corporate sponsors. The SKPL program is the brainchild of IEEE Life Senior Member John A. Zulaski, the chair of the SKPL committee.

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A Multiphysics Approach to Designing Fuel Cells for Electric Vehicles

White paper on fuel cell modeling and simulation

1 min read
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Comsol

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) often reach higher energy density and exhibit greater efficiency than battery EVs; however, they also have high manufacturing costs, limited service life, and relatively low power density.

Modeling and simulation can improve fuel cell design and optimize EV performance. Learn more in this white paper.