The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame: Atari 2600

This was the machine that finally let us play Space Invaders at home

3 min read
Atari console
Moment Editorial/Getty Images

The impact of the Atari 2600 game console is hard to quantify, though US $116 billion might be a good number to start with. That’s a 2018 estimate from Reuters of how much revenue the video-gaming industry had in 2017. It’s enough to put video gaming ahead of the television industry, which brought in $105 billion. And TV is shrinking, while games are growing.

Atari, founded in 1972, was among the first video-game companies and had one of the best pedigrees in the industry. Cofounders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, along with their engineering colleague Al Alcorn, had invented Pong, the first successful arcade game. After just a few years in business, they understood as well as anyone and better than most the critical limitation of the business: The electronics for each game were designed and built for that game alone. Had Atari continued on that path, hardware development would have become ruinously expensive. Further, the approach was completely impractical for the home market—Atari’s next target.

What was needed was general-purpose hardware. Meanwhile, over in the semiconductor industry, they had recently begun making the microprocessor, a sort of general-purpose calculating device that would fit the bill. But microprocessor units (MPUs) were still pretty expensive.

It just so happened MPU prices began plummeting in 1975. MOS Technology had just introduced an 8-bit MPU, the 6502, that was far cheaper than competing devices from more established vendors. Zilog would introduce a similarly inexpensive Z80 the following year. Atari contacted MOS Technology and asked for a smaller version of the MOS Technology chip, and MOS obliged with the 6507, which was in essence a 6502 in a smaller package (28 pins versus 40 for the 6502). The restricted I/O led to some minor performance limitations, but they were immaterial for what Atari wanted to do with the chip in the short run.

Output would also have to be standardized. Where arcade games had built-in displays, a home console would take advantage of the display that was already in nearly every household—a television screen. Atari designed circuitry to output video and sound to television sets, resulting in a custom integrated circuit (IC) that Atari called the Television Interface Adaptor.

The other major system components were the memory cartridge and the game controller. The memory cartridges were ROM (read-only memory) modules, which stored game instructions to be executed by the microprocessor and associated circuitry. The modules could be easily swapped in and out: different module, different game. It wasn’t the first game console with plug-in software modules, but it was the first one that sold well.

Family playing Atari on a TV Family Fun: The Atari 2600 was based on a commodity microprocessor and played games stored on read-only-memory cartridges, two features that would soon become common in the emerging computer-game industry. The system was designed to be connected to an ordinary television set, which the Atari used as a screen. Interfoto/Alamy

It is worth noting that the success of the module approach inspired the creation of a new industry. Several former Atari engineers left to form Activision, widely regarded as the first third-party game developer. Atari perceived third-party development as a threat, by the way, but eventually acceded to an arrangement in which it would collect royalties from other game developers.

The first game controllers, meanwhile, were joysticks and dial controllers. Other input devices followed, including trackballs, paddles, and a keypad.

After its introduction in 1977, the Atari 2600 sold well enough for the first couple of years. But sales really soared in 1980, when the company began marketing a licensed version of the game Space Invaders. Atari built on that success with the release the following year of two of its own titles, Asteroids and Missile Command.

The company undermined itself with poor-quality games, however, including a title associated with the film E.T. that was rushed to market. Atari was already reeling when the U.S. video-game market crashed in 1983. The collapse had a combination of causes, including market saturation and competition from personal computers, which were an even more general-purpose form of hardware. Along the way, Atari was sold, and sold again. Still, the 2600 line survived. The last 2600 was released in 1992.

What was innovative in the 2600 may now seem pedestrian, but that merely underlines how innovative the 2600 was. The principles on which it was built and that it helped to popularize—general-purpose hardware and separate software—have endured for over 40 years.

The Conversation (0)

Acer Goes Big on Glasses-Free, 3D Monitors—Look Out, VR

Is this what’s needed to bring augmented reality to the home office?

4 min read
A standing tablet computer shows a blow out of a car that appears to be coming out of the display.

Content creators are a key target for Acer’s glasses-free 3D.

Acer

Acer, the world’s fifth largest PC brand, wants to take the growing AR/VR market by the horns with its SpatialLabs glasses-free stereoscopic 3D displays.

First teased in 2021 in a variant of Acer’s ConceptD 7 laptop, the technology expands this summer in a pair of portable monitors, the SpatialLabs View and View Pro, and select Acer Predator gaming laptops. The launch is paired with artificial-intelligence-powered software for converting existing 2D content into stereoscopic 3D.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

DARPA Wants a Better, Badder Caspian Sea Monster

Liberty Lifter X-plane will leverage ground effect

4 min read
A rendering of a grey seaplane with twin fuselages and backwards-facing propellers
DARPA

Arguably, the primary job of any military organization is moving enormous amounts of stuff from one place to another as quickly and efficiently as possible. Some of that stuff is weaponry, but the vast majority are things that support that weaponry—fuel, spare parts, personnel, and so on. At the moment, the U.S. military has two options when it comes to transporting large amounts of payload. Option one is boats (a sealift), which are efficient, but also slow and require ports. Option two is planes (an airlift), which are faster by a couple of orders of magnitude, but also expensive and require runways.

To solve this, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to combine traditional sealift and airlift with the Liberty Lifter program, which aims to “design, build, and flight test an affordable, innovative, and disruptive seaplane” that “enables efficient theater-range transport of large payloads at speeds far exceeding existing sea lift platforms.”

Keep Reading ↓ Show less
{"imageShortcodeIds":["29824201"]}

Reduce EMI and EMC Issues with Engineering Simulation Software

Save time and money all while delivering accurate and reliable results

1 min read
Reduce EMI and EMC Issues with Engineering Simulation Software

Electronic components and systems exist today in nearly all consumer and industrial products. A major design consideration in all electronics is electromagnetic interference (EMI) and compatibility (EMC). EMI and EMC issues are complex. They can be hard to detect and can be taxing to a design. With the use of engineering simulation software, design engineers can mitigate issues before entering the prototype testing phase. Avoiding the test-retest cycle with simulation can help save time and money all while delivering robust and reliable products.