First-Hand:Video Game and Computer Technology Interaction


Contributed by: Allan Alcorn

The Video Game Meets Computer Technology

It's fascinating to see the evolution in the relationship of video game technology to computer technology. The original Consumer Pong used an N-channel IC that ran at 3.5 MHz that was the highest performance integrated circuit used in a consumer device at that time. In the ’70 the demand for high performance semiconductors and processing power used in video games helped drive the semiconductor business.

Later the demand for realistic graphics created a market for graphics chips. When at Apple, I was asked to attend the IEEE Computer Elements Workshop. In the ‘80’s the conference was primarily mainframe hardware engineers. They were kind enough to invite this little kid from the West Coast. I learned something from that workshop about measuring the performance of a computer.

Performance is useful work over a period of time. What is useful work? It’s what computer performance testing programs called benchmarks measure. But they are last year's workload. The best designers of computers need to know what the next important applications are going to be and that is part of what is discussed at these workshops. The workshop is a small affair where the designers meet and discuss next generation computing.

At one of these workshops there was a lot of tension between the big ECL mainframe boys and us CMOS guys. I remember one workshop session after dinner and drinks. Bob Glorioso, Andy Beckbeshiem from Sun and I were on a panel, saying that these mainframe guys were dinosaurs. They were in the La Brae Tar Pits and didn’t know that they were going to die, and us CMOS guys are going to take over. We were being a little bit outrageous, but we got some real fire from these guys. I remember even getting pitched at one of these workshops by one of the mainframe guys at lunch to get us to try to use an ECL thermal conduction module. Have you ever seen one of these: bricks of steel with water-cooling, you've got to be kidding me. And really, if you look at the technology, the lithography and the speed of CMOS eventually scaling Moore’s Law, just took over.

I had learned from Ivan Sutherland how hard it is for engineers to take on a new technology. That was part of the resistance to CMOS. It's sad, but most engineers don't want to get out of their comfort zone. I tried to build tools inside of Apple to get the engineers better at chip design. Ivan Sutherland had done this when he was at Evans & Sutherland, after they invested in a startup semiconductor company named VLSI Technology. VLSI Technology offered training in chip design so the circuit designers could design their own custom chips. Evans & Sutherland offered the course for their engineers but few wanted to take it. It's very rare to find an engineer that's willing to go in front of a terminal and learn something new, because when you are first learning it, you're bad at it. And you're used to being very skilled at your craft, and now you are just a beginner.

It's a real problem because people don't want to get out of their comfort zone. Alan Kay once invited me to an education and computer offsite in Ojai, California, where we were each given a violin. Alan had invited some musicians to teach us how to play it. We spent an hour every morning for three days learning how to play the violin.

Kay said “I'm doing this because I want you guys to know what it feels like to be incompetent at something. You guys are all very skilled and very good at what you're doing, but I want to put you in that zone of where you're not, and then we're going to talk about how it effects applications for computers in education”. Brilliant…brilliant insight.

When I was developing a plan to teach Apple engineers chip design I asked Ivan Sutherland his advice. He said, “I suggest you hire beautiful women in wet T-shirts for the teachers then maybe the engineers will go.” When I presented the proposal to Apple’s executive staff they had no problem with the idea.

I would encourage any engineer out there to find the way, to take that risk, to look stupid, to feel your way in. Allen Kay said that point of view shift, is worth 50 IQ points. If you're really skilled at CMOS, or Digital Logic and I put you in the food industry…the medical industry, and you understand their problems, now you can apply the your skills to solve problems which they thought were unsolvable. For a while I was the smartest guy in the coin-op arcade business because I knew electronics; I wasn't the smartest electrical engineer, but I was the smartest engineer in the coin-operated business. When I did slot machines, I was the smartest engineer for a while in the slot machine business.

It's not because that you are smarter; but rather because you bring a new set of skills and knowledge into this area. That's where you have impact. It's the seams of--the edges--of where the fields are going and if you put yours skills there, you'll be out there and pushing that edge, and that's where the money is.

I even had a chance to do a demo on superconductivity. From time to time Apple fellows were asked to do a command performance for the executive staff at Apple. I was asked to talk about supercomputing and the new high temperature superconductors. I brought some liquid nitrogen and a sample of the new superconductor material. I did the floating magnet demo for everyone’s amusement and then concluded that this was not going to have any effect on computers. Then I talked about something that I called Apple scream. At the time, at Apple, management didn't know that they had won the war in networking--the most popular network in the world at the time was the Apple Talk network. And management didn't know that this was the most popular home networking technology. I said, Well, now that you've won this war, let's go to the next level; let's make something that can move data at a gigabit using fiber optics and gallium arsenide. We should invest the money to develop this and the connectors to just plug it in without looking. It eventually came out as Firewire. It was Mike Teener’s project. That's how FireWire got started. Mike Teener did it and I thought it was important for Apple, so I pitched it. I used this occasion to pitch it to the exec staff, and it took about five years for Apple to finally digest it.

At the Computer Elements Workshop they had me give a talk on the emerging MPEG standard. They wanted to know how MPEG worked and what the computational requirements were for it. And it would be very, very important because one of the guys at my talk, from IBM, wound up being the head of the MPEG-2 committee after that, because he realized that's the new work load and it was very different than the old tasks. So it's very ironic that our games and very humble technology has morphed into the driving force for the industry.

There is an art to pushing performance in video game technology and still keeping costs down. A good example was, back in the days when we were making the VCS and doing quite well-Synertec was a big supplier to us. I persuaded MOS Technology to grant licenses for the 6502 microprocessor to Synertek and Western Digital. And at one point the engineers were complaining about the instructions set of the 6502. There several instructions which we called “halt and catch fire because” if you happened to try to execute one of these instructions the microprocessor would lockup and you would have to cycle power to recover. We thought we could just fix the microprocessor so when it saw one of these instructions it would just do a “no op”.

We held meetings between the chip designers and our engineers, pretty soon they started saying: “Oh, let's add this instruction; it would be really helpful. Let's add this.” And at some point we realized this was never going to end. I and the VP at Synertek said, “Let’s shoot this thing in the head now. We're just going to leave it the way it is because we couldn't afford it; it would never get done.” At some point you have to shoot the engineers and ship the product. Engineering is the art of the compromise, and good engineering is an artful compromise.

You know that best is the enemy of better. So that's where good management kicks in; that's where management has to understand where to draw the line; otherwise the project will fail because you're trying to make it perfect. And so my adage is, “If you can't fix it, call it a feature.” You know, getting it out with a small team, and at a low cost is more fun and more challenging to me.

Additional Reading from this Author

My Development as an Engineer in the Years Before Atari

The Development of Pong: Early Days of Atari and the Video Game Industry

Building a New Generation of Slot Machines: Silicon Valley Meets Las Vegas