I was saddened to hear that Ralph Baer, creator of the first video game console, passed away yesterday. Baer was already 50 years old when the Magnavox Odyssey was released to the public in 1972, so I was somewhat surprised in 2009 to find that he was not only alive and kicking but that he had a website through which he made himself available. So, I mailed Ralph to ask him about the role of sound, specifically the lack of it, in this pioneering device and was both amazed and delighted when he actually replied! Here is that e-mail exchange in full.
—– Original Message —–
From: “Kenneth Young”
Sent: Wednesday, July 8, 2009 5:59:45 PM GMT -05:00 US/Canada Eastern
Subject: Magnovox Odyssey
Dear Mr. Baer,
I’m giving a talk next week, part of which will include a brief overview of the technological and historical trends of audio in games. Your Brown Box/the Odyssey is obviously an important landmark, not only because it was the first home console, but also because it was silent. I was wondering if you’d be so kind as to fill me in on the specific reasons for the lack of any audio output from the console – was it an unnecessary expense, too technically challenging, simple beeps not considered to be a valuable contribution to the experience of using the console, or was audio output the last thing on your mind given that you were solving bigger, more important challenges?
Any insight you can give me in to the early pioneering days of console development would be much appreciated.
All the best,
Media Molecule Ltd.
Date: Thu, 9 Jul 2009 00:00:33 +0000
Subject: Re: Magnovox Odyssey
For an engineer like me who has been designing and building audio equipment for 60+ years – audio amps, noise reduction devices, audiology hardware, speaker systems, audio test equipment, musical instruments etc – to have ignored the need for sound in our early videogame hardware, is just plain baffling. The fact of the matter is that we just didn’t think of it except in the case of the light gun where we played with sound but dropped it because of cost.
I was an early member of the Audio Engineering Society before WWII and when I came out of the Army in 1946 I built a record player noise reduction circuit to reduce scratch from 78 RPM records at low musical signal levels…probably before Dolbie was out of knee pants.
Everything is obvious in retrospect, I guess. Implementing sound in a ping-pong game is technically easy: You simply use the device (a flip-flop in the case of our hardware) that reverses the direction of the ball in ping-pong upon coincidence with the paddle and tap into that FF’s waveform edge to develop (at a minimum) a transient tat come out of a speaker as a loud click, after it is capacitively coupled from the FF output to a transistor driver which, in turn, feeds the speaker…..but we just didn’t think of it until the Pong arcade game showed up (courtesy of Al Alcorn at Atari).
To whom are you addressing your talk?
Subject: RE: Magnovox Odyssey
Date: Thu, 9 Jul 2009 10:51:59 +0100
That’s wonderful information – thank you so much for sharing it with me.
I’m talking to my industry peers at the Develop Conference in Brighton, England. The focus of the audio track this year is “real-time audio”, and most folk will be talking about many of the new technologies coming online for manipulating and synthesising audio in real-time. The niche of my talk is looking at historical uses of real-time audio manipulation in games, because there are a lot of lessons to be (re)learned. For example, real-time synthesis of music was the norm up until games started using better sounding CD audio and, latterly, digital file formats. Currently, there’s much talk of how inevitable it is that we switch back to real-time synthesis of music once we have enough processing power and tech to be able to synthesise music which can sound as good as a CD. Which is great, because it opens the door to procedural generation of musical score, but we’ve been there before so it’s important to be aware of our heritage to minimise reinventing the wheel and repeating mistakes.
I’d always taken the fact that the Odyssey was silent as just one of those things, but in putting this talk together it bugged me that I didn’t know why. Thanks for satisfying my curiosity – the internet is a wonderful thing!
What a legend!
It is kinda perplexing that an experienced audio engineer like Ralph managed to overlook the low hanging fruit offered by the synchronisation of sound and image, but it is a great example of sound not being at the front of people’s minds irrespective of its power and the potential contribution it can make to the player experience.
Near the end of my aforementioned talk, I looked out and caught sight of this ancient, bald man sitting in the audience in a dark navy blazer (not a common occurrence at a game audio lecture!) – I didn’t get an opportunity to confirm if it was him. To be honest, I didn’t really want to know, because that would have weirded me out.
Watching that video, I can’t help but reflect on this experience and think that it really was Ralph. I feel bad for not interacting with him more, but I’m grateful I got the opportunity to do so.
Rest in peace, Ralph.