By the middle of the 20th century television had comfortably made its way into the American living room. And 52.6 million families watched nearly seven hours of TV a day. In the middle of this boom a chief engineer and manager of equipment design for the military electronics firm Saunders Associates had an idea. What if we could use all those millions of television screens for something other than just watching broadcast TV? On September 1, 1966, Ralph H. Baer, a German immigrant, jotted down four pages of notes that outlined his idea of how to use any ordinary television set to play games. His original idea was to sell his "television gaming apparatus" for around $25.
The first game that Baer and technician Bob Tremblay built was Fox & Hound. "The game was to pretend that one spot was a fox and the other a hound. The object was to have the hound chase the fox until he was 'caught' by way of simply touching the spot. It was primitive all right, but it was a videogame -- and it was fun," he told Van Burnham in the book Supercade (2001). Ultimately Baer's four page idea became Magnavox's Odyssey, released in 1972 for $100.
For decades to follow names like Atari, Kalekovision, Playstation, Nintendo and X-Box would connect to our TVs and grow into a multi-billion dollar industry that has surpassed the allure of Hollywood for our entertainment dollars. But the birth and success of a new industry was not the crowning achievement of Baer's box.
Something monumental happened when Baer connected his box to the TV; it transformed the television set into a screen. Before Baer, the hardware of the television set was irrevocably tied to a single function; receiving broadcast TV. Baer's game box decoupled the TV hardware from the TV experience, transforming the TV screen into a screen that could be used for a wide variety of entertainment. Following the game console we've seen a long parade of boxes march through our living rooms hooking up to our TV screens and entertaining us. It's been a train of acronyms: VCR, DVD, VCD, PVR, DVR to name a few.
Over the past few years we're witnessed yet another monumental yet subtle shift in our entertainment. Not only has the Internet come to TV but TV has come to the Internet. Just as Baer's game box transformed the TV set into a screen, the Internet has brought entertainment to all the screens in our lives. Even the very definition of entertainment has been transformed to mean a personalized and fluid mix of TV shows, movies, music, games, apps and social networking. You can check Twitter on your TV. You can watch movies on your iPhone. You can watch TV shows on your laptop. Entertainment has been decoupled from the living room. It can now be personalized to whatever you want to watch, play or browse and then be delivered to any screen we have handy. Entertainment has now become a computer task.
The hardware, software, service and economic implications of this shift are being written today as consumers rush to embrace this new freedom of access and control. But what does it mean when entertainment becomes the leading usage for all our computing devices? How do we take something as rich and engaging a TV and use it as a platform for social interaction? What does the future of game play look like when we can play the game effortlessly across every device we own?
The innovation of Baer's television gaming apparatus wasn't just the ability to play games on the TV. It changed the very definition of what TV and entertainment meant to consumers and industry. Now that the future of entertainment seems to lie on the screens of all of our devices we are in for yet another giant leap. What lies at the other side could be more interesting and far stranger than any of the early experiences we are seeing today.