While Atari’s legacy was built on Pong (1972) and the synthetic woodgrain of the Atari 2600, the iconic videogame company was secretly developing VR technology all the way back in the early ‘80s.
“VR definitely would have happened, starting first in the arcades,” said Scott Fisher, who was in charge of a VR project at the company’s Sunnyvale Research Lab in 1982, a year before Atari would begin to collapse inward on itself.
That’s right. 1982. This date puts Atari out in front of almost every major innovator on the nascent VR scene. They were about 10 years ahead of the failed VR invasion of the ‘90s. And about five years prior to Jaron Lanier christening VR with the name “VR.” Considering how VR wasn’t even officially a thing at that time, it’s remarkable to think that Atari was preparing to storm shopping malls and Chuck E. Cheese’s with VR cabinetry.
“I really thought it could come out in a couple of years. We had the tech to do it,” said Fisher, who spent his two years at Atari working with the coin-op division to build a prototype.
This raises a couple of questions, but let’s start with the most obvious one: What was the Atari VR Arcade?
It’s hard to say, exactly, given that the hardware never got far enough along in production for any games to be developed for it. Furthermore, no documentation of an Atari VR Arcade seems to exist. But a hint of the machine’s functionality comes in the form of another important VR anomaly: the Sensorama Experience Theater.
Developed by the experimental filmmaker Morton Heilig during the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Sensorama was a mechanical box that created the illusion of riding a bicycle down New York City streets. And Atari VR Arcade shared more than a few strands of DNA with Sensorama’s full-body-sensing movies.
“Building an arcade that was based on what Mort had tried to do so many years before was really exciting,” said Fisher, who forged a friendship with Heilig over their mutual interest in crafting believable virtual spaces.
According to Fisher, the gist of Atari VR Arcade was to convert Heilig’s analog ambitions into a digital environment that players could interact with, just like any other arcade unit. He gave the cabinets stereoscopic vision to create an illusion of depth, binaural sound so the beeps and bloops went around your head. The cabinets would even give off smell, a la the olfactory capabilities of the Sensorama.
So, yes, Atari had plans to make a VR arcade cabinet that you could smell. To today’s cottage industry of VR game devs, this goal could come off as a bit self-indulgent. However, cost was no obstacle when it came to funding R&D, as Time Warner had recently purchased Atari from its founder Nolan Bushnell and were behaving like spendthrifts.
The money was used to fill the lab with the most creative minds in technology. “There was a lot of money. It was just a big sandbox. [We were] thinking about stuff 20 years down the road. That was kind of the holy grail—blue sky stuff,” Fisher said.
“What was going to be the home of the future? The interfaces?”
Case in point, Fisher was hired in rather extravagant fashion. Atari Lab’s director Alan Kay had recently come over from Xerox PARC. And when Kay visited MIT’s Architecture Machine Group (later to become MIT Media Lab) and saw some of the cool experiments Fisher was doing with telepresence, he tried to buy the MIT lab on the spot. Of course, Kay’s offer was declined since academic research facilities at the nation’s top universities generally aren’t for sale. It was only a few weeks later, however, when Fisher and his colleagues at MIT began receiving lavish offers to move out to California and work at Atari.
The takeover also meant that Atari had plenty of capital to throw behind a pet project like 1980’s VR. So Fisher reported to work each day at a lab that was fully decked out in Herman Miller furniture. He toiled with the machinations of turning the expensive, handmade equipment that was required for VR in the laboratory, into less expensive plastic equipment that could be mass-produced for the arcade ecosystem.
The path was clear for the arcades of the retro-future, and yet the Atari VR Arcade went off the rails. One way to see it was that fate intervened: the bubble burst on videogames, Time Warner’s market value tumbled, and the Atari division was left hemorrhaging.
In part, the dire circumstances were due to the financial excesses of the parent company, who continued spending money with impunity to the end. As a result, the bottom fell out: Atari was splintered into two companies and would linger around to ultimately become a nesting doll of holding companies.
“We were at a little retreat out at a park,” said Fisher. “Alan [Kay] was going on and on about how we had to think even further out, beyond 20 years. ‘What was going to be the home of the future? The interfaces?’ The next day we came in and we were escorted out by security guards. We had 15 minutes to pack our things.” The Atari Lab in Sunnyvale closed its doors for good.
As for Morton Heilig, whose patents for the experience theaters were fundamental to early VR research, he lived to see his dream materialize, but it had become closer to a nightmare, or at least a dream he was soon ready to forget. Atari had trotted him around to conferences before the collapse. Fisher had even tried to find Heilig a position at the Lab, but the money was already scant by then.
Years later, in a desperate-sounding attempt, Heilig would approach Disney about licensing his ideas and equipment, but the deal went south. He died in the ‘90s, when the hype for VR was real, bitter that no one knew who he was or recognized his contributions to the medium.
Fisher didn’t have problems finding a job after Atari. He went practically across the street to NASA Ames, who were in the beginning stages of developing the International Space Station. There, he lead a team who engineered some of the first functional VR technology.
Header Image: Ken Hata’s Atari design concept sketches for Gauntlet via The Strong