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Ralph Henry Baer was born in south-western Germany in 1922. By the late 1960's, he had already made his mark as an electronics genius. As a teenager, he escaped Nazi Germany with his parents and sister via Holland and fled to the US where his scientific intellect flourished. During the late 1940s and 50s, Baer created everything from HiFi accessories to snooping devices that the US government used in Berlin to monitor transmissions to and from the Soviet Union. Baer was always convinced that television could be less passive and more interactive. But this was the 1950s, and no one wanted to listen to such a radical concept.
According to video games historian, Johnny Wilson, "At that point in time, it would have been considered almost insane to try to think of people reacting to the television set in any way other than just viewing. Or in any other way than simply being spoon-fed anything other than what the TV companies and advertisers wanted to serve up to their audiences. Basically, it was a medium that you took in without having any say in what you saw. Except for changing channels, and in those days, there weren't that many channels to change. "
In 1966, Baer was designing equipment for a military contractor. He was working with an alignment generator that created test lines on a TV screen. The work inspired him to imagine a completely new type of game. But to turn his idea into reality, Baer needed to find a way to generate a signal to change the static test lines into symbols that moved around the screen.
It was in September 1966, while sitting at a bus stop, that his idea started to fall into place. Baer realised that if a radio frequency (or RF signal) could display moving pictures on a TV screen, it should also be able to generate game symbols. He knew that it would be difficult to persuade people at the office, where the focus was on serious military technology, about his new idea. So Baer began to develop his TV game in secret.
Cannibalising the components of an alignment generator, he used a radio frequency oscillator to generate a video signal. Then, with a component called a sync generator, he synchronised the signal into one that the television understood. A modulator sent the signal to the TV and placed it on channel three or four. As the signal entered the TV a spot appeared on the screen. The spot could move horizontally, vertically, and could even change its shape.
Baer had proven that his concept worked. Next, he built an actual game box. But his first attempts were not exactly user-friendly. He had used glass vacuum tubes to regulate the flow of electricity, and these took up too much space and blew out easily.
However, new technology enabled Baer to progress. He enlisted a talented colleague, Bill Harrison, to help. Harrison knew all about transistors, and he suggested they use tiny silicon semiconductors that performed the same function as vacuum tubes but without the bulk or fragility. This also meant that Baer's game box could be smaller and more user-friendly.
Finally, a prototype game box was completed. Each game came with a plastic overlay that resembled a ping pong table, which could be placed on the TV screen and made the game more realistic. In June 1967, Baer and Harrison decided to unveil their secret project to their bosses. Baer had no idea how they would react to a game he had built without their knowledge.
At first, the executives didn't know what to make of the invention. But once they got the hang of it, they were hooked. Baer's bosses gave him $2000 for staff and another five hundred dollars for parts so that Baer could develop the game box further.
The game box became the Magnavox Odyssey, the world's first home video game console. It arrived in the shops in 1972, and over the next decade, Baer's idea transformed the home entertainment industry. In 2006, he was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Technology in honour of his video game inventions, from US President Bush Jr.
Ralph Baer donated all his prototype video game consoles, his notes and schematics to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In 2014, the museum gathered up his entire old workshop and placed it on display in their Innovation Wing. To this day, over 500 pages of Baer's original data is in the public domain and is available for viewing online.
Ralph Baer died on the 6th of December, 2014, in Manchester, New Hampshire. In the words of Wilson, "He was one of the finest examples of inventive ingenuity I can think of. Ralph was the kind of person who was constantly thinking five to seven steps ahead of everybody else in society."
It is highly unlikely that he could have envisioned that with his game of electronic ping pong, he was creating a global industry that today is worth billions of dollars. Today's home computers and TV sets connected to gaming consoles have become the virtual playgrounds for a whole new generation.
Modern computer games are full of action and adventure, battles between good and evil, quests and cyber shootouts, and all kinds of racing and sports contests. For many, this is a world so much bigger in scope and richer in possibilities that there's no better place to play.
AI and 3D
Video games have become a very complex and powerful art form. They are an integral part of our culture that not only fuels computer advancement, but they also drive it. One thing that seems certain is that we can expect more physical crossovers for both children and adults. The popularity of mobile video games is growing fast, and people want a 360-degree experience with more and more interaction.
And with the constant development of Artificial Intelligence and 3D immersive technology, who knows what kind of gaming experience is waiting for us around the corner. Clealy, it will be a long way from Ralph Baer's ping pong.