5.15.2007

Raster and Vector
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(part 6)

Raster vs. Vector Box

Even without delving into the technical back end of things, it's obvious that the "video" definition argument, when taken alone, rings a little hollow and oversimplifies the issue into one of mere semantics. Yes, there's an electronic difference between raster and vector displays, but regardless of the exact type used, the end result remains the same. After all, Atari introduced vector-display arcade games like Asteroids and Tempest in the 1970s and '80s that are commonly considered videogames, and no one argues with that. So what's the real key to the puzzle?

It all comes down to lineage. Baer's technology begat the videogames that the vast majority of videogame enthusiasts play now: Games using home video displays as a medium. The videogames you see and play today are direct linear descendants of his invention. After all, how often does one see companies selling games designed for play on the family oscilloscope?

Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple Computer, is a well-known cheerleader of Baer's work. "I worked as hard as I could to get him every award he deserves," said Wozniak in a recent interview. Awards that include the National Medal of Technology, presented to Baer in 2005 by U.S. president George W. Bush for his pioneering work with videogames. When asked why he thinks Baer should be considered the inventor of videogames, Woz was quick with praise. "He made the first ones, long before even Atari. And he did it so early, one after another, after another."

But don't earlier games like Spacewar diminish Baer's achievement? "No, no," insisted Wozniak. "If you have a million dollars to spend on some research group and equipment in a university, you could have the equipment there to make a game so far ahead of where it could really be sold to the world. The talent is really making something at a price people could afford. That's what Ralph did. Anyone with infinite amounts of money can do projects that would be impossible to do at affordable cost today."

Wozniak brings up a great point. Like Apple's innovations with the personal computer -- a machine designed to be affordable, accessible, and usable by anyone -- Baer essentially created the "personal videogame." All electronic CRT games previous to Baer's were technological curiosities, noncommercial dead ends with immense requirements for operation that, as a result, remained in the hands of the elite and the few instead of spreading to the masses. It's true that the elaborate and ambitious Spacewar, which required a $120,000 DEC PDP-1 computer to function, was the inspiration for a milestone commercial product by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in the form of Computer Space (1971), the world's first coin-operated videogame. But alas, it was the more plebeian Pong, a tweaked and improved clone of Bill Rusch's down-to-earth Ping-Pong game, which launched the videogame industry into the mainstream. Even Atari's wildly successful home Pong unit (1975), a product that started the headlong commercial rush into the home console market, could not help but borrow pages (and patents) from the Sanders-invented Magnavox Odyssey that preceded it. As Baer himself told PONG-story.com, "It is physically and logically impossible to be the father of anything unless there is a child." By any standard, Baer's creation definitely bore fruit -- fruit that we see all around us today. So whether they go by "TV games" or the infinitely more bland euphemism "interactive entertainment," Ralph Baer is widely regarded as the father of videogames, regardless of what they are called, making Bill Harrison their mother, and Bill Rusch the estranged uncle. Welcome back to the family, Rusch. And happy



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