From Pong to Furby, Games and Gadgets of Holidays Past

This holiday season's biggest gifts -- the e-readers, tablets and digital games techies and kids are clamoring for -- are the result of 40 years of innovation. We take a look back at some of the biggest breakthroughs in tech gadgets from the '70s, '80s and '90s.

The e-readers, tablet computers and gaming consoles that are the hot gifts of the 2010 holiday season, are the latest in a line of consumer gadgets and gizmos that arrived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Slideshow: Stocking Stuffers: Cool Tech Gifts Under $50

Slideshow: 10 Offbeat Gift Ideas: 2010 Edition

Remember Pong?

"It was the gift to have," said Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. "It cost $99. They sold tens and tens of millions of those."

Next month, the museum will unveil a 21st century makeover that more than doubles its exhibition space and adds research and education facilities. One 25,000-square-foot exhibit will look at first 2000 years of computing -- everything from the abacus to the iPod -- while another exhibit showcases some of the best-selling tech gadgets, like Pong, from the recent past.

About 95% of the museum's artifacts come from the public -- as well as a long list of distinguished technologists that includes Gordon Bell (father of the minicomputer), Gene Amdahl (legendary mainframe architect for IBM and Amdahl Corp.), Apple engineer Steve Wozniak, John McCarthy (father of artificial intelligence at Stanford University) and Microsoft founder and CEO Bill Gates.

Much has changed since Pong, a rudimentary tennis game created by Atari Inc., arrived in 1972.

"The consoles now, of course, have graphics that are light years beyond what Pong used, which was three or four lines drawn on a screen, and the ability to play with other people over a network. That's a huge innovation with today's games," Spicer said. "Also, games now are produced in a sense very much like a Hollywood movie. They even use real actors for voiceovers. Many of them are also based on a movie."

Pong appeared first as an electronic arcade game. Three years later -- in time for the '75 holiday shopping season -- it was offered through Sears as a home video game that was played on your TV. Its simple two-dimensional graphics presented users with two opposing paddles and ball that bounced back and forth between them. The speed of the ball and size of the paddles could be adjusted.

The game, created originally by an Atari engineer as a training exercise, was a runaway seller. Atari told Sears it could produce 75,000 units for the holiday season; the retailer requested 150,000.

In 1978, one of the first multi-game systems arrived: the Atari 2600 with a Combat game cartridge. The "Atari Video Computer System," as it was initially called, offered two popular arcade titles: Tank and Anti-Aircraft II, according to the History Museum. Although the 2600 was not the first home game console to use a microprocessor and removable game cartridges, it helped establish that as the standard.

The cost? $199.

Some of the technology that made the museum's "gadgets" list weren't necessarily best sellers, but they were innovative. For example, Bytes for Bites: The Kitchen Computer, was rolled out in 1969 before the PC era, "to store recipes." Sold through the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog, the Kitchen Computer went for the bargain price of $10,600. For that, you got the computer, a cookbook, an apron -- and a two-week programming course.

Inside the futuristic packaging with a built-in cutting board was a standard Honeywell 316 minicomputer. The console featured binary switches and lights.

Other big sellers of the past 40 years included the Speak & Spell, a children's toy from Texas Instruments. In 1978, Speak & Spell contained speech synthesizer electronics and software, a keyboard, display and slot for ROM-based library modules. It helped children learn to spell the words they spoke into it.

In 1982, cashing in on the fame of World Chess Champions such as America's Bobby Fischer and the Soviet Union's Anatoly Karpov, Milton Bradley came out with its GrandMaster chess game. This chess-playing machine was part robot: magnets underneath moved real pieces for the computer and the pressure-sensitive board could detect the human player's move.

The software, designed by chess expert David Levy's company, was considered weak in the opening and closing, but a strong middle game earned it a 1550 chess rating. For $500, you could match strategic wits against a computer.

The DG-10 Digital Guitar from Casio was a big seller in 1983. Encouraged by its success with inexpensive digital keyboard synthesizers, Casio expanded into guitars. The strings are mostly for decoration and for controlling strumming amplitude, since finger position on the rubber fretboard determined the pitch.

In 1989, Nintendo came out with the $89.95 Game Boy, a hand-held gaming system that became one of the longest-selling consoles in history. Its initial success came from the release of Tetris, a Russian-designed puzzle game. Game Boy, and the later Game Boy Color, sold more than 100 million units over 20 years.

Following on the Game Boy's success, Sony in 1994 came out with its PlayStation video game console. The console originally began as a collaboration with Nintendo, which later dropped out.

Sony released its PlayStation in Japan in 1994 and in North America a year later. At a price of $299, the PlayStation sold more than 100 million units and led to three successful follow-ons: the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable.

Another big seller in the 1990s was Furby, the electronic toy that looked like a cuddly gremlin and reacted to motion. The toy, released by Tiger Electronics, ignited a 1998 holiday season buying frenzy, with prices reaching $300.

Each Furby initially spoke only "Furbish" and gradually learned English. It communicated with other nearby Furbies using an infrared port between its eyes.

"The Furby was big, but I don't think it was in the same league as Pong," Spicer said. "Of course if you look at Gameboys, Playstations and Xboxes, they sold tens of millions of units sold, too. And, the iPod is a blockbuster product as well."

Along with Furby, animatronics were big near the end of the 20th century. Sony came out with AIBO the robotic dog, appropriately named "Sony," in 1999. The robotic pet was designed to learn by interacting with its environment, its owners and other AIBOs. The toy responded to more than 10 voice commands and also talked back to you in a tonal language. But robotic companionship wasn't cheap. Sony cost $2,000.

After the turn of the century, the pace of innovation quickened. In October 2001, Apple Computer came out with its iPod music player, which popularized digitized music just as Sony's 1979 Walkman had popularized portable music players. That same year, Microsoft released the wildly popular Xbox Video Game System -- the first console in the U.S. to come with an internal hard disk drive. The $299 device initially shipped with the game Halo, and quickly overtook Nintendo for second place in the home console market, behind Sony's PlayStation.

Next: See more gadgets of holidays past in our slide show.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com .

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