Fifty years ago today, an episode of the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World introduced the Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s first ever home video games console. It was a basic but visionary design, and led to today’s multi-billion-pound industry.
“Here is a brand-new idea from the US that turns your television into a game that two can play,” says the avuncular presenter, Raymond Baxter, as he shows the British public their first glimpse of a device that would kickstart a multi-billion-pound industry.
In the BBC Tomorrow’s World episode, first broadcast 50 years ago, he goes on to demonstrate the world’s first home-video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey.
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The invention was the brainchild of Ralph Baer, a German-American engineer, who had been tinkering with the idea of interactive television games since the 1960s. With a small team he had developed multiple prototype consoles, before unleashing the Odyssey on an unsuspecting American public in 1972, the year before the BBC broadcast.
While it may seem rudimentary now, the technology – and the idea of bringing video gaming directly into people’s homes – was transformative
The console consisted of an oblong box which could be plugged into a TV. It was connected to two rectangular controllers with dials, which players could twist to control the game play.
By today’s gaming standards, the Odyssey was pretty basic. It lacked any sound capability, was powered by batteries and the machine could not actually keep score, relying on the players themselves to remember how they were doing.
Back to the future
The graphics were primitive too. It could only produce a selection of white squares and lines on an all-black background. So, the company developed a series of plastic overlays that could be stuck to the front of a TV screen via static electricity in order to create the game’s colour visuals. They also developed a light gun, which Tomorrow’s World’s presenter Baxter can be seen brandishing in a slightly menacing way at his fellow competitor, to target moving dots on the screen for a game called Shooting Gallery.
While it may seem rudimentary now, the technology – and the idea of bringing video gaming directly into people’s homes – was transformative. Its simplistic design and minimal graphics turned out to be a strength. Because it was easy to understand and play, it meant almost anyone could use it. Players were captivated by the novelty of being able to control a game on their own TVs.
With the Odyssey, Ralph Baer pioneered the entirely new concept of home video gaming, setting the stage for the cultural phenomenon that exploded afterwards. It shaped the trajectory of a whole industry. The tennis game that Raymond Baxter can be seen playing, was the inspiration for Atari’s hugely successful 1972 Pong Arcade game, which closely mimicked its gameplay. So much so, that Magnavox sued Atari and other major Arcade games companies over its game design and programming.
The Odyssey’s physical controls introduced the idea of player handsets, while its TV screen overlays could be said to foreshadow the concept of augmented reality which would become prevalent in games like Pokémon Go.
In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today
Even the influence of its games linger on. Echoes of the sports-based games that came with it such as football, can be seen in games like Fifa 23, and the idea of the first-person shooter game, Shooting Gallery, in today’s games like Call of Duty.
Despite its early innovation, the Magnavox Odyssey would be quickly overshadowed by the rapid pace of the market it created. Atari, moved away from Arcade games to enter the console market a few years later, soon outstripped Magnavox in sales, followed by the video game juggernaut, Nintendo.
But while the Odyssey may seem a far cry from today’s modern consoles, the ideas behind it fired the imagination of those that followed and fuelled the growth of a worldwide industry worth an estimated $384.90bn (£329.31bn) today.
In History is a series which uses the BBC’s unique audio and video archive to explore historical events that still resonate today.
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