One of the most fascinating places to go to look for information on technology are in the paperwork and legal language which hold them up. Patents are the most accessible document form one can look into interesting video game artifacts. Not only can the history of a patent itself reveal more information, such as the Magnavox Odyssey lawsuits based on it’s scope, but they also reveal the people whose names may have never made it to print in any other form regarding their connection to the invention. In this post we’ll be looking at some of those forgotten heroes and their inventions in the gaming world.
Sega, out of all the early arcade game companies, was the most proactive in protecting their ideas. Their earliest patent was filed less than a year after the full formation of the company by their most important early inventor Shikanosuke Ochi. Ochi may have been the lead developer on Sega’s version of Periscope and likewise may have been the man who led their earliest video game development. His first credit on a video game patent was for the game Bullet Mark where he was credited as the builder of the first controller with haptic feedback with a recoiling automatic rifle. Ochi’s talent appears to have mainly been in mechanical apparatuses and he was the inventor of the trackball controller as well for Sega’s game World Cup. In 1982 he was listed as the man who conceived the memory technique used in Sega’s laserdisc system, the one that produced Astron Belt which was the first laserdisc game used for an amusement arcade game and a more familiar version than the earlier Rodesch patent. Ochi moved onto Tecmo sometime afterwards, but unfortunately passed away in 2015.
Another early innovator is the late William Olliges, who passed away earlier this year. His company Universal Research Laboratories did contract work for a number of manufacturers as well as having it’s own sales arm. Two patents of his which never saw the light of day in their original form were one for the video slot machine which was sold to Bally and for an analog to digital converter in game technology. The latter is especially interesting because it appears to be an attempt at either what would essentially be called a laserdisc game or attempting to bridge the gap of electro-mechanical games to video games. Some sort of target would be filmed, replicated, then transferred onto a CRT while a player could shoot the objects to destroy them. It would have been the most graphically advanced video game in 1976 if ever built.
While most patents tend to go to tangible hardware technologies, it is possible to get a patent filed on software (as much good it will do as legal protection). Mostly these are of interest just for their clinical representations of the game alone. Take Jeff Tunnell and Christopher Cole’s filing for The Incredible Machine. How about 3DO’s attempt to patent persistence in online games? Broderbund had a patent on bounding boxes for selection of graphical icons. Coleco patented a multi-camera view baseball game quite a bit after Eddie Dombrower had done it at Mattel. Remember that time the music system in Ocarina of Time was patented? Whether the hopes of these companies were to try and patent a concept to dissuade competition, they ultimately didn’t have a large sway as far as intellectual property power goes.
It’s very surprising how many people attempted to patent the video game cartridge. I am not enough of a law person to tell you in any of these applications were substantially different from each other in any way, but here’s a selection of documents from those who tried it. Surprisingly enough the first ones to patent the cartridge were not Fairchild, but Atari with two separate patents, one for the function and one for the casing. Doug Hardy, listed on both patents, claimed to be the one who put the idea for using the method into Atari’s sights. Smith Engineering patented the cartridges used in the Microvision handheld, which was at least a different enough technology due to their form factor. Namco had a patent on a game cartridge, possibly a design from a video game system they were creating, as did Codemasters.
For an encore, let’s have a smattering of completely obscure firsts buried in the patent database. The first color video game patented was by a Japanese company called Nippon Kiyouzu who filed several patents relating to a color home video game device in 1975. Yasuo Ikeda at Taito patented the method to rotate bitmap graphics without having to store every image available in ROM. David Sitrick was the first to express the idea of locally networked game cabinets, though remote connections had existed long before that. The system used in the first Virtuality virtual reality games was put to paper in 1988 by Dr. Jonathan Waldren of the UK.
You could be surprised what sort of things you may find if you take a delve into Google Patents. The search isn’t perfect and there’s a lot of legalese to work around, but it could net some amazing discoveries for those interested. Give the blanket term “video games” a shot and see what rabbit holes you go down!