Last year I wrote an article which looked at some of Atari’s early industrial design concept drawings. I was looking again at that piece last night, and one picture jumped out at me:
It’s an intriguing idea and one that never really took off. This is what Atari called its ‘Theatre’ concept. Designed to maximise floorspace for operators, it could house up to 6 screens in a cylindrical structure – all housing different games. Each theatre could potentially provide a complete video game package that could be customised to suit its locale. An additional topper unit could be used to display information relevant to its position:
Each wedge-shaped unit could be placed individually, allowing operators to place two in a corner, three against a wall, or as pictured above, six in a stand-alone island in the middle of a room.
The intention was that each wedge could be interchanged with a new game quickly and easily, using custom designed control panels, monitor surrounds and a new PCB. This system would precede things like the Jamma or Atari System 1 standards by quite a few years.
A bit of research reveals that the Theatre System was actually built and made it out into the wild, albeit with a short-lived lifespan. In 1976, Atari approached the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit System (The BART), and struck a deal allowing them to place one of the units at BART’s Powell Street Station:
The Vending Times reported that the machine was placed there as an experiment, and was actually located right on the main platform area.
The games installed were Space Race, Trak 10, Quiz 10, Tank, LeMans and 2 Player Pong. BART saw this as an interesting way to raise revenue, whilst showcasing the latest game technology. And let’s face it, a partnership with Atari was pretty cool for any commercial entity.
Photographer Gary Fong captured the hexagonal Theatre kiosk in situ:
The screens above the cabinets were able to display relevant messages, such as train timetables, local Sports and Entertainment news, advertisements for 3rd party products and even just relevant brand messages; (Note the BART Keeps Your Nightlife Moving message above). This was executed using a specially built 35mm projection system.
Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle in December 1976, a BART spokesman had this to say:
We think the machine here at one station on an experimental basis, will provide some fun for our passengers between trains. The information and revenue won’t hurt either.
Players received 90 seconds of gameplay for their 25 cent outlay – ideal for commuters waiting for their next train. Initial estimates by an overzealous Atari sales department put potential revenue at some $1,500 per week, per game. The only actual revenue report I can find indicates that within five weeks, the total revenue at the BART installation was $1,791 – still pretty impressive. The man behind the deal, Frank Ballouz, Atari’s National Sales Manager, toed the Atari corporate line:
The BART location is an excellent example of the viability and earning potential of the Theatre concept. It is a new entertainment idea that combines extra sophistication and excitement with high profits for any high traffic location.
And I suppose it’s hard to disagree with that statement. This was indeed a solid idea. People standing around in high-footfall areas such as train stations, airports, museums and shopping malls (and therefore being in those sorts of locations presumably relatively affluent) were looking for something to pass their time. With mobile devices some 40 years away, this was a great piece of lateral thinking by Atari.
The BART arcade kiosk experiment was short-lived, lasting just a few months. BART’s advertising and promotion manager Joe Page, said this of the Atari Theatre Kiosk:
It’s done everything we expected, and we’ve had no problems whatsoever with regards to the unit. User comments have been overwhelmingly favourable.
Despite this, the placement ended in April 1977, and the unit was removed, never to return. Perhaps players were missing their trains, or maybe the revenue dropped off. I suppose given that the same people would probably be travelling through the station each day, the novelty is likely to have worn off in pretty short order.
Across the pond in Europe, Atari managed to place a few units in appropriate locations. Here, a Theatre Kiosk is pictured in the Velizy Shopping Centre in Paris, France:
As an aside, Swedish games manufacturer Cherry, built its own version of the Theatre system some years later. Presumably under licence, it housed Atari games and was called Modular Amusement:
Given the size of Atari’s Theatre system, you would think these things would have disappeared altogether, but bronze age arcade collector, Seth Soffer actually owns an original two-piece Theatre Unit:
How cool is that?! Seth is after more units to make the complete hexagon. If you know of any, drop him a line over at his excellent website Arcade72.
For those interested, the original operators manual for the Atari Kiosk machine can be viewed here.
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