Brow Beat

The Coolest Thing at This Year’s E3 Just Might Be This Atari Video Music System From 1977

A console device with a steel front and wood sides, on display at E3.
The Atari Video Music system. Matthew Dessem

E3 is in full swing in Los Angeles, and the convention center is jam-packed with high-production-value trade show booths offering attendees a taste of upcoming games. Broadly speaking, there are two marketing aesthetics on display on the convention floor, at least in the AAA class: the chunky, maximalist look of combat games, whether they’re set on Kashyyk or Coney Island, and the brightly-colored, cartoony feel of the Nintendo and Square Enix schools. That’s mass marketing for you! But there’s one booth with something completely different on display: an exhibition from the National Videogame Museum of Frisco, Texas, an organization that is doing the difficult but important work of preserving video game history.

The selection of their holdings on display at E3, from vintage coin-op cabinets to Nintendo’s R.O.B. peripheral, are more than a hall of oddities: They’re a record of all the ways companies have tried to sell electronic entertainment to consumers over the years, from a futuristic Computer Space cabinet (as seen in Soylent Green!) to a flyer encouraging consumers to set up public screenings of an Atari community outreach video called Video Games: A Public Perspective. It’s a gallery of fascinating blind alleys and long-since-abandoned ideas, but perhaps no idea was more comprehensively abandoned than the Atari Video Music system, an attempt from 1976 to create an electronic entertainment product aimed at the then-burgeoning audiophile market. Designed by Home Pong engineer Robert Brown, the device looks like a piece of high-end stereo equipment, from the heavy, analog dials to the solid wood and steel construction—none of your Atari VCS veneers here:

A closer shot of the Atari Video Music System.
Martin Goldberg (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This bulky, serious looking piece of electronic equipment did one thing and one thing only: The Atari Video Music system was the first consumer waveform visualizer. You could plug RCA outputs from your stereo into the back, connect it to your television, and control a number of visualizations linked to the audio using the dials and buttons on the front. Essentially, it was a distant ancestor of the iTunes Visualizer—but, again, that’s the only thing it did. This ad from April of 1977 explains the value proposition of the “amazing new audio-visual concept that adds a new dimension to your stereo.”

An ad for the Atari Video Music System, $199.95.
San Francisco Examiner

So what does the Atari Video Music system look like in action? Here’s an example from YouTube showing how it visualizes New Order’s “Blue Monday.” The song was originally distributed in a record sleeve made to resemble a 5 ¼” floppy disk, so feeding it into a piece of vintage computer equipment from the 1970s and then putting the results on YouTube is an instant Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure grab bag of different historical periods in consumer electronics. (Please note that this video is essentially nothing but flashing lights, which can trigger seizures) :

The buttons and dials on the front could be used to manipulate the image the device produced, as can be seen at about 14:00 of this teardown video from Ben Heck. It’s also a great look at the guts of the Video Music System, including the bonkers decision to put a channel selector switch inside the case, where it could only be changed with a screwdriver:

The Atari Video Music System made its public debut during the 1977 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, where it was demonstrated at the Faces, a local disco. But despite coming out at the absolute peak of “let’s get incredibly baked and listen to Pink Floyd”-based leisure activities, the Video Music System was not a success. The $199 list price in that April of 1977 ad had dropped to $59.95 by Christmas 1977, and by April of 1978, an electronics store in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was offering a free Atari Video Music system with the purchase of a Pioneer stereo system, and within a few years it had disappeared, except for the occasional cameo. It’s in the background of a Devo video from 1979, where it gives a high-tech, futuristic feel to the electronic music, and also a Daft punk video from thirty years later, where it gives a low-tech, retro feel to the electronic music:

Once you’ve seen the distinct output from the Atari Video Music system, you can recognize it anywhere it appears. This isn’t a useful skill to have: There are almost no examples of places output from the Atari Video Music system appears. But it does demonstrate that the device’s output has a style and an aesthetic, linked to both the technological limitations of 1970s consumer electronics and larger trends in art and design (see, e.g., the color palette). But to recognize the Atari Video Music system as a cultural artifact, you’ve got to see it working, which is why institutions that are half museum and half electronics repair shop are going to be incredibly important as the devices that hold this part of our cultural history age and break down. For a terrifying look at the worst-case scenario—a world in which the past has not been preserved and an entire medium has been boiled down to just a few surviving styles and reference points—check out the rest of the E3 show floor!