There isn’t much arcade news this week, so let’s jump into something from the days of arcade past; something that had it been released “in the day” would have been almost three decades ahead of it’s time.
When Atari was the proverbial “800lb. gorilla” of the industry, they had a lot of engineers working on a wide number of concepts. Sometimes those ideas never left the paper phase, while others made it a little farther along.
Per this tweet from a curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in New York, one of those concepts made it far enough along for Atari to produce a video and some graphics for it, but it is unclear if this was just fooling around or if the company had developed technology for detecting a person’s body movements. That was something called the Atari Dance Machine, a concept I’ve never seen mentioned on any unreleased/prototypes game list from the company. Check it out via this 30 second video, then we’ll discuss further:
Check out this video of "Dance Machine," a concept created by Atari in 1984 that was found during the @museumofplay U-Matic digitization project made possible by the @RRLC1966! Just imagine the technology that would be required to make it, especially in the 1980's. pic.twitter.com/PQSOYeermg
— Andrew Borman (@Borman18) February 27, 2019
While conceptual, a couple of things are clear. This would have used laserdisc technology for the full-motion video. At 26 seconds in the video, the text overlay is typical of laserdisc games, and nothing else would have worked for fullscreen video at the time. The stand-in concept also used a variation of Atari’s massive TX-1 game cabinet, which used three screens, although who knows if they would have kept that for the final release, as this obviously was a “photoshop” just to show the idea. Still, the two side monitors showing the music video, then the center screen for the dancer’s sensor or moves would made for an impressive sight.
Several laserdisc projects were in development at the company in 1984, including Golf Trainer, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Battlestar Galactica and a few others. Each would have been unique in it’s own way, although the Dance Machine would have taken the cake as far as impressions go. Much of what Atari was working on at this time was cancelled when the company was sold in 1984, splitting the home and arcade divisions apart and sending much of Atari’s talent elsewhere. That and the bottom had fallen out of laserdisc tech faster than the swatch.
Atari also had an instrumental rhythm game in the works back in 1986 called Jammin’, but that likewise never made it out of the prototype stage. Perhaps that is what the Atari Dance Machine turned into, but was ultimately abandoned for whatever reason.
Had this come to light back then, it would have been quite the technological and cultural gaming achievement. Granted it didn’t, so others get the credit for bringing ideas to market, although it’s still worth noting where some ideas were born. This was about 15 years before the body sensing game Combatica hit the market; some will look at the ADC and think of the EyeToy Groove, or Just Dance, or Dance Evolution. For me, the idea of standing in front of a giant arcade machine that records your movements makes me think of Konami’s Dance Evolution Arcade which was released back in 2012. Either way, it’s not a widely embraced concept in our industry, mainly due to costs. Still, that this kind of game was being kicked around in 1984 is pretty astounding.
As for other questions about this project: Was Atari working on a sensor that could detect a person’s body and precise movements at this time? Would it have used licensed music videos or would they have produced specific content with dancers to licensed music (ala Just Dance)? How many dance videos would it have contained? Who was working on it?
Perhaps with some patience, we’ll find out more; either way, such discoveries from arcades past never cease to amaze!