GS: Do you ever feel that if you hadn't been involved in so much patent litigation over two decades that you might have had more time or energy to innovate more, or do more inventions?
RB: No, I don't think so at all. 'Cause I know that if you add up all the hours I spent on preparations in court and out of court over the years, it probably doesn't even add up to a couple of years.
GS: So it wasn't that much time out of your life.
RB: It wasn't that much time. It was important time, but it wasn't that much linear time. And besides, even when I'm in San Francisco in the financial district down there working with the lawyers and going to court down the street, [that] doesn't stop me from thinking about other things.
GS: How do you feel about the Japanese dominating the video game market from the '80s until now?
RB: I feel that they deserve it, because they put the time, the energy, the effort, the ingenuity, the creativity into it. And it's our own fault for basically having given away the consumer electronics business to Japan back in the '50s, that they're so dominant -- predominant -- in consumer electronics.
Think about it. When I came out of the war, RCA was run by Sarnoff. Ex-engineer. Hewlett-Packard was run by Hewlett and Packard. Engineers. IBM was run by engineers. What happened right about the middle of the '50s? They all died, retired, got too old. Who comes in behind them? A bunch of MBAs. Book-keepers. So what did RCA do? They buy Hertz, they buy this outfit, they buy that outfit. Do they push new development -- do they put money into developing their own products? No. They vend it out to people where they can get cheaper labor, [and] export all the capability.
Next thing we know, we have no capability at all. The capability for making the component parts grows up around the factories that assemble radios and television sets. And before you know it, you got a self-contained indigenous industry in Japan, and then fifteen years later, it moves on to Korea, because the Japanese labor turns out to be too damn expensive. And then labor is no longer a factor at all because all the assembly, ten years later, is done by automatic insertion machines with surface component parts, so now you can do it anywhere.
But who builds the insertion machines? We do! What do we do with them? Ship them overseas. It is insane. It's just plain nuts. Hopefully, it will turn around again.
GS: How did it feel to be awarded the National Medal of Technology last year?
RB: Well, think about that medal as being the equivalent of a medal for technology like the Nobel Prize. It's the highest honor you can get in this country for technological work. So of course it feels great. It was an unexpected pleasure that capped off my earthly existence here.
You know, I'm pushing 85. I'm goddamn lucky for something like that to happen to me at this stage in my game. Even thought I'm still sitting at the bench -- I'm still building stuff. Very few people my age do that. They're either out on the golf course or six feet below.
GS: Did you ever think about designing a personal computer yourself, or getting into that business?
RB: Yes. In fact, we designed games that were both. We always insisted that the machine we wanted to build was a personal computer and a game machine all in one. And in fact, we got so close once to convincing TI at the very senior management -- I mean the president of TI, speaking to the president of Sanders -- to adopt the design that my guy, the same guy that did the software for Simon and Computer Perfection, and all that, Lenny Cope, who worked for me.
We came up with a method of designing a personal computer and game machine that we felt was superior to what was out there, and was superior to what TI came up with, but it somehow fell apart. Yeah, we were hot to trot.
GS: When's the last time you played ping pong in real life?
RB: Not so long ago. Downstairs in my son Mark's home, he's got every conceivable thing you can think of, including athletic equipment. He, his wife, his kids -- they're all skiers, they're very athletic, they're bike riders. They've got a ping pong table, and I played my grandson down there.
I still play ping pong pretty reasonably well. I got lucky, you know. I have leukemia, but I've been in remission for about five years now, and I feel stronger, younger now than I did five years ago. I can really move. I have no endurance, but I can move. You never know, I'm 85. So I can play ping pong, [but] not very long. [Laughs] I get tired.
GS: Do you think real ping pong is more fun than your video game version?
RB: Well, it's different fun, but it's a lot of fun. And to think about ping pong, one more digression. One of the complaints that his highness Nolan Bushnell had was "Well, you didn't have any scoring on screen." To which I respond: well, it's kinda funny, you know. We've been playing real ping pong for the last hundred years, right? And tennis. And guess how you score tennis and ping pong? You call out the score, you know, nice and loud, right? Nobody needed any scores on the screen.
That was a real iffy addition. I had no way of doing it with the technology available to us for a price in 1966-67. But it was not necessary to play an interesting tennis game. You just call it out -- who needs scoring?
What was stupid on our part -- and I couldn't believe in retrospect -- was that we didn't have any sound. Yeah, that was the big attraction, addition, that made it much more lively a game that Alan Alcorn and Bushnell came up with, adding a "pong" sound when you hit the ball. Why we didn't think of that, in retrospect? I can't believe we didn't do that. Part of it was that I wasn't really a game person, ever. It only grew as I worked with the stuff.