Many of the parties involved in the creation of the CyberVision 2001, 3001 and 4001 have conducted interviews for various podcasts and media outlets over time. While many of the discussions focus on their post-CyberVision achievements and career paths, this page will document the various interviews in which CyberVision is discussed. Text transcripts of the pertinent sections will be provided.
ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast – John Powers (February 2, 2016)
SAVETZ: John Powers was co-founder of The Authorship Resource, the company that created all of the software for the CyberVision 2001 computer. From 1980-1982, he worked at Atari as director of software development for personal computers. While he was there, he wrote three pieces of software for Atari Program Exchange. Newspaper Route Management Program, Computerized Card File, and Cosmatic Atari Development Package. He was later VP of Research and Development at educational software publisher, The Learning Company. This interview took place on February 2, 2016.
SAVETZ: Mostly I want to talk about Atari, but first, I noticed that you were co-founder of The Authorship Resource.
SAVETZ: I’d like to hear a little bit about that, if you don’t mind.
POWERS: Oh, not a bit. At the time, we lived in Columbus, Ohio and I worked as a research scientist for Battelle Memorial Institute. And we had a project — we did a lot of contract research — and we had a project with control data to commercialize PLATO, which was the computer instruction system out of the University of Illinois. And it was way ahead of its time. It had touchscreens, and rear projection microfilm and used a plasma display. And it was a marvelous, marvelous system. It was network-based, all run by a super computer.
So the control data contacted Battelle to create exemplary lessons for CAI. And so I was the project manager, and one of the people on the project was Joe Miller. So he and I and several other people, Bob Garmise and some others, worked on developing this sample software to show the different ways you could do computer-assisted instruction on the PLATO system. We had a terrific time doing it, and we learned a lot. And Joe Miller and I, we went to a conference on computer system instruction. And coming out of the conference, I just said casually “you know, it’d be really cool to just do this full time.” And he was in the cab and he said “yeah, it really would.”
That got us thinking, and Joe and I decided to go off and start our own company and develop computer system instruction software. So we got into that, we got a PLATO system, got our offices, got working on it. And we were approached by a startup company that was manufacturing a home computer for Montgomery Ward. Montgomery Ward’s sporting goods department wanted a computer that they could sell that would compete with some of the home computer game machines that were coming out.
This company called CyberVision had a wonderful engineer who came up with a very low-cost, very elegant design for a home computer. They were having trouble doing the software. The design engineer was overloaded. He was trying to also do the software, and this company– we literally stumbled across them and they said “do you guys do software?” We said “yeah.” He said “well we’ve gotta do a demonstration of our computer to Montgomery Ward in about two weeks and we don’t have any software to show them, can you help us out?” And we said “sure” and we discovered right away, Joe and I, that they didn’t even have anything resembling an operating system. So that’s the first thing that we had to come up with.
It was all in 1802 assembler. And so, we didn’t know 1802 assembler. This was an RCA chip that came out, 8-bit processor. We very quickly did a self-taught course on 1802 assembler and wrote them a small operating system. Took up 2 KB [sic] in the ROM. And they liked it, so we said “why don’t you contract with us to develop some home computer software?” So they said, “okay, we’ll do that.” And so we, The Authorship Resource, was the sole developer for the application software for the CyberVision home computer that was sold by Montgomery Ward.
And there’s still fans out there of the CyberVision. Occasionally we’ll get people wanting to know more about what that’s like. We developed about twenty or thirty applications. We did games, database systems, we did a lot on educational software. One of the key features of CyberVision is that it basically, its storage medium was cassette tape. The engineer devised a way to use one half of the stereo head for data, and the other half of the stereo head for audio. So we came up in software a way to synchronize the audio coming off the tape with the software that’s running on the CyberVision. So we did a lot of kid things, we did some educational software.
And then our company was eventually bought out by the hardware company, CyberVision. They basically bought all of our assets, they bought our company. And we worked for them for a while but they were having a lot of trouble getting the system through production. And they were never able to find somebody that could produce the system in a reliable fashion. So they went bankrupt. That’s when I went out hunting for a job and got recruited by Atari and that’s the beginning of how we came west to California and eventually recruited all the people that were in our little group, The Authorship Resource, and they did work for Atari. Then spun-off on their own and did some marvelous, marvelous things on their own.
SAVETZ: You worked with Ken Balthaser at both places, right?
POWERS: Right. Right. Ken was one of the people that we had hired at Authorship Resource. Ken, Brenda Laurel, Jeff Schwamberger, my wife worked there for a while and then of course Joe Miller was my co-founder at the company and he also did work for Atari as well.
SAVETZ: Nice. Alright. So you guys all trekked out to Atari and got hired en masse, it sounds like.
POWERS: Well, I got hired first. And of course Atari was a crazy place, crazy place. They wanted to hire people, they wanted to build, they had a lot of capital money since Warner got involved, and they just wanted to hire, hire, hire. So I said “hey, I know some good people in Columbus, why don’t you hire them?” And I think Ken was the first one to come out and he worked at Atari, and then Joe and Brenda and Jeff Schwamberger. They all came out, but one at a time. They would be, they would start their job like Jeff recounts the time that he started his first day at Atari and he’s walking down and they say, somebody said “hi, hey are you new?” Jeff said “yeah, I am.” And he says “where are you from?” And Jeff says, “well I worked for a company in Columbus, Ohio.” And he said, “Oh, you’re one of the Ohio Mafia!” So the group of us from Ohio became known as the Ohio mafia because the other employees kept seeing all these people coming in from Ohio. So that stuck. So we’ve been the Ohio Mafia ever since and we have our periodic reunions at various places in California.
SAVETZ: That’s awesome, you guys still get together. That’s wonderful.
POWERS: Yes, we definitely do still keep in touch. Yeah. Ken Balthaser and I are very close and we have a good time talking to each other, reminiscing and just keeping up with what’s going on now.
ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast – Ken Balthaser (April 9, 2015)
AUDIO SOURCE: https://archive.org/details/KenBalthaserInterview
SAVETZ: I know that you were manager of software development at Atari, but before we get there I see that you were a designer and programmer at The Authorship Resource, which was making software for the Cybervision 2001 computer.
BALTHASER: Yeah, that’s right. Mm hmm.
SAVETZ: I know a lot about old computers and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this one. So I was hoping we could take just a couple minutes, you could tell me about that position and what you did there.
BALTHASER: It’s a little known computer. A little 8-bit microcomputer that was developed back in Columbus, Ohio. It was sold by Montgomery Ward. In those days, Ward was a big retailer like Sears, I don’t know if you remember or not. Anyway, they contracted to have this little home computer built. They thought computers were the next big coming thing.They had enormous success selling Pong games and things like that.
So yeah, I was part of a very small crew that, in 1978, began working on creating software. We created all of the software including the operating system for that little system. It was sold by Montgomery Ward, it was an 8-bit computer. It had some unique features about it. We always thought it was actually the very first home computer because it’s what it was designed for, to be used in the home and mainly for educational purposes.
But it used the RCA 1802 microprocessor. And this was a CMOS processor that was actually used by NASA in the space program. But being CMOS it was very little power requirements. So it used the RCA 1802. It was, compared to this day, obviously very primitive machine. It had four colors. It hooked up to a standard television set.
And it used, the most unique feature about the system was it used a standard audio cassette to do two things. One, is to load data into memory. And the other was to use, it used a stereo system so one track was used to load data, the other track was used to load soundtracks. So we could actually do voice and we actually went into the studio. That’s why I was hired initially, because of my background in broadcasting. I was hired to create the audio tracks for the computer.
And so, now I’d go into the studio and bring talent in and we’d do kind of a variety of software products. From entertainment with its, you know, simple games like Sub Chase and things like that. We did adult instructional things like home vegetable gardening and things like that. We had a little checkbook balancer program and bedtime stories for children, which were a lot of fun to do. And so forth. The neat thing about that was the system only had 2K of memory—2K of display memory, and 2K of useful programming memory. It’s hard to imagine a system like that, today.
SAVETZ: Yeah, that’s crazy small. Even by that time. That seems limited.
BALTHASER: Yeah. So in order to get around the limited memory, we used the cassette for storage. What this meant was we could load data on the fly, while there was audio going on. We’d load data in the background. So essentially we could have very large programs running and the user wasn’t aware of it, that data would be loading off of the other channel. So that was truly a multimedia machine.
We developed all of the software. In those days there were no tools, nobody knew. This is a brand new industry. Apple, about that time, I think they were selling their Apple in kit form. Which you could buy, like a Heathkit, to build an Apple computer. And you know, we were just inventing things along the way. We had to, we had to make our own tools. There were no tools to create art, to create sound or anything. We didn’t even have a display to do our programming. I mean, we programmed off of, what were then used DECwriters. They were these upright printers with a keyboard and you entered code right there and printed it out on paper. There were no monitors or anything like that. The operating system, the little computer that we used for development, didn’t even have an operating system that would manage your files. We had to do all of that by hand. You talk about primitive!
The neat thing was, we did develop ways to get non-technical, non-computer people to actually create programs for this system. They were writing binary code basically and they didn’t even know it. We just had instructions on, you know, we developed all kinds of tools, layout tools for graphics and animation and so forth. So, we just invented things on the fly. And we developed, as is usual in software, we way overpromised Montgomery Ward what we could do. But we did manage to get, I think, something like a dozen of fifteen programs out in a fairly short time.
We were under pressure because they featured us on the front two-pages of their massive catalog that they sent out to their customers, so we were under enormous pressure to get that done. So anyway, Montgomery Ward sold it and distributed it. The only thing was, everything was so new they had nowhere to sell it. They didn’t have an electronics department at that time at Montgomery Ward. So they sold this system in the sporting goods department of all things. So, needless to say, it wasn’t a spectacular success.
I think their initial order was 50,000 units, and we delivered those units to them but shortly after that the company ran low on money, ran out of money eventually and went south. It was just one of those eras of a lot of companies out there trying to do something and maybe we were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Columbus Ohio was not the heart of technical creativity in those days, or venture capital or anything like that. Maybe if we had been out in California here, in the Silicon Valley, it would had been different. But anyway, the small group of us there, all came out west after the Authorship Resource was eventually absorbed by Cybervision, the company. When Cybervision went out, a group of us came out to California to work, and to work for Atari specifically.
SAVETZ: Now did you come out with the intention of getting hired by Atari, or did all of you have secured jobs before you came out to California?
BALTHASER: No, no. It wasn’t in one mass exodus. It was, you know, everybody was stunned when things went south and the first person to come out—the two founders of Authorship Resource were John Powers and Joe Miller. John Powers flew out first to interview, just to come out to Silicon Valley to interview for a job. He had interviewed for some data processing company, I think in Florida and flew down there, and was almost ready to take a job down there.
Then he flew to California and had an interview at Atari when they were breaking off their Atari video game system and creating the personal computer system. So they had developed the Atari 400 and 800. And they needed a separate division and just so happened John’s timing was perfect, they hired him to be director of software development. And from there then, John hired me, Brenda Laurel, Joe Miller and Jeff Schwamberger. So there were John, Joe, Jeff, Brenda, me—five of us that came out and worked for Atari.
SAVETZ: So sort of a lot of the crew from Authorship Resource picked up and went from Ohio to California.
BALTHASER: Yeah. We were basically the crew there doing all the software. The hardware engineer that had been at the hardware system, he came out to interview but he just couldn’t make the transition so he opted to stay back in Columbus and his technicians stayed there. But to us five that were the heart of the software crew came out here and worked for the Atari personal computer system [starting in spring of 1980].
Talk to the San Francisco Webgrrls: Brenda Laurel (July 1997)
FULL TRANSCRIPT: http://gos.sbc.edu/l/laurel.html
LAUREL: …But my friend by the way, the person is Joe Miller who was, I guess, vice president at Sega and president of Sega and is now a retired millionaire, but I don’t know. But he is a fine human being and I thank him for everything.
So he got this job to do software for Plato so I had my first on-line stuff happening in 1977 so when people say what are your favorite websites I have to say “You know, I don’t go there that much.” The sunrises and sets and I’m still in front of the computer. It’s embarrassing, but it’s true and it happened in 1976.
Anyway, we were working on Plato, and this guy came in the office, this inventor guy who had made his most recent fortune doing exercise machines that you hooked up to a doorknob that made your abs good. And he had found this nerd, and this nerd had gotten these 1802 chips from NASA.
And he had worked with the ELF — now this is way back. Only four or five of you remember this. And the agent 02s and he clued together this thing called Cybervision.
It was this tiny screen 100-something by 50-something. I can’t do the powers of age stuff. But it was a little screen and four colors. And when this guy came in, all he could do was show the alphabet on the screen, but he had placed 10,000 units of it with Montgomery Wards and had to show them on Monday.
So Joe said give me a refrigerator full of Dr. Pepper and we’ll work with it. By Monday morning we had some dancing letters and an address book. These were like radical ideas.
This was the first graphical display I had seen in those days. So I gave up full-time acting work to work for Joe because he had this idea and Montgomery Wards thought we should build interactive fairy tales.
This is before Pong, all right?
FROM THE FLOOR: [Laughter].
LAUREL: So I’m coding. Within two weeks I’m writing code. It’s like a bee flying, you know. And I’m doing lip synching. Romanian hangman with 16 lip positions. We had 2-K of RAM. Loading at 200 BAUD from cassette tape. And when there was a drop-out you were hosed. You know, one little piece of oxide fell off and it was over.
When they came around and said you have 16-K of RAM we started laughing about an interactive version of War and Peace. Things don’t get better than that.
FROM THE FLOOR: [Laughter].
LAUREL: Well, there were a couple of competitors for Cybervision. There was a company called Intellivision. And then there was this upstart called Atari. And they got bigger and bigger and bigger and Cybervision got smaller and smaller and one day we were standing on in the unemployment line and we thought let’s check out Atari. So one by one all of us at Cybervision ended up at Atari. That was Joe Miller, Ken, myself, Jeff who is now at Oracle. They’ve all ended up in big spots. Many people. Neal, this guy’s son is now a senior producer and already has been president of his own software company. It’s wild.
We’re not supposed to have history yet, but we do. We all came out to work for Atari. I started as an educational software designer. But Atari was growing like cancer in ’79 and ’80 if anybody here was there you know what I mean. It was insane. It was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I went from software specialist to director of software marketing in six months. I guess because I could write an English sentence and answer the phone at the same time. But, you know, suddenly I have like 40 people and we’re inventing applications and I’m saying to Ray. If you want this computer to be different we shouldn’t spend 80% of our budget doing Pacman. We should do word processing. They were scared of that.
We could do things about checkbooks and recipes. At one point they asked me, “What would women like?” This made me angry at 20-something. So I came back with a flippant list that included the Appliance Manager…
Smithsonian Institution: Interview with Brenda Laurel (January 10, 2017)
LAUREL: …Anyway, at the time, I was playing around with interactive theatre, too. When my friend Joe Miller approached me to come work at his little new company, CyberVision, it was like, “Well, of course. I’m already doing this, kind of.” But that, of course, opened a whole other kettle of fish.
WEAVER: Well, what was CyberVision? Because you said that you met Joe Miller there, yes?
LAUREL: I actually met Joe through my boyfriend. Joe was head of the Computer Science Club at my boyfriend’s high school. He was gorgeous and smart. Can’t ask for a better combination. He was working at Battelle Memorial Institute in 1975, 1976. He and I were out one night running around under the influence of something and he said, “You want to see where I work?”
We go into Battelle and he takes me through this maze of hallways and stuff to a terminal where images from Mars are painting themselves in pixel by pixel. I had a religious experience. I just fell to my knees and said, “Oh my god. Whatever this is, I want a piece of it.”
A year later, he and another colleague at Battelle founded the company that was to become CyberVision Home Computer Company.
CyberVision was an 1802-based computer. Those were popular with NASA because they could withstand extremes of cold, for example. It connected to a television and it had an alphanumeric keypad. This is just like Heathkit time.1 It’s a bore. When we got our first units back from manufacturing, they had spelled words wrong on the labels. We had to ship it with, like, these typos. Anyway, Joe said, “Well, why don’t you come do some interactive fairy tales.”
I thought, “That’s great. That’s really trippy. I’ll do that.”
I was working there while I was working on my Ph.D. generals. We were inventing interactivity, in a way. I mean, you look back at 1976, 1977, interactivity is changing the channel. It’s turning off the iron before you leave home. But interactivity as we know it now in the world of games and interactive computing was just not present. At least not in the technology environment. It was totally present in human-to-human behavior and human-to-nature behavior, but we kind of had to make it up. The CyberVision computer only had 2K of usable RAM. [Laughs.]
We were loading code from cassette tape, and, luckily, that meant we were able to speak character’s lines. We would do an audio recording within little interrupts that would cue actions to happen on the screen. That was the bonus, but the downside was you could only squirt 2K in there. You had to have basically a converging node, because the player couldn’t make a choice that would really influence the action. We didn’t have enough memory to store those choices, even if we would have had an elaborate branching structure. You could imagine it was really frustrating. Just asking the question of, “What could this be? What is this thing called interaction?” was sort of the formative moment of my career.
WEAVER: And how far did you take it at that company? In other words, did that company succeed? If it didn’t succeed, to the best of your recollection, why? Because, as you said, you were pushing the envelope. What happened?
LAUREL: Well, that’s a really good question. It was sold through Montgomery Ward’s. They sold 10,000 units. We thought that was amazing. Competition was starting to show up from the baby console business with Atari and other platforms. But I think essentially we were just all isolated in Columbus, Ohio, with very little capital and no sense of how we were going to distribute beyond this Montgomery Ward’s deal. I’ve been a crash dummy so many times. This may have been the first time. But when we finally had to take that company out, one by one, everybody emigrated to California. Most of us ended up at Atari…
WEAVER: Well, speaking of computer games, you had mentioned at the end of CyberVision that you were then bound for Atari. Now, I think that there was a logic to that in terms of Joe Miller, wasn’t there? In other words, how did you actually get to Atari? Then would you tell us about your experiences at Atari?
LAUREL: Sure. Joe Miller and John Powers, the two founders of CyberVision, both came out [to California]. John is actually the one who recruited me to come to work at Atari. He got me in the door. The Atari 400/800 computers were just coming out. It was my job to think about software strategy for those computers. I eventually built a team of six or eight people, some of whom had been at CyberVision, to work on that problem. I’m going to get ahead of myself in a minute. [Laughs.] When Warner bought Atari from [Nolan] Bushnell, the culture completely changed…
LAUREL: Well, let’s stop for a minute. After I left Activision and had my second child, my old friend Joe Miller from CyberVision, who was now at Epics, hired me ostensibly to save a couple of productions that were underway. As time moved forward, it became clear that the company was going down. At that point, my job was to wind down production teams, make people feel okay about themselves, make sure they got paid, etc. That was kind of a sad interlude.
Last Updated on April 15, 2023.