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11.26.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
ECIDIVISM: After opening two uWinks in southern California, Nolan Bushnell has returned to the scene of the crime, Silicon Valley, the birthplace of the global video game revolution.

The Poet of Play

Silicon Valley's first celebrity entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell is once again at the intersection of technology and pop culture, trying to bounce back like a pixel cluster off a pong paddle.

By Stett Holbrook


PEOPLE need to play. It's in our nature. We especially like to gather and play games together. Add a little something to eat and drink to the fun and you've got one of the most defining human experiences—the party.

So says Nolan Bushnell. And he knows a thing or two about fun and games.

Bushnell, 65, launched the video game industry in 1972, shaping the high-tech culture of Silicon Valley with a little company called Atari. Atari's simple but wildly popular game Pong became a cultural phenomenon and the video game industry exploded from there. Tetris, Donkey Kong, Defender, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Guitar Hero all owe a debt to the pinging balls of Pong.

After selling Atari in 1976, Bushnell opened the first Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre on Winchester Boulevard in San Jose in 1977. The idea behind the restaurants was to give kids and adults a place to play video games in a friendly, family setting. In spite of its famously bad pizza, people came to Chuck E. Cheese's in droves. The food was secondary to the games. The company, which Bushnell sold in 1984, grew into one of the most successful restaurant concepts in America.

Bushnell, who now lives in Los Angeles, has been inducted into the "Video Game Hall of Fame." In 2000, he became one of the first 50 inductees into the Consumer Electronics Association's "Hall of Fame," which recognized his significant contributions to 20th-century technology. Bushnell is also highlighted as one of Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial icons in "The Revolutionaries," a historical view of Silicon Valley on display at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose.

Two decades later, he's about to be more famous than ever—Leonardo DiCaprio's production company is developing a movie on Atari and Bushnell. DiCaprio will play Bushnell.


Fall and Rise

After Chuck E. Cheese, the serial entrepreneur continued to innovate, albeit less visibly.

"When you invent the video game and do Chuck E. Cheese, a lot of the other stuff seems not as noteworthy," he says.

Under the umbrella of Catalyst Technologies, one of Silicon Valley's first technology incubators, he created Etak, the first car navigation system that he later sold to Rupert Murdoch for $50 million. He founded Androbot, a personal robotics company; and ByVideo, the first online ordering system.

But Bushnell's Midas touch didn't last forever. A bruising legal battle with Merrill Lynch put his career on ice for several years. The unsuccessful fight resulted in the loss of his family's private assets and the sale of their mammoth Woodside home for $5.5 million in 1999, 48 hours before foreclosure.

Out from under the Merrill Lynch debacle in 1988, Bushnell went back to the drawing board to create a new company, uWink. The company launched in 2000, but has undergone several incarnations. The company was first envisioned as coin-operated, Internet-linked video games that allowed restaurant and bar patrons to play each other.

"Everything was going along swimmingly when 9/11 happened," Bushnell says.

He had $6 million of merchandise coming on shipping containers from China, but within 24 hours those orders disappeared.

"It almost bankrupted the company," he says. "That ties up all your cash and you find you go six months without a paycheck. It was really difficult times."

But herein lies the difference between Bushnell and lesser entrepreneurs, and the reason he can't be kept down. Bushnell is dogged in pursuit of his ideas, financial obstacles be damned.

"People don't realize Atari came so close to going bankrupt in 1974," he says. "We actually had sheriffs on the door from being sued and not paying bills. Now people call me up and say, 'Nolan, what do I do? I'm going to miss payroll.' I say, 'Oh, really? How many sheriffs do you have on the doorstep?' They say, 'Well, none.' I say, 'How many collections suits have you lost?' They say, 'Well none.' Well, shit! You've got a long way to go then. ... My attitude is there's always a way to make things happen. I do believe people give up on their ideas and their plans a little bit too soon."


Back to the Valley

uWink has since evolved into a software company that has developed tabletop-mounted touch-screen computer technology that allows patrons to order food and drinks and choose from dozens of games. Ordering is fast and easy. While the technology does away with waiters, humans do deliver the food and help with the touch-screen ordering and navigating some 70 games.

The company has three restaurants, two in the Los Angeles area and one that opened in Mountain View in September. The Mountain View restaurant is sleek and modern-looking and done up in wood and green tones and sustainably sourced materials. The booths, tables and bar all have flat-screen monitors mounted on top. Walking by the restaurant, it would be easy to think it was an office until you see a server carrying a tray of burgers and beer. There are also various images projected onto the walls. Some are just digital eye candy. Others are projections of group games that the entire restaurant can play. It's been called Chuck E. Cheese for adults, but the goal is to attract families, too.

"People are gregarious, social animals," says Bushnell, whose white hair and beard and thoughtful demeanor give him the appearance of a university professor. "The party, festival, the banquet all have an element of food and fun. If you are not a member of a church, or a witch, you don't have any many opportunities for festivities, what I call 'random festivals.' UWink is meant to be that."

Given Chuck E. Cheese's infamous cardboardlike pizza, the food at uWink is better than expected. It's reasonably priced comfort food like burgers, short ribs, macaroni and cheese, and garlic chicken pasta. But like Chuck E. Cheese, the food is just something to eat while playing games.

"I believe that people are people and some of the patterns that they established since they crawled out of the cave are real and part of the DNA," says Bushnell; "uWink has a niche for providing that DNA-driven experience, the need for group play."

While people can play group games at home online, it's not the same as playing in a group setting, he says.

"It's not elbowing them and buying them a beer and having fun."


Defying the Industry

Deep down, Bushnell says, it's in his DNA to be a contrarian.

"I like to go where no one has gone before and to ask myself, 'Where is everyone else wrong?'"

Part of where he sees the video game industry going wrong is its reliance on violent games. Atari had a policy that no game would involve human vs. human violence. You could blow up a tank but not a person. Forty percent of the people who played Atari's games were women. Add intricate, violent games and you lose women and the casual gamer, two groups that uWink is going after.

Bushnell has applied that same nonviolent philosophy to uWink. Some of the most popular games are trivia, truth or dare and a Pictionary-like game. Create games that appeal to women and men and families will come, or so goes the thinking.

Bushnell once imagined opening scores of uWink cafes, but now he's hoping to franchise and license the technology with or without the uWink menu. Chili's restaurant has installed touch-screen terminals at its Chili's Too Margarita Bar at the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport. It's part of a pilot program for possible expansion into many more locations. There are other parties interested in uWink, but the company is tight-lipped about those deals.

While the restaurants are doing well, the restaurant industry has been slow to embrace the technology. A full-blown recession isn't helping either. uWink is a publicly traded company, and last week the stock was trading at a lowly 9 cents a share. Basement-level stock values are hardly unique these days, but a stock selling for less than a dime has a long way to climb.


Third Time Charmed?

While uWink's cutting-edge technology and concept have piqued the interest of the industry, some aren't sure it's going to catch on.

"People aren't really looking to play games while they eat," says Sherri Daye Scott, editor of QSR, a trade magazine for the fast food industry. "That's not why they're there."

While she said the self-ordering technology is more promising, she has her doubts about that, too.

"Right now people want to turn [ordering] over to a waiter and waitress. Restaurants are the one place where you get to be spoiled."

Rob Grimes is chairman of Accuvia, a Maryland-based restaurant consulting firm. He's also an expert on restaurant technology and owns two "fast casual" restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. His critique of uWink is more subtle. He firmly believes tabletop computers are going to be a reality; there are already several companies like Table Top Media and ESP Systems in the market, but none dominate the industry yet.

"I do think that's the future," he says.

Indeed, uWink already has competition from restaurants like Friday's and Applebee's that allow customers to order online or from PDAs. Moving that in-house system into tabletop terminals is not much of a leap and cheaper than going with an outside vendor like uWink, Grimes says.

Given the cost of systems like uWink, he questions whether restaurants, or cost-conscious franchises, will be willing to fork out the money for a system that he says hasn't been proven as a money maker. While the gaming aspect of uWink has its appeal, Grimes sees it as a niche and not something the industry at large is likely to embrace.

While uWink will never find itself in fine-dining white-tablecloth restaurants, the fast, casual segment of the industry is slowly but surely embracing new technology. Paging devices and online ordering are already becoming commonplace. Nation's Restaurant News, a trade journal for the restaurant industry, sees favorable conditions ahead for innovators like uWink.

"Given the inexorably rising costs of labor, food and energy, an extreme extrapolation might lead us to imagine a food-service future that compels conventional restaurants to morph into quasi-vending operations—like digital-age Automats," wrote editor Richard Martin in a recent editorial.


Living in the Future

Ten years ago, Dr. Joseph Durocher, associate professor of hospitality management at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business and Economics, saw the future of restaurant automation.

"The critical link in the future automation of the fast food restaurant will be a computer connecting the customer at the cash register and the machines that prepare the food," he said in a 1988 article in The New York Times.

In Europe, which is ahead of the United States in the use of technology in restaurants, there's now a restaurant in Nuremberg, Germany, called Baggers that allows customers to order from touch-screen computers and then watch as their food travels down a system of rails to their table. While people, not machines, prepare the food, the restaurant is pretty close to what Durocher envisioned.

Bushnell says he's an avid reader of science fiction and tries to imagine whether his ideas can come to life.

 

"Can I envision a future when this kind of technology is not available? and the answer is 'no,'" he says emphatically. "Once you determine that things have to exist in the future, the question is 'Where does today meet the future?'"

Bushnell is hoping to find out.

"People think I've done a lot of weird things, but in fact most of it has been right down the center lane of technology and people having fun," he says. "When I'm with my intellectual buddies I like to say, 'Historically the poet is the person who interprets God for the masses.' I want to be the poet who interprets technology to the masses and makes it accessible and friendly."


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