“Bob Brown had designed Video Music, our weirdest product ever. Hook it up to your stereo and TV at the same time, and the sound triggered some pretty psychedelic visuals. The Sears [Atari’s main retail distribution outlet] guys took one look and asked what we'd been smoking when we did that. Naturally, one of our techs lit up a joint and showed them.” – Al Alcorn, lead engineer at Atari, 1972-1981 [i]
With the possible exception of the Mindlink[ii], the Video Music may be the strangest Atari device ever created. It was 1975. Atari had already a smashing success with the home version of Pong, but it was still before the world-changer that would be the Atari 2600. Engineer Bob Brown, who had worked on the prototype Home Pong console, "decided to make another component that would take advantage of Atari's video display technology and act as a bridge between the television set and the stereo system."[iii] The end result was the Atari Video Music. At first glance, it looked like yet another boring stereo component. One must remember that at this time, hi-fi stereos, TVs, and other electronic components with fake wood particle board siding were extremely popular. Of course, woodgrain was the key fashion accessory for consumer appliances in the 70s.
Initial setup was fairly simple: the audio outputs of your sleek bachelor pad stereo would be sent over your equally sleek (if somewhat entangled) RCA audio cables, on to the inputs on the back of the Video Music. It was then hooked up to your television set (on the old analog standby for external televisual input, channel 3).
Put on music and power on the Atari Video music, and you would be greeted with a simple colored blocky diamond shape. "By playing around with any of the 12 buttons and 5 knobs you could custom create an effect on your TV that would dance, bounce and gyrate to the beat of the music you were playing."[iv] Knobs adjusted the size, colors, and “contour” (in this case meaning “blockiness”) of the shapes. Shapes included the aforementioned solid diamond, along with hollow diamonds and concentric diamonds; these shapes were selected by buttons. The remaining buttons controlled how many shapes were on the screen at one time and whether they were stacked vertically or horizontally.
The Video Music went on sale in 1976 at a retail price of $169.95.[v] It was met with either consumer confusion or indifference. The high cost didn’t help. One last push for viability came at the Winter Consumer Electronics Showcase in January 1977, where Billboard magazine reported Atari as selling the system to be used with projectors and large screens: “ideal for discos.”[vi] Production of the units ceased shortly thereafter.
The item quickly faded from the market as Atari moved into more conventional means of entertainment (though no less groundbreaking). Its last major appearance was when Devo used the Atari Video Music, coupled with bluescreen technology, in the future-retro sweetness that is "The Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprise" in 1979.[vii]
You can find them occasionally on eBay now, going up to $300 and more. An adventurous few who own units have performed circuit-bending experiments. The true legacy of this unique device is borne out in visualization plug-ins for music software. Beginning with RealAudio, Windows Media Player, WinAmp, moving to PlayStation2, Xbox, and iTunes, and into the present… the desire remains for wacky colors and shapes to correspond with whatever the masses are listening to.
Author Ian Bogost also points out that the Atari Video Music “offers a sign of what would become the unique contribution of videogames offer to the experience of music. Instead of listening, watching, dancing, or otherwise taking in music, videogames offer a way to perform it.”[viii] So perhaps this device can also be seen as an indirect forefather to Guitar Hero and the like. Quite the accomplishment for a bizarre commercial failure. Rock on.
[vi] “Winter CES Is Full of Surprises.” Billboard 29 January 1977.
[vii] “We had this thing that made Navajo blanket patterns to music” – Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, clearly referring to the Atari Video Music.
The Complete Truth About De-Evolution. Voyager Laserdisc 1993. Film.
[viii] Bogost, Ian. How To Do Things With Videogames. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.