Scientists in Computer Gaming: Deciding to Entertain


My parents were both educated in science; my mother was a degreed nurse and my father was an engineer (University of California, Berkeley, 1948). He gave me my first Erector Set when I was 6 years old, and I was hooked on technology. I pounced on my father's Aviation Week aerospace journals as soon as I could read. My mother brought me to the library every 2 weeks to find 10 more books to inhale, mostly about science. I started reading Scientific American at 14, and I still do.

As a kid, I built gadgets and did science experiments. First, I wanted to design airplanes. I built enough airplanes and rockets to make my mother nervous. In my early teens, I wanted to design cars (Southern California in 1963, hot rod heaven). In my late teens I discovered computers. I went to UC Berkeley myself in the fall of 1968, an exciting time. For me, the Berkeley course catalog was like the Sears Christmas Catalog; I wanted to learn everything. I did a double major in EECS (electrical engineering and computer science) and premed, with 5 years of courses wedged into 4 years, graduating one time in 1972. I loved all the science.

I was interested in engineering and medicine because I was looking for a way to apply technology benignly in the world. Medical school was also attractive because of the science. Unfortunately, working my way through Berkeley and carrying those course loads did not help my GPA. I didn't get into medical school right away, despite acing the MCAT tests, so I found work doing medical research and designing medical instruments. The turning point came in 1975. I was working in support of a National Institutes of Health research project called ECMO, Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenator. We were doing heroics on people with shock lung. I worked intern hours, lived in surgical greens, and did research. We didn't save many people, but we spent hideous amounts of money in the attempt ($1500 per day). It appeared that I had found an immature field: engineers who used to be in aerospace making gadgets that entranced the doctors, and distracted them from their patients. I became disillusioned with technology in medicine. (I should have been working on ultrasound imaging.)

So, the study ran out of money. They gave us 2 months warning. Meanwhile, I had joined the Homebrew Computer Club in what became known as Silicon Valley. I gave up on medical school and found two job opportunities. The first was at a medical instrument company in Southern California. The second was a young video game company called Atari. I consulted a buddy who was a professional health care administrator. He reminded me that in this age, most people's health care concerns were related to their lifestyle choices (diet, smoking, exercise, etc.). He said, "those people are bored, go entertain them."

I took the job at Atari. I was apprenticed to Jay Miner (The Father of the Amiga computer) and got to work on a lot of successful products. The first one, the Atari 2600, was an astonishing success, selling almost 30 million units between 1977 and 1984.

A high point: fall of 1977, in a Sears store watching waves of children demonstrate the games to each other, hook each other, and complain when their parents tried to drag them away. I had fulfilled my friend's suggestion. I had found my calling.

I have stayed in technology. The next turning point came in 1979, when I discovered computer communications, particularly the potential of what was then called the ARPANET, and the success of the French Minitel system. I have spent the last 20 years integrating communications into personal computers. I have edited a number of International Telecommunication Union recommendations for data, fax, and voice modems. It beat having a job. I have been very lucky to have the chance to apply technology benignly in the world.

EPILOG: When I speculate about retirement, in a decade or so, the most attractive prospect is to go back to my first love, to teach technology and science in middle school. It could happen. A friend of mine from my Atari days has a daughter who has Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder, as a teacher.

JOE DECUIR left biomedical intensive care research after realizing that 10 of 11 patients died. He has now benignly applied technology in the real world for 20 years.

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