Reach out, reach out and zap someone.
American Telephone and Telegraph Co. wants to cash in on the lucrative video games business by making it possible for people to play against one another over the phone lines.
While no plans have been set, sources within AT&T say there is "a high probability" that a "telegames" service will be test-marketed before the end of the year.
"The idea is to retrofit existing game terminals with inexpensive modems," says Bell Lab's Hal Alles, director of the computer technology research group. A modem is a device that allows computers to "talk" with each other over the phone lines. These modems, says Alles, "should retail on the order of $50. People would own both the modem and the various games cartridges."
These games cartridges would be specially designed for competitive play. For example, Alles's group has adapted an Atari dogfight-in-space game, Star Raiders, which is normally played against a machine. Each player pilots his own ship in combat and can watch both ships maneuvering against each other on the screen.
Alles says that inter-city chess, bridge or poker competitions would be equally possible. In fact, his group is developing a modem that would allow people to talk with each other while they played. "Just like kibbitzing at the bridge table," says Alles.
"We're looking at a host of opportunities for using the phone network," says Mo Lamb, a marketing studies director for Bell's local operating companies.
"Telegames is just one possibility." However, says Lamb, "it does represent significant revenue potential."
Alles pointed out that revenues from video arcade games from 1982 exceeded $5.2 billion while revenues from local telephone service was $6.2 billion. "By 1990," Alles claims, "revenues from telegames-like service could be greater than those from voice."
However, Bell's Lamb says no revenue projections for telegames have been done at this time.
The problems in introducing telegames seem more organizational than technological. A federal court decision that ended the mammoth AT&T antitrust litigation will create seven new regional telephone companies next January out of the 22 local companies in the old Bell System. The decision appears to bar the seven operating companies from directly owning a telegame service or any other advanced information service. According to Lamb, representatives of the regional operating companies are negotiating with several top videogame companies to "codevelop" the telegames concept, using ideas developed at Bell Labs.
"We see a great potential market in telegames," says William Newport, executive vice president for operations and marketing at the Washington-based mid-Atlantic regional operating company. "It looks to be substantial, we are very actively looking at it."
However, Newport says his operating group has not yet reached a decision on whether to market telegames.
Several personal computer networks--most notably, The Source in McLean and CompuServe in Columbus, Ohio--already offer community video games via the phone lines. Control Video Corp., also in McLean, plans to market low-cost modems for the Atari games unit in an effort to create its own games network.
Atari reportedly will soon introduce a video games telephone called Falcon. However, the entry of the phone company into the video games business could create a new mass market for video games that communicate.
"But remember," says Alles of Bell Labs, "it isn't just for video games but for social games. This is a vehicle for socialization, not just entertainment."