I played football with a computer named Hal last week and I can tell you: Those androids will be tough to beat in the Semiconductor Super Bowl.
I was calling plays for the San Diego Chargers and Hal was coaching the L.A. Raiders.
"Short pass," I barked into my headset on third-and-two, only to discover that Hal had ordered a defensive blitz. My mistake glared in the live-action NFL game films as Quarterback Danny Fouts went down in a sea of blue jerseys and the play-by-play announcer proclaimed a seven-yard loss.
I was forced to settle for a field goal and Rolf Benirschke almost blew it when Hal stacked up his defensive line and very nearly blocked the kick.
Hal -- his real name is Halcyon, but everybody calls him Hal -- is the most amazing football machine ever invented.
Calling Hal a video game is like comparing the Redskins to a half-decent high school team.
When you play a video game, you jiggle a joy stick, squint at a screen and watch little stick figures scramble around on an animated football field.
When you play football with Hal, you stalk the sidelines wearing your headset, calling plays with the grace under pressure of an offensive coordinator and seeing the results on official NFL footage, complete with cheering crowds and live-action play-by-play.
Unless you're Jack Kent Cooke or Berl Bernhard, playing football with Hal is as close as you're ever likely to get to owning your own team.
Unfortunately, at $2,500, Hal costs almost as much as a USFL franchise. And this is not one of those electronic flash-in-the-pan products whose price is going to drop to $2.98 by the end of next season.
What Hal is, is a top-of-the-line laser-disc video player hooked up to a sophisticated computer and controlled by a voice-activation device. (If you already have a Pioneer laser-disc machine, you can save a few hundred bucks and just buy the rest of the unit.)
Halycon is made by RDI Video Systems, a company named for its founder and president Rick Dyer. At 30, Dyer is a virtual semiconductor septigenarian who has been in the computer-game business since the days of Pong. He's the techno-force behind Dragon's Lair, the arcade game that was named to the Videogame Hall of Fame for first exploring the gaming potential of interactive laser discs.
Laser disc is one of those technologies whose time has been coming for quite a while. Made by Pioneer, laser disc has crucial advantages over the similar RCA video-record system, which died last year. With a laser disc, you can jump back and forth from one spot on the record to another at the touch of a button.
That's how the video football game works. When you call for a play, the computer finds the proper alignment among the more than 300 plays stored on the disc in less time than it takes to send in a signal from the sidelines. But first it matches your offensive play against one of five defenses, chosen either by a second player or by Hal himself.
To make things fair, Hal always picks his play first, whether he's playing offense or defense. With 10 basic offensive plays and five defenses, there are plenty of possible combinations.
Mike Knauer, the 26-year-old who programed Hal, says the odds of any offensive call succeeding are roughly equivalent to the likelihood of success in a real game. If throwing the bomb against a "prevent" defense is a 5-to-1 shot, then the machine may have five long pass plays -- one catch, a couple of dropped balls, a sack and an interception.
You can call a timeout -- and change signals after the play is called -- but don't take that as an opportunity to get another beer. You'll be hit with a delay-of-game penalty if you don't call another play in time.
You can improve your percentages on a limited number of plays per quarter by giving the team a pep talk. Of course, Hal does the talking: "Let's win one for the gipper," he droans in a thick computer accent. "Remember guys, there's no tomorrow."
The actual plays used on the video disc were laboriously culled from films of several games between the Raiders and Chargers -- teams that were chosen because RDI is in Carlsbad, Calif., near San Diego.
Acknowledging the geographic and gridiron shortcomings of those two teams, RDI by next spring will have a version of the game with real football -- the Redskins versus the Cowboys. Based on films from the 1983 season, pro football's perpetual grudge match provides a much more exciting, wide-open game, Knauer says.
The opportunity to second-guess Tom Landry ought to sell a lot of those games in Texas. It is the ability to influence actual events rather than merely manipulate abstract images that makes Halycon so satisfying to play, Dyer says.
Dyer admits he's wanted to build a talking computer ever since he saw the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," and makes no apologies for nicknaming his product Hal. The movie's sequel, "2010: The Year We Make Contact," won't hurt business a bit, he concedes, insisting that voice-activation is more than just sizzle to sell the product.
Computer-phobia vanishes when you can talk to the machine rather than punch a keyboard. You no longer have to think of what you want to do and then think of how to make the computer do it; you just give orders. The sense of reality is intoxicating.
Like any well-trained android, Hal knows who the boss is. When you first turn on the system, Hal makes a voice print of your commands. After that, he recognizes your voice and responds only when you call the proper play.
"Hello, Jerry," croaks Hal. "I see we have met before. Do you want to play Raiders and Chargers football?"
"Do you want to be the Raiders or the Chargers?" the computer offers, dispensing with the coin toss. The clock runs in telescoped time to keep the game moving. Play picks up just before the ball is snapped, enabling many more plays to be packed onto the laser disc. At the end of each quarter, you flip the disc over, so the teams move in the proper direction and you get a fresh batch of films.
Obviously, out-coaching Joe Gibbs is not the ultimate justification for putting a $2,500 laser-wielding, talking computer in your living room. Once you have the hardware, each additional disc and program cartridge for new uses should cost less than $100.
A fantasy game that lets you participate in a live-action Disney-quality animated adventure is ready now. Nearly finished are teaching games that let you learn about early exploration of the New World by sailing your own ship, and a Greek mythology lesson in which you meet a mythical menagerie.
You could tour the inside of an automobile engine or the innards of a printed circuit board; you could refight the great battles of history to learn military tactics; you could ask for directions and see the landmarks to guide you; you could . . . you could . . . you could boggle the imagination just thinking about it. I want one.