In 1983, I was asked by my friend Tom Frisina to consider joining Androbot, a new, well-funded personal robot company founded by Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari. Tom was just made President. (Remember that in 1983 Atari was a hot company.) I went up to visit Tom in San Jose and joined Androbot that same week. There was $10M in VC money (a lot in 1983) but later a Merrill Lynch IPO that got cancelled two days before the offering. It was my (first) dream company turned to nightmare. I still have the original stock certificate as a trophy. In those days, there were noentrepreneurs… we were start-up guys!
Q: Nolan, I see you as the inventor of the video game and I view that as a prelude to the entire Personal Computer industry. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak worked for you at Atari, in the 1970’s, right? What was that like?
A: This all centered around the impact of the 6502 microprocessor for the PC, like for the Apple II and the Atari 2600.The processor cost $80 and sold for $150. Steve Jobs was a really good promoter even then. I sometimes miss those days.
Q: When you and I worked together at Androbot in the 1980’s, it seemed like Walt Disney was your North Star
A: What I think you mean is that I shared with Walt Disney a giant fascination for the ‘synthetic world’. I would say I saw Walt Disney as my “mentor from afar“.
Q: You worked with robots both at Chuck E Cheese and Androbot. What do you think about robots today?
A: Now, the time is right. We need them. The technology was not really good enough in the 1980’s. Today we have Wi-Fi, blue tooth, better batteries, multipath operating systems, and big advantages over single thread and primitive navigation systems. All these things help actually get them do something.
Q: I remember you had a big family back then, what’s the Bushnell family like these days?
A: I have 8 kids; my youngest is 21 years old and the oldest is 45. I have 3 grandchildren. So far my boys have not married.
Q: Other than Atari, what have been your favorite experiences?
A: My favorite projects have been Atari, Chuck E Cheese and Androbot. It’s easy to look back, and these days everything seems possible, it feels that way once you’ve been around. And there’s also Etak, a pioneer in navigation, we created something important there. [From Wikipedia: Etak’s Navigator was the first commercially available automotive navigation system of any practical significance. Etak initially delivered the hardware system, the maps and dynamic content for its automotive navigation system.] It’s all about creating something that hasn’t been done before.
Q: What are you working on NOW?
A: Educational software and game theory as they can help kids learn. These days, I warm-up by writing books. I am on the board of several companies, with a particular interest in augmented reality. I really like the creative process. I also do some public speaking as I like to be involved in projects around the world.
Q: Where is the Tech industry going?
A: I think the best is yet to come; life will be so much more rewarding. I applaud the ‘Internet-of-Things’ industry for how it can contribute to the business and entertainment world. I am looking forward to the ubiquity of vertical applications and augmented reality.
For me, the most important concern is the national educational crises. Education needs to become efficient; we need to de-bureaucratize our struggling school system. Look at the high level of dropouts. What about batch processing of classrooms, with no grades? Teacher-based delivery is flawed. Learning is much better if it’s projects-based.