25 May 2010

Virtually the Future

On May 23rd we encountered the thirtieth anniversary of Pacman. It is hard to believe that so much time has passed since that little video screen character came into being but the year 1980 is a dividing line of sorts where the coming of Pacman and the IBM Personal Computer changed everything. Pacman was really just a novelty but the IBM “PC” gave the average person the ability to go from “catch-up” and “always falling behind” to “real time”. As soon as the accountants discovered this and began using basic primitive spreadsheet programs like VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 the “bottom line” moved up to “top dog” and accounting departments went from riding in the caboose to sitting up front in the locomotive.

Pacman and its earlier cousin Pong (1972) lead the video game parade but it wasn’t long before there were other video games. I remember how the kids (and their dads) queued up in the foyer of our local movie theater where the pin ball machines were placed to catch spare quarters in between movies. The young people were no longer gathered at the pin ball machines though. They were lined up in front of a primitive video game called “Space Invaders”. About that time a young man at the Union Pacific Railroad named Tom Campbell realized what a powerful hold that a video screen had on people. After all, the younger generation at that time had grown up staring at a television set. He developed a training program for the UP Mechanical Department employees called “Pacman Carman”. In railroad lingo, a “carman” is someone who repairs and maintains railroad cars. That is the field that I work in.

Up until “Pacman Carman” came along the UP training sessions were given in a classroom by an instructor who stood in front of a blackboard. Just like school teachers the world over some of the instructors were very good and could hold the students’ attention but there were also some teachers who were boring and the student’s attention would gradually drift away. Tom realized that if he put the best instructors in front of a camera and video taped the training session then they could replay the tape anywhere in front of any number of students and he could consistently control the quality of the instruction. After all, most of the students had been watching television since before they could remember.

Tom’s new idea worked like a charm. The training results improved dramatically and the training costs were greatly reduced. The students focused on the TV monitor and the training sessions could be replayed as often, and to as many people as necessary. No longer did they have to gather people into groups at a specific location at a specific time in front of an instructor. You could instruct just one student or you could instruct twenty students with just a video player and a TV set. Here we are thirty years later and we still do the same thing but now we have even more tools like the Internet and YouTube tutorials instead of just video tape.

I don’t think the story ends here, however. I think that we are about to enter the 3-D virtual world where you can see how things are assembled and disassembled in three dimensions on your computer screen. I was surprised to find that right now the Video Game Industry at twenty billion dollars annual revenue is bigger than the movie industry at only seventeen billion dollars. Today you can actually study video game design in college and start out earning a salary of forty thousand dollars per year right out of school. Just recently I started taking some formal art lessons. I only took a few because it was too boring. The teacher kept reminding me that I must follow the method of the old masters because that is the way to learn “art”. It struck me that I really don’t need lessons from the “old” masters but rather I need lessons from the “new” masters. I believe that if Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and their contemporaries were alive today they would probably be working at computers in the realm of virtual art. I always thought that if you wanted to know what the future would be like you could just take a video tape of the past and roll it forward. I don’t think that anymore. I think that the future is a whole new ballgame. Batter up!


Don Cuevas said...

A different sort of and interesting post. Thanks, Bob.

I played PacMan once. Just once. It was too "buzzy" for me.

Don Cuevas

Calypso said...

Bob - you are a good guy! I enjoy reading your Blog - thank you for it and the sensibility you bring to the table.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.