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The Trouble with Robots

Nolan Bushnell wasn't content with starting Atari.  After he sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976 to fund expansion, he left (actually, he had been trying very hard to get himself fired, and at the end of 1978 he got his wish).  As expected, Warner's terms included a non-competition clause which was to last until October 1, 1983.  Nolan couldn't be in direct competition with Atari or in any way directly connected with video games.

In 1983, he formed a new company called Sente technologies, which would create video games (this company was folded in 1984 after the video games crash).  Nolan also formed a holding company in 1982 called Catalyst Technologies, which was a business incubator for new start-ups.  One of these new companies was Androbot Inc, which originated from a group of ex-Atari engineers headed by Walter Hammeken.  Nolan was excited about the future of Robots, and at the January '83 CES with over $1 Million already invested, the first Androbot's called TOPO and B.O.B. (Brains on Board) were shown to the public.

Nolan had already been extremely successful with his "Chuck-E-Cheese" themed restaurants.  This chain was based on the idea that you could have fun before ordering your pizza (and after you had eaten it) by playing video games.  For kids, there was the added attraction of the Chuck-E-Cheese mascots, which were motorised puppets that played-out set scenes.  Although the original idea was created while Nolan was at Atari, Warner weren't interested and he bought back the intellectual rights for $500,000 when he left.

The chain was a massive success, the first store opened in 1978 (San Jose) and the company went public in 1981 (establishing Nolan with a net worth of some $70 Million) - by 1983 there was over 200 Pizza Time Theatres operated in the United States, Canada,  Hong Kong and Australia.

This success ignited the Androbot project, and through Merrill Lynch, the company was to go public in Q2 1983.  Problems hit the project from the start, it wasn't until early 1983 that the first TOPO's shipped and these were unreliable at the best of times.  B.O.B. which was due to be in production by the ed of 1983, but technical problems plagued this unit.  Only a thousand or so TOPO's were sold at $795.00 each (TOPO II was priced at nearly $1600, and only sold a few hundred units).

These were also turbulent times for Nolan Bushnell's other Catalyst companies.  As Chuck-E-Cheese began to hit hard times (loosing $15 Million in 1983), Nolan had to keep investors happy in his other projects, while managing the impending troubles on the horizon.

Another Androbot commercial deal for a product named Androman (a robotic device which would connect to an Atari 2600 VCS) never left the building either, and a deal to sell the project to Atari for $1 Million eventually fell through.  The company never went public, and a legal and financial mess would entangle Nolan Bushnell with Merrill Lynch for over 15 years.

Although these robots may have been ahead of their time in the early 80's (or the consumer was still behind the times?), Nolan persevered with the technology, despite set backs in Androbot Inc. 

Another Catalyst company called "Axlon", was producing robotic toys called "Petsters".  These were cute, fluffy robots that could make noises, recognise a number of hand-claps and move around in all directions.  They even had blinking LED eyes! 

A number of other robotic toys were also manufactured by Axlon, and the company still exists today, but only to serve as a royalty collection service for its previous patents.

Miscellaneous Notes:

:: Branch & Associates of Australia specialized in prototype development, and assembled many of the early Axlon prototypes.  They are still in the robot business today.

:: Androbot was imported into the UK by the official distributor, "Prism".  When Androbot Inc. was in trouble in 1984, TOPO deliveries stopped. Androbot also announced the shelving of plans to export two other robots.  The company is said to have "experienced difficulty in raising production to the required levels for overseas distribution".

U.K. distributor Prism is negotiating for the rights to manufacture the robots under licence but no decision has yet been taken. Prism hopes Androbot will not be halting exports of TOPO permanently; a spokesman for the company said: "We hope to be able to accept deliveries from January, or to be in a position to start our own manufacture."

Copyright 2002 KM/AEX - Do not reprint without permission.


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