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Remembering Alan Kotok 23

Milktoast writes "Alan Kotok, one of the forefathers of gaming, died of a heart attack in May at the age of 64. He helped invent one of the first videogames and game controllers (Spacewar and the Joystick), and has been involved with the W3C for many years. His obituary is hosted at MIT, and there are thoughtful reflections at Ars Technica and Joystick101.org." From the Ars article: "While he didn't write any of the code himself, he did help to build the controller used to fly the ships in the game, and also supplied Stephen Russel with the sine and cosine routines from the DEC. Think about it: he designed a gaming controller when no one knew what that even was."
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Remembering Alan Kotok

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  • Spacewar Lives! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Tackhead ( 54550 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @07:29PM (#15709287)
    The Computer History Museum [computerhistory.org] in Mountain View has a restored PDP-1 [computerhistory.org], and yes, it runs Spacewar. Steve "Slug" Russell was part of the restoration project, and I'd bet good money that Kotok got to play it, barely two weeks [computerhistory.org] before he died.

    Thanks, Alan. Gamers everywhere are in your debt.

  • by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @07:36PM (#15709323) Homepage Journal
    "While he didn't write any of the code himself, he did help to build the controller used to fly the ships in the game, and also supplied Stephen Russel with the sine and cosine routines from the DEC. Think about it: he designed a gaming controller when no one knew what that even was. " [emphasis mine]

    Okay, look, I'm not trying to downplay Kotok's contribution, but is it really fair to say that a game controller was something totally unimaginable? Were there any flying vehicles around back then that were piloted at least in part with some kind of stick? So wouldn't it kind of make sense that you move the ships in a simulation/video game with some kind of stick? If someone walked in him, say, a retired military pilot, would they have said "What the hell are you making? I have no idea!" or "Oh, are you building a controller?"

    It seems to me that you could say he stood on the shoulders of giants rather than doing something really revolutionary. I mean, car steering wheels had been around for a while -- is it really such a jump to think that you could control something with a stick?
    • by jd ( 1658 ) <(imipak) (at) (yahoo.com)> on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @08:42PM (#15709609) Homepage Journal
      Most aircraft of the time used a wheel on a column. If you look at WW2 movies, the smaller fighters used a simple joystick, but anything larger used more sophisticated controls. So you are correct that he may well have been inspired - I can easily believe that - and that prior art certainly existed, I would argue that it was not universal and had largely gone out of fashion. As such, I would very much like to know why he went with such a retro design. They're not robust and if cheaply made (which most are) the wires and soldered connections are extremely fragile.


      However, design them he did, and he must have had his reasons. I would love to know more about his thought process.

    • If you look at the illustration on the Joystick101 page, he apparently came up with something that doesn't really qualify as a joystick, as it uses one lever for (presumably) the 'x' axis and a second lever for the 'y' axis.

      It requires two hands for what you can do with one on a joystick.

      (cue the obligatory masturbation jokes)

      (and of course the one about not knowing that it was obligatory)

      • The switches were appropriate for the game at hand, though... Asteroids etc sometimes just use buttons in fact (though what they're supposed to do when the player presses left AND right I'm not certain)
        • Personally I'd get a button that had both a normally closed and a normally open on it, and I'd run the connections to one button through the normally closed on the other button. That way at least you'd know you could only tell the game to rotate one direction at a time.
      • If you look at the illustration on the Joystick101 page, he apparently came up with something that doesn't really qualify as a joystick, as it uses one lever for (presumably) the 'x' axis and a second lever for the 'y' axis.

        "Back in the day", cars were controlled by some number of levers, before the invention of the steering wheel. After all, we went from reins to a steering device, and the only vehicle you actually steered back then was a ship. While large ships were using wheels, small boats typically

  • I've studied up on computer history. Its amazing how many people were involved in making computers and the computer science field what it is today.

    Good post from slashdot. Interesting stuff.

  • by isdnip ( 49656 ) on Wednesday July 12, 2006 @11:59PM (#15710443)
    I knew Alan personally; he was quite helpful to my own career. He was also a really Nice Guy, a pleasant person to talk to, and always willing to be helpful in explaining things to people who had trouble understanding it. His hobby was telephones, and he was a lead designer of Digital Equipment Corp's internal telephone network, even though it wasn't his real job. He just liked to do it and had the juice to tell the people in charge what to do. He also could help certain famous VPs handle their phones; it's funny how a guy who was a professor and who designed a successful computer family coudln't transfer a call. Alan told me how he was sometimes called upon to help him do that.

    His obituaries note his early work with computer games, but that's like noting that George Washington was an important surveyor. Alan's biggest accomplishment was as lead hardware architect of DEC's 36-bit family. It began as the PDP-6, and went into volume production as the PDP-10, which became the DECsystem-10 and DECSYSTEM-20 families. These were incredible machines, too -- with BBN's TENEX operating system, which DEC adapted into TOPS-20, they were efficient, user-friendly timesharing machines. It's miles away from today's style of computing, but we got a lot done on those machines with our VT-52s!

    Later, he worked on some big RISC machines that DEC didn't build, and he also designed one of the later large VAX machines. Nowadays, processor design is mostly done inside chip firms. There aren't many people like Alan, and we'll miss him.
    • Think! Where would your life be without the joystick? This man may have borrowed the base of the idea from flying machines, or tanks perhaps, but never doubt that he had the vision to stare into an electron tube and think about controlling the screen presentation via an input mechanism. This post celebrates genious. You should too!
  • Does anyone actually believe this guy is really dead? I sure don't, and neither do these people:

    I won't believe it....until I see a body. Just a little too convenient.
    http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=190353&cid=156 61709 [slashdot.org]
    If you really wish to know, then you only have one way to know; DNA.
    http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=190353&cid=156 61943 [slashdot.org]
    Prove he's dead.
    http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=190353&cid=156 61738 [slashdot.org]
    Details on who signed the death certificate are fuzzy, but there are no plans fo
    • Maybe he's just faking his death so that people will remember that he died on a power of two.

      (On second thought... I've met some computer scientists who might actually be crazy enough to try something like that...)
  • by Daysaway ( 916732 )
    If he died on May 26, how is it that /. is finally getting the news?
    The obit dates June 13, and the reflections article dates July 11. And a quick search through slashdot history shows no other articles on the gentleman.

    Alan Kotok, RIP. Better late than never, of course. And thank you for everything!
  • R.I.P. Mr. Kotok... gaming wouldn't have been the same without you.
  • RIP, mate. No way gaming would have ben the same without the good ole' stick. Fighting gamers' peripherial of choice.

Successful and fortunate crime is called virtue. - Seneca

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