Remember “PONG?” If you do, you’re probably old, or certainly “old-school,” and likely a die-hard video gamer. Atari made quite the splash, back in 1972 when they introduced the world to PONG and pioneered a whole new industry. Since its debut, a lot has changed.
Grit Daily caught up with Steven Tan, GM of UNIS Technology, one of the leading manufacturers of amusement machines, to learn about “the resurgence of PONG.” We wanted to hear more about how the company aims to “bring back the magic.” They will be launching their 4-player PONG table, Knockout, at CES 2020 in Booth # 21906, Tech East, South Halls 1-2, Ground Level.
Grit Daily: As one of the millions of PONG fans, it’s a real pleasure to be speaking with you today. This 4-player analog PONG table has come along way from its inception in Uruguay in 2014. The inventors had no technical or engineering backgrounds, but they are classic inventors who tinkered until they created something incredible. Tell us about their journey to UNIS Technology.
Steve Tan: Daniel Perdomo, the founder of Calinfer in Uruguay, is the mechanically inclined inventor who dared to dream. He visualized an analog PONG table and applied physics principles to recreate the gaming experience without digital software or screens. Instead, he applied motors, rails, pulleys, and magnets to offer users with an immersive experience.
Like most inventors, he showcased his creation on YouTube in 2016 and his video quickly went viral. Clearly, the world still loved PONG. However, Atari still owned the rights to the game and Perdomo was trying to secure a right-to-use license so he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds required. Within just a few weeks, he had 322 backers who pledged $335,422 for the cause.
And that’s when it caught my attention. The fact that it was an analog recreation made it exceptionally cool as it’s more difficult to develop than to simply supersize and existing digital representation. By that time, Perdomo was about halfway along in his product design and development process. Most inventors fail to factor in the experience and infrastructure required for production, quality control, packaging, and sales.
UNIS Technology recognized the opportunity to provide financial support, expertise, guidance and a global distribution channel in 100 countries to push the invention over the finish line. Investments and effort required to do something like this, on this scale and magnitude, require substantial investment and UNIS Technology was prepared to go the distance.
GD: Why was an analog version so appealing?
ST: UNIS is always looking for the “next thing” plus we routinely get proposals and offers of all kinds. Our audience, which is largely the tech-savvy Millennials, want something different.
All things retro have been trending for the past few years. We immediately recognized its potential as a cornerstone for a new product line. We launched the Cocktail, Arcade and Coffee Table versions of the game to appeal to hobbyists along with arcade and bar owners and enthusiasts.
At CES 2020, we will be launching the next generation of the PONG table, the Knockout, which leverages AI, enables 4-way play to increase the social aspect, adds coin-based operation for commercial use and opens the door to emerging trends in gaming.
GD: What are some of the cool new features of the PONG Knockout Table?
ST: Sound enhances the overall experience so we’ve amped up the auditory engagement by providing sound effects including Bluetooth connectivity to allow users to integrate their music playlists for a more personalized experience.
The three speed modes, Easy, Normal and Expert are available for the arcade version, however, the Knockout table has even more speeds which independently and randomly accelerate and decelerate which increases the challenge: this was an idea suggested by Dave & Buster’s.
Another idea of theirs was “Reverse PONG” where moving your paddle left makes it go right and vice-versa which adds a whole new level of difficulty to the game. Users can play against their friends, one at a time or as a group of four. Or, they can play solo and compete against the Artificial Intelligence built-into the table.
GD: Why does the world need a PONG table?
ST: Since 2009-2010 or so, all things retro began making their resurgence. Pinball games had never really died out amongst hobbyists, but they started rising to prominence again around that time as arcades and entertainment facilities started popping up after being all but extinct for the past few decades.
Retro games like Centipede, Galaga, and Pac-Man were coming back to life. We also noticed an uptick in online searches for retro games by nostalgia collectors. You can’t even make a fair comparison between the CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) games and primitive digitization of the games of the 1970s to what we have available today, but it doesn’t matter – customers still get a kick out of the old games.
Creating an analog table version of PONG was non-trivial. Enhanced motion control between the magnets and the glass required a lot of effort to perfect.
The 2-player boundary was also something that we wanted to move beyond. Dave & Buster’s asked UNIS to rise to the challenge. AI was going to be needed to enable a social expansion of the game which is the impetus behind Knockout. From here, we can go beyond two and four-player versions.
GD: Why has it taken the world nearly 40 years to arrive at this idea?
AA: Several years ago, there was a vertical Pac-Man with a dot-matrix screen which did very well. All of us in the industry recognized that this was not easily done. In parallel to the technical hurdles, supply chain and distribution channels add complexity to developing and commercializing something like a PONG table.
Licensure is not straightforward, and the field is ripe with unsanctioned knockoffs and imitations. It’s taken 40 years and more time is needed to simplify the path forward.
GD: Where is your PONG Knockout Table going to be sold?
ST: Through our partnership with Dave & Buster’s, we have assigned time-limited exclusivity to them. Once that arrangement is fulfilled, we will be able to sell directly to consumers.
GD: How did the idea of spill-proof, leak-proof glass top come into play?
ST: The ball needed to glide. Originally, Perdomo used PVC in his design but that magnetically distorts the shape of the ball, so we needed improvement. We found a supplier for laminated glass and recognized the value of a contained, spill-proof system that could serve as a table, which is designed to support food and drinks, as well as provide entertainment.
GD: Who is your target market?
ST: UNIS operates a B2B model so chains like Dave & Buster’s, RecRoom and others are our target customers to whom we deliver coin-operated versions of our products.
However, like all companies, we had to consider expansion into new markets, so the Coffee Table PONG was designed for consumers as a B2C offering to test the market’s appetite.
GD: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
ST: PONG Knockout is a game that encourages families, friends, and competitors to play together. In fact, we have several customer testimonials citing the joy that three generations experience playing with our PONG tables.
We’re on a journey to extend the social aspects of gaming as people put a renewed effort into work-life balance and investing in family-time. We’ll see you at CES 2020.