Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 09/83 item 01 - scanned

Atari has just opened a couple of 'learning centres' in a six month experiment to see if they become profitable. If successful the company plans to open hundreds all over the world. The centres resemble normal retail stores, except the only thing they sell is computer training.

They are staffed by people whose primary skill is teaching rather than anything to do with computers. This idea has much to commend it and I've got a feeling that we could all be staring a massive opportunity in the face. Thankfully, you don't need the megabucks of Warner Communications to be able to set up your own. It's an opportunity for anyone prepared to do a conscientious job, even with limited capital. Atari's approach would seem to lend itself well to adaptation and, since I'm already deeply involved in one business, I offer my initial thoughts on the subject freely to anyone who cares to have a go.

Looking at a little bit of history we find that the most popular type of arcade game for a long time was the one which offered you a chance to make your money grow. The fruit machine is the most widespread and popular of this type of game: the odds are stacked against the player, but the machines occasionally cough up large sums of money. Imagine the joy of the arcade machine owners and operators when video games came along. Here were machines that simply took money, never having to give it back. At the same time, games such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders were just as addictive as the fruit machines. A player's skill is rewarded with 'free' goes and extended play but since there aren't too many really good players around, this only made the tiniest dent in a very profitable activity.

Then came personal computers and home video consoles. Suddenly people could play these games at home. Why pay a fortune in an arcade when you could refine your skills at 'Galaxians' in the comfort of your own living room? Apart from the costs of electricity and of the computer amortised over a couple of years, you are probably well in pocket compared with what you might have spent in the arcades. This must have sent some cold shivers down the spines of people who derived their living from the arcade business. Atari was hit twice more because its personal computer division wasn't as successful as it ought to have been. At the same time as the bottom dropped out of the video console business, computers fell in price and gained in facilities.

Atari needs to revive its fortunes by finding more arcade hits, by starting to shift its computers and software or by starting a new business. Three-dimensional arcade games spring to mind as one possibility. The important thing is to use advanced technology which isn't available on home computers. The computer side needs a shot in the arm or Atari somehow needs to cash in on the threat posed by the other manufacturers.

The learning centres would seem to be a very smart way of getting out of trouble. They are in the arcade tradition in that they are rooms which people enter leave money behind and leave with nothing physical except for some changes in the molecular arrangements of the brain. They take advantage of the boom in personal computing by offering to remove the mystique and fear felt by so many people. They also offer the company a new marketing platform for its own range of products which could lead to a healthy upturn in sales.

Assuming that you decide to open a learning centre, it could differ from the Atari model in a number of ways. For example, you could try to make the centre as automatic as possible by using the computers themselves to teach the punters. Each machine could have a coin box at the side, rather like a parking meter, so that the user can easily see how much time is left and, no doubt, feed it with coins. (Atari is currently charging $7.50 an hour for using the centre.) A few hard disks in a back room could hold all the programs and temporary user files, and a couple of assistants could be on hand when people get stuck or things go wrong. The users could have access to educational programs and demonstrations as well as real programs for people who are qualified in some way to call them up.

Perhaps there could be some sort of 'graduation' process which rewards users with a personal password sequence or something. It could be even more subtle than that. How about the computer 'fingerprinting' qualified people so that it recognises them by their typing style? Once people find hardware or software they fancy perhaps they could buy it on the premises. In large towns, the prices would need to be within a few pounds of the local discount houses. Elsewhere, where competition is less fierce, you could charge normal prices without too much trouble.

It seems to me that this could become quite an industry, certainly for the next few years while people are still at sixes and sevens with computers. It also has the great merit of appearing socially more worthy than running an amusement arcade.