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More than a machine: The history of Halcyon

The smart console that almost made history

Simone de Rochefort has been producing & hosting YouTube videos for Polygon since 2016. She co-directed the upcoming documentary The Great Game: The Making of Spycraft.

Before Siri, Alexa and Cortana, there was Hal.

Not the ill-fated HAL-9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — though they shared a name for a reason. This was the RDI Halcyon, a new home gaming console from inventor Rick Dyer.

It’s considered one of the rarest consoles ever. Every prototype of Halcyon is in the hands of a private collector. Its history is a little confusing, a little silly and a little sad.

A console that can think

Halcyon came on the heels of Dyer’s success with the one-two punch of Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace. These laserdisc arcade games stunned people because they looked like movies and played like — well, a series of stressful quick-time events that made players suffer.

Nowadays, their gameplay seems woefully unsophisticated. Nevertheless, the games gave Dyer a reputation as a forward thinker. And Dyer wasn’t out of ideas. His company, RDI Video Systems, was going to make a home computer.

“It’s like a living entity more than it is a machine,” he said in an interview with News 8. “It also has what we call an artificial intelligence, which is the machine’s ability to learn. It knows what your strengths and weaknesses are.”

Halcyon would be controllable by keyboard, or by voice controls. It knew up to 200 words and could hold rudimentary conversations with the player. Dyer provided the example of a user leaving the console unattended. Upon the player’s return, Halcyon might ask if they had gone to get a snack, and would the player respectfully excuse themself the next time.

(Somehow, this was framed as a good thing.)

RDI also intended to create modules that would let Halcyon control your home.

In a 1985 appearance on the show Computer Chronicles, Proton Corporation vice president Jay Eagle laid it out:

“The next generation of applications will clearly be communication between the user — the consumer who operates Halcyon — and the ability for Halcyon to control the audio/video system, open and close the doors...”

This is no longer the plot of the classic Disney Channel movie Smart House. It’s our reality.

But this conversation happened some three decades before Amazon’s Alexa and its smart home interfacing capabilities would hit the market.

Poor timing

Halcyon was slated to come out in 1985, with a price tag of $2,500 for the voice-controlled model.

You might recognize this as the worst time to release a home console. The home video game market had been plummeting since the 1983 crash, and in 1985, a once billion-dollar industry would be valued at just $100 million.

Of course, 1985 was also the best time to release a console, if you were Nintendo. The NES, which had been out in Japan since 1983, finally made its way to North America that year.

The base model was only $90.

Of course, Nintendo was hoping you’d buy toys. These were the days of R.O.B. the robot and the NES Zapper. Nintendo had the whole package.

Meanwhile, Halcyon was set to ship with just two games: a fantasy game called Thayer’s Quest, and an incomprehensible football game.

In the end, Halcyon never shipped at all.

Investors were put off by the console’s high price, the lack of consumer demand and the cost of production itself. Halcyon’s games stored information on laserdisc and a 16K cartridge. It simply wasn’t cost-effective.

RDI Video Systems went under, and the most revolutionary console of the ’80s essentially disappeared.

What happened?

Every so often a Halcyon model pops up on eBay again. On forums, vintage console fans warn each other not to get their hopes up about finding one — it’s too expensive, and too rare.

Thayer’s Quest had some legs, even after Halcyon’s failure to launch. It had a CD-i release, and even a PC version under the title Kingdom: The Far Reaches.

And it was far from Rick Dyer’s last game. He went on to design Time Traveler for Sega, a simultaneously silly and cool arcade offering that was billed as “the World’s First Holographic Video Game.” Dyer was poking at the boundaries of what games should look like, years after Halcyon faded from memory.

Even as recently as 1996, he was being interviewed in the debut issue of Animation World Magazine under the heading “the frontier of animated CD entertainment.”

Looking back on Halcyon, the console with its stilted voice and awkward games seems absurd. But in some odd way, it predicted our future.

Voice-controlled consoles may have gone out with the Kinect, but smart houses and smart phones feature ever more sophisticated voice interaction. The science fiction of the ’80s is the reality of today.

Hal may not have directly inspired our present, but it was there first.