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Thread: Help needed with early-'80s computer specifics for fictional story (screenplay)!

  1. #1

    Lightbulb Help needed with early-'80s computer specifics for fictional story (screenplay)!

    Hello everyone!

    Several years ago I came onboard the forum and a whole host of talented computer aficionados came to my rescue with great info and insight on vintage tech from the 1980s.

    That thread (http://www.vcfed.org/forum/showthrea...ictional-story!) garnered over three dozen responses and three thousand views, and helped guide my creative process, and to those current (and former) members of the forum who contributed, your imaginative musings and reality-based solutions contributed a whole lot to the product, and I've never forgotten that valuable input.


    I'm working on something new this time, and I'm back to see if any the following may pique your interest:


    The project I have now received funding to work on and complete is an audio/visual fusion (basically a "radio" play, but with some visual elements), that will be released online. One of the main conceits upon which the story hinges is that a computer user has discovered an old home-brewed computer program, running on some type of old computer terminal -- a technological diary of sorts left by some unknown and unseen programmer detailing the lead-up to what we eventually reveal is a cataclysmic nuclear event. (Think Able Archer '83.)

    I don't intend on mentioning a specific brand or model of computer, because we'll never actually see much of the machine aside from the screen, but it's important to me that it look and behave like something that could conceivably have been put together during the time frame of 1980-1985. (And it does NOT have to be a computer made for the casual computer market; in fact, there's reason in the story that this could in fact be a very powerful "terminal" connected to a system with lots of resources, but more on that in a bit.)

    The visual aspects of the technology that excite me most, purely from a filmmaking standpoint:

    - the clicking and humming of the boot-up screen
    - the great vintage hard drive sounds
    - scan lines
    - H-sync
    - noise
    - flicker
    - monochrome text

    All of these will be more or less "emulated," including simple animation to make the running "program" visually interesting. For that really authentic CRT visual quality, we plan on taking a page from the makers of the game "Alien: Isolation" (see: "Tube TVs, VCRs and Magnets Give 'Alien: Isolation' Its Signature Look.")

    We plan to lock ourselves in a dark room and film an actual television (or computer monitor) running these images. That gives us complete control over camera movement -- focusing on one aspect of the screen in particular, effecting slight zoom-ins and zoom-outs, skewing the angle slightly -- in order to emphasize the distortion effects inherent in a curved, glowing "fishbowl" screen.



    The problem is this: I want to incorporate audio and video elements in the program.


    I know enough about '80s tech (meaning, not a whole heck of a lot), to know that computers of that period would never have had the internal memory or technical capability to store and play "audio logs" or "videos" in the way we take for granted now. (And suspension of disbelief notwithstanding, the last thing I want to do is insult the viewer by suggesting something onscreen which clearly defies all historical precedent, even for amateur computerphiles). I imagine any video content, any audio content would be stored on a physical medium -- videotape or audio tape -- and the computer program would have to access them by controlling the physical, mechanical devices that play these stored contents from a library of such tapes.

    Do any of you have any experience with such a system, or have heard of such a thing?

    If this could only conceivably be achieved by a very expensive set-up, in a place with large resources and the money to implement it, where would that be? Could a well-funded university have a "Media Studies" department where such equipment could exist, and a lone programmer could write his own code to key up stored physical media (in this case, archival footage of television news clips and Ronald Reagan speeches)?

    Could footage retrieved and played in this way -- by analog means, with something like a sophisticated, computer-controlled VCR -- play on the same terminal screen that runs the program? Would any screen available at this time be able to visually "switch" -- from a command-line interface, to playing video from an outside source, and then back to the regular interface?

    (In my mind this would be denoted by a very noticeable "flutter" or "jarring" effect, to denote the monitor switching from one "mode" to the other. If this is in fact possible, practical, or historical is a question you guys are better at answering!)



    I have some more general queries -- including what a (fictitious but believable!) boot-up screen and command-line interface would look like -- but the preceding should be a good starting point. All of this -- getting the technical and visual aspects right -- goes a long way towards serving the story and the characters, and paying homage to the vintage tech.

    Any and all input is welcomed!

    (And you better believe you'll get credit when the finished product launches via the web, whether it be your usernames or real names. I love the idea of including "TECHNICAL ADVISORS" or "COMPUTER SYSTEMS ADVISORS" in the end credits and listing a bunch of folks from the Vintage Computer Federation!)

  2. #2
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    Probably the earliest "widespread" analogs to a modern multimedia system where the user can arbitrarily browse and play audio and video content were embodied by interfacing a Laserdisc player to a computer. A relatively well-known example of this was the BBC Domesday Project, which was a multimedia presentation very much like what you'd expect from a mid-1990's CD-ROM encyclopedia implemented on a BBC Master computer (a 6502-based computer roughly comparable to an Apple IIe or IIgs). The system was capable of displaying photos stored in an analog format (TV resolution) along with brief audio and video clips on the same monitor used for navigation.

    From a technical standpoint I think a simple Genlock was used on the BBC system to allow the UI to overlay the Laserdisc output, so on a "library system" like you're describing wouldn't necessarily require the UI to "switch away" with an abrupt mode change. Realistically there might be some "fritzing" of the monitor when switching between video clips (or going from a black screen generated entirely by the computer to the video overlay) if you're using a genlock instead of actually digitizing the input video, though, since it's very unlikely the sync coming off a stored source will exactly match the computer's native output in terms of both frequency and phase. (*) I would suggest studying footage of a Domesday computer in operation (The generic name for it was the "BBC Master AIV"; they did have some other software for it. Not a lot, so you might have some challenges looking for videos of anything other than Domesday running) to get a feel for what a genlocked UI overlaid over analog content might look like.

    (* How severe any "fritzing" might be will probably depend a lot on the exact details of the genlock hardware. I think in part the BBC system looks as clean as it does because the genlocking hardware was actually incorporated into the Laserdisk player and got a nice clean SCART video feed from the computer; it may have taken advantage of this to sync the laserdisc output to the computer's output rather than the more typical reverse situation. A system that used VCRs instead of laserdisk and has to lock onto NTSC video would probably look a lot muddier and require a lower resolution overlay.)

    The above covers the singular case of browsing multimedia off a single disc in the 1980's. As for how a system where someone could just sit at a keyboard and call up arbitrary material from an extensive archive would work, well, obviously that's not going to be a thing unless you have some kind of automated library robot pulling indexed tapes or discs out of storage and dropping them into players for you. I'm reasonably sure tape robots did exist in the 80's, but only at "mainframe scale", so this is a pretty expensive and futuristic library your character is sitting in. Just think of all the man-hours necessary to capture that video, master it into laserdiscs, and index it in the first place...
    My Retro-computing YouTube Channel (updates... eventually?): Paleozoic PCs

  3. #3

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    I think you may have to dream up some sort of anachronistic machine for your project. Monochrome text displays and computer-delivered multimedia never really overlapped.

    I suppose one might have a monochrome text-based UI controlling some sort of automated archival machine that could fetch film or tape and automagically load it into a *different* machine and start it playing, but it would likely play on some other screen rather than the computer terminal's.

    Some sort of anachronistic machine might display high-rez grayscale (or green-scale, if you rather) graphics. You might want to search for examples of "TRS-80 high resoution graphics board" for ideas, although they were monochrome (2 colors, black and green/white), rather than many shades of gray/green iirc.

    Another old machine that was graphically way way way ahead of its time (but still monochrome I believe) was the Xerox Alto.

    Another early monochrome graphical system was PLATO, which may be closest to what you are envisioning. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLATO_(computer_system)

    There's a terminal emulator for X11 called "cool retro term" that may give you the text effects that you want. https://github.com/Swordfish90/cool-retro-term But if your problem domain requires that it be interactive on the web, then I don't imagine that will work for you.

    I have some (unfinished) Java code that gives you an oldskool terminal looking display in a window, along with an InputStream and a PrintStream to read and write to it, but it only does a bezel and scanlines, no other fancy effects. I intended to, but never finished it. Nobody uses Java applets anymore anyway, I guess, but I guess I could send you a copy if you think it might help. It's pretty fugly unfinished code, though. I intended to use it for a Java port of Daniel Lawrence's DND that I also never finished. >_>

    Edit: The only multi-tape archive systems I ever used were gravity-fed. They were meant for backups, not for main data storage. You put a stack of tapes in a chute and the drive sucked one in, wrote it out, and then ejected it and sucked in the next one. The idea was you loaded it up at the end of the workday and then the backup ran automagically in the middle of the night, and all the tapes were ready to box up and put in the vault the next morning. What it sounds like you want is like a giant jukebox, but for film rather than vinyl, yeah? I don't think that's too much of an anachronism. I know there were random-access tape changers that worked like that, but they were too expensive for WVU back in the day when I was sysadmin there. ;P

    More edit: So yeah, I was thinking about some kind of imaginary anachronistic 1960s-era automatic media library. So if you envisaged something like a jukebox, but that contained spools of film rather than records, right? It could spin around and an arm could grab a flim reel and pull it out and slap it onto a feed spool arm, right? Then maybe it could use a vacuum to grab the leader and suck it onto a takeup spool with some sprockets to grab the perforations in the film to get it started on the reel. Probably wouldn't actually work very well in real life, but I think it would be perfectly passable in some kind of fictional retrofuturism context. Then the image could be back-projected onto a screen next to the control terminal, the way a projection TV works. When it was done, the machine would have to fast-wind it all back onto the feed reel and put it back in the carousel.

    Laserdisc would be easier to deal with than film, but in my mind that's more of color graphic 8/16-bit home computer era stuff than monochrome text terminal era stuff. In reality it does overlap with the monochrome serial terminal era, though, just barely.
    Last edited by bladamson; July 22nd, 2020 at 05:43 PM.
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  4. #4

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    Quote Originally Posted by Eudimorphodon View Post
    The above covers the singular case of browsing multimedia off a single disc in the 1980's. As for how a system where someone could just sit at a keyboard and call up arbitrary material from an extensive archive would work, well, obviously that's not going to be a thing unless you have some kind of automated library robot pulling indexed tapes or discs out of storage and dropping them into players for you. I'm reasonably sure tape robots did exist in the 80's, but only at "mainframe scale", so this is a pretty expensive and futuristic library your character is sitting in. Just think of all the man-hours necessary to capture that video, master it into laserdiscs, and index it in the first place...
    Thank you, Eudimorphodon, that was really helpful (even to just put into proper context exactly how unlikely a "robotized" system of tape retrieval would be.) It seems quite a leap, you're right, and probably one that's too unrealistic to really fit in the story.

    What if there were ONE tape? One computer, controlling one video machine; all the program does is start the tape and stop the tape when necessary. Then, when the story dictates -- the user interacts with the program, it displays animation, etc. -- then the program starts the tape up again to show the next bit.

    So everything we need to communicate through the archival video has all theoretically been pre-recorded and edited onto this one tape, and the program cues it (and stops it) at the required times; the program does no active searching for material or anything like that. Start tape at Time Code "00:00", stop tape at time code "02:34", etc.

    Does that sound more workable?



    Also, thank you bladamson, for your input. My project will not be interactive, it will be purely video, so I am indeed looking into retro terminal emulators that will convey the effects I'm looking for.

    I'll keep mulling things over in my mind, seeing how anachronistic I can be (and how much anachronism I can cleverly hide) without feeling like I'm failing my audience. (Sometimes doing things the hard way, the less lazy way -- actually sticking to what's feasible -- is the best way to go about things, even in fiction.)

    Please throw more ideas/info my way. Every little bit helps populate the imagination.

    I'll have some more questions, too...



    Edit: Your idea of anachronistic "film reel" jukebox is outstanding, bladamson! It really evokes an image! At this brainstorming stage every little idea like that helps.
    Last edited by Ecto_Jedi; July 22nd, 2020 at 05:55 PM.

  5. #5
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    The stated era was early 80's so video mixing on color displays isn't going to be an issue, especially if this is supposed to be some ultra high-tech cost-is-no-object situation. Heck, the Laserdisc arcade game "Dragons Lair" came out in 1983 and it embodies most of the necessary technologies.

    IBM introduced the 3850 tape storage robot in 1974, and I know I've seen pictures of huge tape silos much larger than it from the 1980s, so likewise it's perfectly reasonable to imagine something like that adapted to store video tapes or discs. (WORM jukeboxes that could automatically switch writeable 12" discs similar to laserdiscs were a thing in the 80's, for that matter. Sort of the end of the 80's, granted.)

    Regarding the issue of getting the video retrieved by the tape robot to the terminal, I vaguely recall that some 1960s vintage terminals actually had the character/video generation hardware in a central location near the mainframe and sent a video feed across the wire. So even if this library computer were built as early as the mid-70's it would still probably be possible to build the hardware to do video overlay on a single monitor. Costs would be insane, of course, but this does sound like it's a fantasy story.
    My Retro-computing YouTube Channel (updates... eventually?): Paleozoic PCs

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    This may not help much, as your story seems more fictional then fanciful. But in Captain America : the Winter Soldier there's a scene where the protagonists discover a vast hidden underground computer system that encompasses the memories and thoughts of a deceased scientist. There is video playback, old looking terminals and such. It was as if the computer-mind was describing and forecasting an apocalyptic event.

  7. #7

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    Quote Originally Posted by Eudimorphodon View Post
    Probably the earliest "widespread" analogs to a modern multimedia system where the user can arbitrarily browse and play audio and video content were embodied by interfacing a Laserdisc player to a computer. A relatively well-known example of this was the BBC Domesday Project, which was a multimedia presentation very much like what you'd expect from a mid-1990's CD-ROM encyclopedia implemented on a BBC Master computer (a 6502-based computer roughly comparable to an Apple IIe or IIgs). The system was capable of displaying photos stored in an analog format (TV resolution) along with brief audio and video clips on the same monitor used for navigation.

    From a technical standpoint I think a simple Genlock was used on the BBC system to allow the UI to overlay the Laserdisc output, so on a "library system" like you're describing wouldn't necessarily require the UI to "switch away" with an abrupt mode change. Realistically there might be some "fritzing" of the monitor when switching between video clips (or going from a black screen generated entirely by the computer to the video overlay) if you're using a genlock instead of actually digitizing the input video, though, since it's very unlikely the sync coming off a stored source will exactly match the computer's native output in terms of both frequency and phase. (*) I would suggest studying footage of a Domesday computer in operation (The generic name for it was the "BBC Master AIV"; they did have some other software for it. Not a lot, so you might have some challenges looking for videos of anything other than Domesday running) to get a feel for what a genlocked UI overlaid over analog content might look like.
    Dude! I've looked into this a bit further (thank you for sharing the YouTube link; I've also gone searching far and wide online for more info.)

    It's really fascinating stuff, and it pretty much fits exactly what I need -- video and audio (and computer programs) accessible from a microcomputer, albeit on a very rare proprietary laserdisk-esque format requiring a proprietary player.

    To my mind it's much more believable that a programmer could get his hands on some fictionalized version of such a machine -- perhaps a prototype American counterpart -- than an anachronous robotized library system. Perhaps he works for the company making the machine, or perhaps he works at a university or research lab where one is located.

    The point is that this programmer is telling us the story of what happened -- the single nuclear detonation or the limited nuclear exchange of 1983 -- with the benefit of perhaps a few years' hindsight, putting the scenario smack-dab in that 1985/1986 Domesday technology timeframe. (Obviously the world has not come to an end, so computer technology is still around; I'm not going for the typical end-of-the-world "The Day After" or "Damnation Alley" scenario.)

    What will draw us in as the audience will be the unseen programmer's personality, as it suffuses the design of his program, this computer "time capsule," through the things he chooses to show us, the audio he records of his isolated thoughts and musings on the state of the world, what he chooses to leave behind to whomever discovers his project...his little digitized message in a bottle.

    "LV-ROM with analog pulse-width modulation." It sounds so damn cool!

  8. #8

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    Does the VidLink from Digital Research (ca. 8/84) meet your needs?

    https://vintageapple.org/byte/pdf/19...-2.pdf#page=48

  9. #9

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    Early 1980's: Vax 11/780, FPS-120b Attached Array Processor, Ramtek 9465 Graphics Display, Gould Deanza IP8500.

    Ramtek Graphics Display- fast enough to display an image with animation running over it, 640x480 resolution.
    Gould Deanza, Fast Enough to read imagery off of disk, do your own mapping of the image on disk to virtual memory, and display the image fast enough for motion. 512x512 resolution, 24bit color.
    9-Track tape, Disk, and to record fast imagery- Sangamo Weston 28 Track High Density Digital Tape, 11GBytes per reel.
    Total cost- over $1M.

    1988- Fast 80386 PC with Weitek or Cyrix Fastmath processor, Microway NDP Fortran, PharLap with VMMDRV, Willow TV-VGA TSENG 3000 chipset, Panasonic TQ-2026 Video LaserDisk Recorder, under computer control via RS232, stop-frame animation with realtime playback.
    $30K, The LaserDisk TQ2026 was about $25K, the rest of it about $5K.

    For the stuff that you would see in an arcade game- Dragon's Lair used Video Laserdisk technology. I used it to compute, display, and optimize constellations of satellites.

    Kind of sums up how I spent the 80s. I also had an Intel Sugarcube with four Sky Array processors to generate synthetic imagery. $80K. It was an 80MFlop/s 80286 machine running Xenix. They bought it for me to keep me happy at work after the FPS120b caught on fire.
    Last edited by BrianS; July 24th, 2020 at 04:48 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecto_Jedi View Post
    "LV-ROM with analog pulse-width modulation." It sounds so damn cool!
    The LV-ROM filesystem is to my knowledge where the Acorn system was the most ahead of its time. Controlling Laserdisc players via a serial link with even pretty dinky 8-bit computers was something almost "mainstream" (granted, not particularly widespread) by the mid-80's, but to run most of these systems you'd have to pair a software program loaded separately with a matched Laserdisc, and the computer program would just blindly order the disk to jump to position (whatever) and either display a still frame or play a video; if you swapped the Laserdisc for a different one the software wouldn't even know, necessarily.(*)

    (* Not 100% sure of that, the serial protocol between the computer and the drives may have allowed reading some kind of disk ID?)

    By contrast the Acorn "Domesday" system used a ridiculously proprietary LD player with a SCSI interface so it could actually store the program data on the same disk as the video. Video and pictures were still stored in an analog format as TV frames, not digitally, which is what allowed a machine like the BBC Master to handle live video and full color-depth photos without needing a gawdawful expensive-at-the-time frame buffer or high-speed streaming storage device. (CAV video disks can display perfect still-photo freeze-frames because one rotation of the disk equals one frame, so there's no need to have a digital framebuffer or storage system up to transferring hundreds or thousands of K of data per second to make the system work.)

    The thing to remember about this system, though, is mastering the disc your character is fiddling with would be a lot of work, involving *serious* hardware to assemble all the video and photographic assets together. I believe the Domesday discs were in fact mastered with the help of a system similar to the VAX system BrianS mentions above. Is your character *making* this disc, or simply researching it?

    (In terms of how realistic this whole thing is... I wouldn't put it past a sufficiently large and tech-happy organization like the US Military to have something like this in the 1980s to create training materials or whatever. Whether they actually did and kept it top secret, well, that's where fiction writing comes in.)
    My Retro-computing YouTube Channel (updates... eventually?): Paleozoic PCs

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