Retro Rebuild Recreates SGI Workstation Demos On The Go

When [Lawrence] showed us the Alice4 after Maker Faire Bay Area last weekend it wasn’t apparent how special the system was. The case is clean and white, adorned only with a big red button below a 7″ screen with a power switch around the back. When the switch is flicked the system boots to display a familiar animation and drops you at a menu. Poking around from here elicits a variety of self-contained graphics demos, some interactive. So this is a Raspberry Pi in a box playing videos, right? Not even close.

Often retro computing focuses on personal computer systems. When they were new the 8-bit graphics or intricate 2D sprites were state of the art, but now their appeal tends towards learning opportunities and the thrill of nostalgia. This may still be true of Alice4, the system [Brad, Lawrence, Mike, and Chris] put together to run Silicon Graphics (SGI) demos from the mid 1980’s but it’s not the whole story. [Lawrence] and [Brad] had both worked at SGI during its heyday and had fond memories of the graphics demos that shipped with those mammoth workstation. So they built Alice4 from the FPGA up to run those very same demos in real-time.

Thanks to Moore’s law, today’s embedded systems put yesterday’s powerhouses within reach. [Lawrence] and [Brad] found the old demo code in a ratty FTP server, and tailor-made Alice4’s software and hardware to run them natively. [Brad] wrote a libgl which implements the subset of the IrisGL API needed to support their selected set of demos. The libgl emits sets of triangles to the SDRAM where [Lawrence’s] HDL running on the onboard FPGA fetches them to interpolate color and depth and draw the result on-screen. Together they allow the $99 Altera Cyclone V development board at Alice4’s heart to run these state of the art demos in the palm of your hand.

Alice4 is open source and extensively documented. Peruse the archeology of reverse engineering the graphics API or the discussion of FIFO design in the FPGA. If those don’t sate your appetite check out a video of Alice4 in action after the break.

21 thoughts on “Retro Rebuild Recreates SGI Workstation Demos On The Go

  1. I love some of the old SGI demos. I still keep a couple of Indigo2 Extreme and Impact, as well as an Octane system just so I can revisit them from time to time. I’d like to see someone make an adapter to use some of the new monitors with the old SGI’s. I have to keep a huge(and old) Viewsonic monitor around just for these things.

    1. Well, cannot vouch for hdmi ones, and do not have access to Indigo or Octanes ( they do not show up in the computer recyclers around here ) , but the Samsung 710N works with the O2 .

    2. around 2001 timeframe, there was a company ‘’ that often had those sgi 1600sw (iirc) lcd 16×9 monitors. needed special #9 video cards and connectors, sigh. but they were really cool for the time and I had 4 of them; 2 at home and 2 at work (all on my own dime). I finally sold all 4 before sgi went out of business (they sort of are around now but nothing like they were, before) and being tied to special vid cards kinda sucked.

      sgi was a cool place; I had the pleasure of working there for a few years at the mtn view campus; before google came and ruined the whole area ;(

      1. I have a 1600sw.. they did need a special video card OR they could run with the same port that was available on some SGI models like the 320 series. However there also exist adapters to port that signal out to a 1600sw converting the fpd-link signal in use by laptop displays through to their open-ldi that they are expecting.

        For other sgi’s there are some adapters to get a more modern vga capable screen going on at least the indigos that I have as well as some other systems. The major backup is getting an interface that knows about converting from sync-on-green to a modern standard.

        Its been several years since Ive actually worked on my SGIs. The mostly gather dust for the time being. So the details are a bit rusty, but these things can still be viewed with some series google-fu and ebay gear purchasing.

    3. It’s been done. I have an SGI to VGA adapter I got off eBay. Runs fine on my Indigo. Also found a PS2 keyboard/mouse adapter someone was selling and the elusive 10-BASE-T to AUI adapter. $150 or so, all in. My desktop Indy still had all the demos on it.

      The box was originally used for CAD at my workplace, had then been retired and used as a footrest (!) by a cow-orker, who left it to me on his departure. I spent a month or so getting it back up and running. Even installed a new used SCSI drive and upgraded to the last available IRIX OS (scarfed off of bittorrent) using a Linux system as a TFTP server, because the system doesn’t have a CDROM drive.

  2. no chance os a mips / IRIX emulator? SGI were way ahead of their time in phisical hardware and software design. These things were expensive for a reason. would be nice to see an emulator emerge for it tho.

  3. Writeup on the rasterizer FPGA implementation and IrisGL reimplementation are pretty great, albeit short :(. Made me realize its entirely realistic to attempt similar project for 3Dfx :o

  4. One evening after work, the programmers with SGIs and couple of others got on the Onyx and the other big one and had networked aerial combat with the Flight Simulator demo. It was quite fun until someone figured out that after a plane was shot down, a new one was issued at the only airport. So, shortly after someone was shot down, that person would fire a heat seeking missile in the direction of the airport and shoot that plane before it got very far.

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