VHS Robot Swaps Tapes, As Seen In Hackers

A home-made tape robot that stores VHS tapes

Tape robots are typically used in places that store vast amounts of data – think film studios and government archives. If you’ve seen the 1995 cult movie Hackers, you might remember a scene where the main character hacks into a TV station and reprograms their tape ‘bot to load a series he wanted to watch. It’s this scene that inspired [Nathan] over at [Midwest Cyberpunk] to make his own tape robot that loads VHS tapes.

[Nathan] has thousands of tapes in his collection, but the robot is not built to manage all of them. Instead, it’s meant to help him run his VHS streaming channel, saving him from having to physically go to his VCR every time a tape needs swapping. For that, a ten-tape storage capacity is plenty.

A custom cyberdeck used to drive a tape robotThe main parts of the tape robot are a grabber that holds the tape, an extender that moves it forward and backward, and a linear rail that moves it up and down. The vertical motion is generated by a hybrid stepper motor through a belt drive system, while the grabber and extender are operated pneumatically. Once the grabber reaches the VCR, a pneumatic pusher shoves the tape inside. All of this is nearly identical to the robot seen in the movie, which was most likely not a commercial machine but a custom-made prop.

The whole system is controlled by an ESP32 running FluidNC inside the robot as well as a handmade cyberdeck next to it that manages the overall process of loading and storing tapes. Although [Nathan] is currently using the robot for his streaming channel, he’s planning to also use it for digitizing part of his massive tape collection, which contains a few titles that were never released on newer formats.

Working with old tapes can be tricky: some types of tape degrade over time, while others might come with primitive copy protection systems. But moving information over to newer media is a necessity if you don’t want to risk losing it forever.

27 thoughts on “VHS Robot Swaps Tapes, As Seen In Hackers

  1. This is the most over-engineered automated tape library I have ever seen. The designer of this contraption should have examined a real commercial unit instead of watching blurry VHS movies. Decades ago, StorageTek, ADIC and others made such things without pneumatic cylinders and oversized steppers.

    1. It looks a lot like an average pneumatic factory machine. This use of profiles and plates gives it away.

      However, note they used pneumatic cylinders (and steppers ?) because the original prop used them, not because it was the most efficient. He aimed a similar look to the original, so the most impressive instead of the most efficient.

    2. He states that he built it specifically to emulate the Hackers movie. He also mentions that he noticed that they used U-matic tapes in the movie but he specifically wanted to use VHS tapes.

      So what you end up with is a conflict of long-term realistic approach versus “well it would be neat if it was like the movie” which means you criticism is entirely moot.

    3. Sometimes, one gets an itch that can be scratched by purchasing something.

      Sometimes, one gets an itch that can only be scratched by building something.

      Building and buying are very different things. They are superficially similar and that they both result in having. But if you are unable to see past that superficial similarity, that problem is yours and yours alone.

  2. I guess one has to be a bit eccentric to be a true visionary like Marion Stokes in the video. In the mid 70s, I worked at Burstein-Applebee which originally sold WWII surplus and then later HiFi, TVs, and electronic parts. One of the store’s best customers was a Gaylord Marr, professor at UMKC a few blocks away (I matriculated there at the time to get my BSEE). Like Stokes, Marr too was eccentric and bought LOTS of BASF reel-to-reel tapes to record audio of all kinds on 20 or more Wollensak audio recorders often manned by his students. He lived in a BIG early 1900s three story mansion whose top floor was his studio (about 40 by 40 feet) while his BIG carriage house “garage” was his warehouse. When he died, he left his entire collection to UMKC: Here’s a video with more details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBUnPrL4nZE

    It’s amazing how almost trivial much of this effort would be today, not to mention, simpler to manage. When you realize that all storage media have limited lifetimes, you then appreciate the effort to maintain even digital versions of massive amounts of data.

    1. UMKC had an Engineering school in the 70s?
      When did it close?
      I trecked to Columbia myself. For the ratio (vs Rolla).

      The BA on 55th Street and Brookside?

      I was one of the annoying middle school (pyromaniacs/electronic hobbyists/future EEs) that wasted your time with dumb questions.
      IIRC I was playing with an old Telefunken SW receiver at the time, hence tube testing.
      That and spark gap generators, tennis ball cannons, Estes rockets/’fireworks’ and whatever other mischief I could find.

      You might or might not have had to chase us out of your dumpster once or twice.

      It’s a small world.

      Greg, at Brookside toy and Hobby refused to sell me the fixens for Nitroglycerin. I’m still a little butt hurt over that. What kind of person denies a 12-13 year old fuming nitric acid? Crushing my dreams.

      1. Yah, the BA at 55th and Brookside that had the Ham Shack in their basement, but that was eliminated just before I started working there. At that time, CB was king. We had four surveillance cameras around the store tied into an Sony multichannel reel-to-reel video recorder in the basement that needed to be “fed” each morning.

        I was 11 and in sixth grade when I tried to make some nitro or maybe guncotton, but I too was denied access to concentrated nitric and sulfuric (as a oxidizing catalyst) but my quest was stopped at the Plaza Science and Toy Store, also long since gone. That was probably to my benefit, since my black powder experiments went awry. In college, I was trying to get a degree in chemistry until it was foiled by the politics of access to the lab that was dominated by pre-med grad students (and I wasn’t premed). Also, organic chemistry sucked as a two semesters course covering a 2300 page text that was all rote memorization of various chemical processes instead of learning how and why these processes were effective. I dropped out a year and started with UMKC’s new EE program that back then started as a MU (Columbia) extension course and is now a stand-alone program at UMKC that is head-over-heels better funded than the one I attended.

        1. My dad was one of your chem teachers, though back then he mostly taught P-chem so you might not have gotten to him. When he got a few beers in him, he would brag about all the memorizing morons he prevented from becoming doctors. By giving them a B in general chem. You’d be amazed how many people got As in HS chem and can’t balance a REDOX. Want a list of all equations and their balanced form to memorize…med students. I digress.

          Dad also clued me in on smokeless powder and the reloading section of gun stores. Not entirely intentionally.
          Explosive pyromania breeds true in our family (Freud missed two psychosexual stages for Engineers/Scientists, pyromania and explosive pyromania).
          I’ve since seen the burn marks my dad left at a student bar when he was an undergrad. Soaked a rope in LOX and lit it on fire while whirling it over his head, decided it was a good idea to let go. Burned serpentine pattern deep into a table top. The owners of the bar had no idea how the burn got there, till we told them.

          We were stupid (par for teens). For 5 years running we turned the pitchers mound a Brookside park into the pitchers crater. Stopped when the cops rolled by as we were watching the slow fuse burn while making sure nobody walked up to it.

          I’m also the dude that painted the bull statue in front of the board of trade’s balls highway warning orange. That was later though. It’s a big old bucking bull statue. I was standing on the bulls dick to reach the balls, being a climber type monkey. When they media-blasted the balls, they were shiny bronze for another six months.

          I think Brookside toy and science is still there. Was before Covid anyhow.

          1. To HaHa: 1972 was my last year as a chem major. I abandoned it because of Organic Chem, but I did like PChem, both in 1972. I can’t recall my PChem prof’s name but I recall that when I started working at BA in 1973, I saw him in store and it looked like he may have had early Parkinson’s and a slight limp if memory serves. He didn’t teach much — it was mostly grad students doing the classes. For some reason, I could only sign up for the PChem lecture course as the labs were all booked solid.

  3. Out of college in the 70’s I worked at Sono-Mag Corp who made radio station tape equipment like the Carousel and Cara-Stat. The Carousel was dishwasher sized with a rotating drum that held multiple audio cartridges that were the predecessor to the 8-Track. The drum would rotate to the tape cartridge holding the 30/60 second commercial, insert it into the built-in player and when done the tape would slide back out into its slot in the drum and the drum would rotate to the next programmed commercial. (The company had it’s own radio station WMLA now called WBWN for testing newly designed equipment). A local hospital contracted Sono-Mag to develop an automated tape selector/player for training videos. The first iteration before I left the company was a sled holding the tapes that was moved back and forth via screw drive and stepper motor to place the selected tape in front of the player, insert it, activate the player, and when done retract the tape back into the sled. I worked on the designing and building the controller electronics. After I left the company I heard they were working on an adaptation of the Carousel rotating drum to handle video tapes.

  4. I worked at ACL (Automated Cartridge Libraries, Longmont, CO) in the late 1980s.
    We built a 120 tape library that utilized 4 8mm tape drives as a prototype for Exabyte Corp just down the road in Boulder, CO.
    The library used stepper motors and ribbed rubber belts for the x, y, and z actions.

      1. If you’re going to use this to, someday, archive tapes have you considered putting a small camera on it to take a picture of the tape label that you can append to the start of the video in case you forgot exactly what it is?

  5. I’d be interested to see some more about that homebuilt CNC of his, its going really fast through very thick aluminium without needing coolant fluid. How did he do that? Nice.

    1. He’s taking shallow cuts, all I saw were two very average about 100 thou passes (in a slot so cutter not very happy).

      Bet he lets the tool cool between passes. Certainly between parts. Uses sharp endmill.

      The feed rate depends entirely on the tool RPM. Which depends on the tool, cut and spindle power. For a CNC router he appears to have decent power in the spindle. All it can use.

      1. sharp single flute endmill, 1.5kw air cooled spindle, and I only do shallow .5mm or so passes. I’m just using carbide create right now (free, simple cam program) but I plan to eventually move on to fusion360 for CAM so I can do adaptive clearing and so the ends of my endmills aren’t doing all of the cutting.

        1. Single flute? I’ve honestly never used one.

          On a two flute EM, typically only one at a time cuts (at each height anyhow). They’re much more common and have to be much cheaper.

          Your tool will be a lot happier if you do a clearance pass at each level. Doesn’t have to be much, just enough to clear the rub. Same path, maybe half a tool radius out. It will also allow the tool to cool.
          If your controller and software let you do compensated cuts, you can make this cut and a finish passes by adjusting the tool radius/tool wear numbers in the controller. Run same G code for cut path, let the tool back off actual path.

          That’s a powerful spindle for a Gantry.
          Unless that tool is a lot stiffer than it looks your not doing 2 inch cuts on aluminum. Buy shorter mills, change tools as needed. You’ll get better cuts with less runout. Spindle flex vs part is the only thing that matters. Pity the poor aluminum extrusions.

          Have you put a dial indicator on the structure, then loaded it up moving in the other axis? I’m guessing too much power for structure. Also indicate spindle with indicator mounted to gantry (checking flex).
          Got to know the flex/power of the structure, put marks on spindle load meter to indicate expected flex, rough power limits by tool length. Also listen to cuts.

          0.5 mm? 50 thou (freedom units) is a very tame cut and equals about 1.2 mm. Less than that and you’re really just using up tooling.
          Not that many EMs cost to find (and move) an old Bridgeport, a speed controller etc. It can be really beat to hell and still be straighter and squarer than something made of 2x4s. Plus built for cooling water.

          Takes off home machine shop ‘pusher’ hat. (First drill press is free. Next thing you know, you’ve got an old HAAS in the dining room and not enough power for the heat pump.)

  6. Looks amazing and it seems to work well enough. Such a shame that Twitch has made streaming VHS content like this so difficult due to AI-generated copyright strikes over clips of background music during ads and movie scenes. A similar channel that streamed “With Original Commercial” content on twitch was shut down due to a third strike over a Gateway computer ad that used Devo’s Whip It.

    Checking out this project’s channel shows a similar story; it seems there hasn’t been a VHS stream in over 5 months.

    1. You do know that the movies and tv shows he’s playing are also copyrighted and it’s not fair use to show a movie or tv show in it’s entirety on Twitch or any other platform that doesn’t hold the exhibition rights right? It’s not like Twitch wants less content they’re just following the law, which the builder is not.

      1. Yeah, it’s not Twitch’s fault. I fully admit that. It was really just me and a few IRL friends that were too lazy to go to each others houses every night. In fact, we didn’t want other people in there to clog up the chat. We moved to personal, private servers to avoid all of that so it’s essentially like a watch party on a plex server or something.

    2. You really want to stir some shit.

      Stream ‘Song of the South’.

      Mr. Mouse will be unhappy. You won’t like Mr. Mouse when he’s unhappy.

      I found meh quality, torrents of VHS caps of all but the middle 10 minutes. Someone is working hard whacking those moles. You’d think one of the foreign language DVD versions would be findable (and redubbed with original audio). I doubt they sold many copies.

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