Retrotechtacular: HGTV, The Place For Everything CES 1996

It’s January, and that means it’s time once again for the Consumer Electronics Show. CES is the place where electronic manufacturers from all across the globe to show off their future products and make promises they probably can’t keep. Of course there is no better indicator of a company’s future than looking at the past, and thanks to [Home & Garden Television] we have a comprehensive look at what CES was twenty three years ago. The cable channel aired a special, “Plugged In with Wil Shriner”, covering CES 1996 and it is certainly illuminating to see in hindsight. Plus it even comes complete with “cable money” tier mid 90s motion graphics.

Over on YouTube, user [videoholic] has uploaded the HGTV CES ’96 special into five separate segments (links provided below). Some of the highlights include:

Part 1 – Home Video

  • Canon introduces IR eye tracking (akin to the New 3DS) in their camcorder line
  • Dual recording VCR from Sharp on one VHS tape provided you can fix the tracking with the remote.
  • The term “I triple E 1394” may just have been said for the first (and last) time ever on cable television.

Part 2 – Audio

  • A digital alarm clock from Oregon Scientific (called the Time Machine) that will tell you the weather.
  • Magellan thought, “Who needs a cell phone when you can have a satellite phone for $8000”.
  • Soundtube, the fashionable beer cozy for your gigantic speakers as seen on MTV Beach House.

Part 3 – Games & Multimedia

  • Noise Cancellation Technologies INC wanted to turn your cars headliner into a big ol’ speaker.
  • Cyber Pong promised online multiplayer a full decade before Rockstar’s Table Tennis on Xbox 360.
  • The Simpsons Cartoon Studio helps create fan fiction on multimedia CD-ROM.

Part 4 – Home & Office

  • Compaq’s PC keyboard with an integrated fax machine.
  • Norris Communication’s handheld voice recorder full of flash memory to offload to your PDA.
  • Crestron’s idea of home automation involved a touchscreen to operate a light switch (some things never change).

Part 5 – Digital Video

Vintage Toys Live on Through 3D Printing

We all have fond memories of a toy from our younger days. Most of which are still easy enough to get your hands on thanks to eBay or modern reproductions, but what if your childhood fancies weren’t quite as mainstream? What if some of your fondest memories involved playing with 1960’s educational games which are now so rare that they command hundreds of dollars on the second-hand market?

Inside the Think-a-Dot replica

That’s the situation [Mike Gardi] found himself in recently. Seeing that the educational games which helped put him on a long and rewarding career in software development are now nearly unobtainable, he decided to try his hand at recreating them on his 3D printer. With his keen eye for detail and personal love of these incredible toys, he’s preserved them in digital form for future generations to enjoy.

His replica of The Amazing Dr. Nim” needed to get scaled-down a bit in order to fit on your average desktop 3D printer bed, but otherwise is a faithful reproduction of the original injection molded plastic computer. The biggest difference is that his smaller version uses 10 mm (3/8 inch) steel ball bearings instead of marbles to actuate the three flip-flops and play the ancient game of Nim.

[Mike] has also created a replica of “Think-a-Dot”, another game which makes use of mechanical flip-flops to change the color of eight dots on the front panel. By dropping marbles in the three holes along the top of the game, the player is able to change the color of the dots to create various patterns. The aim of the game is to find the fewest number of marbles required to recreate specific patterns as detailed in the manual.

Speaking of which, [Mike] has included scans of the manuals for both games, and says he personally took them to a local shop to have them professionally printed and bound as they would have been when the games were originally sold. As such, the experience of owning one of these classic “computer” games has now been fully digitized and is ready to be called into corporeal form on demand.

This is really a fascinating way of preserving physical objects, and we’re interested to see if it catches on with other toys and games which otherwise might be lost to time. As storage capacities get higher and our ability to digitize the world around us improve, we suspect more and more of our physical world will get “backed up” onto the Internet.

Vintage IBM 1403 Printer Problem Evades an Easy Fix

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View has two operational IBM 1401 mainframes, which use IBM 1403 high-speed printers. They aren’t some decades-old notion of “high speed” that barely looks sluggish today, either. These monsters slam out ten lines per second thanks to a rotating chain of type slugs and an array of electromagnetic hammers. Every 11.1 microseconds, a character in the chain would be lined up with a hammer, and if the control circuitry identified it as a character that needed to be printed, the hammer behind the paper would drive the paper into the print ribbon and the slug, putting an imprint of the character onto the paper. When one of these printers failed with a sync error, it kicked off some serious troubleshooting to diagnose the problem.

The IBM 1403’s type chain has a repeating set of characters that spins around at high speed. Unlike a typewriter or label maker, the hammers are not inside this unit. The hammers are on the outside, and work by pressing the paper onto the type slugs as the required characters line up.

Investigation of the problem ultimately led to an intermittent connection in a driver card due to a broken PCB trace, but by then some fuses had been blown as well. In the end the printer was brought back online, but possibly with a slightly damaged coil on one of the hammers.

[Ken]’s writeup on the repair process is highly detailed and walks through the kind of troubleshooting and repairs involved when solving problems with vintage electronics. Electrical fundamentals might be the same, but a deep understanding of not only the architecture but also the failure modes of vintage hardware is needed in order to troubleshoot effectively.

If IBM 1401 mainframes and fixing 1403 printers sounds familiar, it’s because a printer fix has been done before. That was due to a different problem, but still a challenging task to narrow down and fix.

Soviet-Era 7-Segment Display, Built Like a Tank

In a way, all 7-segment displays are alike; at least from the outside looking in. On the inside it can be quite another story, and that’s certainly the case with the construction of this Soviet-era 7-segment numerical display. From the outside it may look a bit sturdier than usual, but it’s still instantly recognizable for what it is. On the inside is an unusual mixture of incandescent bulbs and plastic light guides.

The black-coated blocks of plastic on the left (shown from the rear) act as light guides. The holes are for nesting the incandescent bulbs. Note the puzzle-like arrangement of the uniquely shaped pieces.

The rear of the display is a PCB with a vaguely hexagonal pattern of low-voltage incandescent bulbs, and each bulb mates to one segment of the display. The display segments themselves are solid blocks of plastic, one for each bulb, and each a separate piece. These are painted black, with the only paint-free areas being a thin segment at the top for the display, and a hole in the back for the mating bulb.

The result is that each plastic piece acts as a light guide, ensuring that a lit bulb on the PCB results in one of the seven thin segments on the face being lit as well. An interesting thing is that the black paint is the only thing preventing unwanted light from showing out the front, or leaking from one segment to another; usually some kind of baffle is used for this purpose in displays from this era.

More curiously, each plastic segment is a unique shape apparently unrelated to its function. We think this was probably done to ensure foolproof assembly; it forms a puzzle that can only fit together one way. The result is a compact and remarkably sturdy unit that shows how older and rugged tech isn’t necessarily bulky. Another example of small display tech from the Soviet era is this tiny 7-segment display of a completely different manufacture, which was usually used with an integrated bubble lens to magnify the minuscule display.

That Time Atari Cracked the Nintendo Entertainment System

It was darkest hour for the video game industry following the holiday shopping season of 1982. The torrent of third party developed titles had flooded the home video game console market to the point of saturation. It incited a price war amongst retailers where new releases were dropped to 85% off MSRP after less than a month on the shelves. Mountains of warehouse inventory went unsold leaving a company like Atari choosing to dump the merchandise into the Chihuahuan desert rather than face the looming tax bill. As a result, the whole home video game industry receded seemingly overnight.

One company single-handedly revived video games to mainstream prominence. That company was Nintendo. They’re ostensibly seen as the “savior” of the video games industry, despite the fact that microcomputer games were still thriving (history tends to be written by the victors). Nevertheless their Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was an innovative console featuring games with scrolling screens, arcade-like sprites. But the tactic they used to avoid repeating the 1983 collapse was to tightly control their market using the Nintendo Seal of Quality.

From the third party developer perspective, Nintendo’s Seal of Quality represented more than just another logo to throw on the box art. It represented what you could and couldn’t do with your business. Those third party licensing agreements dictated the types of games that could be made, the way the games were manufactured, the schedule on which the games shipped to retail, and even the number of games your company could make. From the customer side of things that seal stood for confidence in the product, and Nintendo would go to great lengths to ensure it did just that.

This is the story of how an Atari subsidiary company cracked the hardware security of the original Nintendo and started putting it into their unofficial cartridges.

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Remember When Blockbuster Video Tried Burning Game Cartridges On Demand?

By the onset of the 1990s one thing was clear, the future was digital. Analog format sales for music were down, CD sales were up; and it was evident, at least in the US, that people were bringing more computing devices into their homes. At the beginning of the decade, roughly 1 in 3 American households had a Nintendo Entertainment System in them, according to this Good Morning America segment.

With all those consoles out there, every shopping season became a contest of “who could wait in line the longest” to pickup the newest titles. This left last minute shoppers resorting to taking a rain check or return home empty handed. Things didn’t have to be this way. The digital world had emerged and physical media just needed to catch up. It would take an unlikely alliance of two disparate companies for others to open their minds.

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This Nearly NIMO Clock Fakes it and Makes It

Pity the aficionado of rare vintage displays. While Nixies and VFD tubes get all the attention and benefit from a thriving market to satisfy demand, the rarer displays from the mid-20th century period are getting harder and harder to find. One copy of an especially rare display is hard enough to find. Six copies for a clock? That’s a tall order.

That doesn’t mean you can’t fudge it, though, which is how this faux-NIMO clock came to be. [Paul Bricmont] was inspired by [Fran Blanche]’s NIMO tube primer, wherein the rare, single-digit CRT display was put through its paces. We’ve got to admit, it’s an easy display to fall in love with, thanks to its eerie blue phosphor glow, high voltage supply, and general quirkiness. [Paul] was unable to lay hands on a single tube, though, so he faked it with six tiny TFT displays and some plastic lenses. The lenses mimic the curved front glass of the original NIMO, while the TFT displays provide the stencil-style images of each numeral. The phosphor glow comes from replacing the stock white TFT backlight with a Neopixel array that can produce just the right shade of blue-green. 3D-printed modules hold two digits each, and the usual Arduino components run the show. The effect is quite convincing, although we bet some software tweaks could add things like faux burn-in and perhaps soften the edges of the digits to really sell it.

What other rare displays could be replicated this way? Given the variety of displays that were tried in the pre-LED era, it may be a rich vein to mine.