Jeff Minter: Futurist

By on Tuesday, 10 December 2013 in Gaming, People | 0 comments

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As a callow youth I used to read Commodore Computing International. It was a very serious magazine, not at all like Zzap64!, although it did have one thing that Zzap didn’t and that was a regular column written by Jeff Minter.

As a rule I’m not a big fan of Jeff Minter’s games, but I am huge fan of his style. Living in Wales, eating curry, loving the ungulates, wandering around in the rain, going to the pub, I think you get the picture.

Anyway back in the March 1988 issue of Commodore Computing International, Jeff wrote an article set in the far away year of 2001 that filled me with tingly feelings about the future.

Like the geek I am I’ve scanned and OCR’d it for the enjoyment of future generations, who will no doubt view it with little understanding of what made it so special, given that most of what he talks about is now common place.

Jeff Minter finds tea – the drink not the smoke – mind blowing stuff, discovering fantasies of strange futures for Commodore, Atari and even HAL from 2001. What will he think of next a computer called PG?

Quarter to two in the middle of a windy Welsh night, and I have decided to leave off writing the internal-sequencer module for ‘Space II and bring you this. The Bug Which Prints Zeros Forever will just have to wait until tomorrow morning. Right now, I have just assuaged the raving dreaded Munchies with a sarnie followed by one-third of a cream-and-jam pie, and I’m just washing the lot down with a really good cup of tea. Tea. Wonderous substance.

All that is strictly beside the point, however. What I’m going to waffle about this month stems from some thinking I’ve been doing, and something I’ve been reading, too. The reading was an article about Alan Kay, the guy from Xerox who went on to Apple and there worked on the Lisa and Mac interface, you know, the pointers-and-windows stuff we all have nowadays even on the humble ‘64. It seems they had a lot of that stuff running at Xerox, back in the ‘Sixties for God’s sake, on flight-sim hardware! And here’s us thinking that Intuition’s such a brilliant hack, and how come nobody ever thought of doing it that way before – and all the groundwork was done 20 years ago! After reading that article, the thinking ensued – I fell to thinking: what have they got in the labs now? What’s cooking in the Apple labs where they’re using a flipping Cray to design the next generation of user interface?? And what would it be like to have a computer with such an interface? So I came up with the following spoof review – of a personal computer system you might buy to kick off the new millennium with – and I thought I’d lay it on you this month, instead of the usual 68000-worship…

Extract from Your Supercomputer magazine, 21/12/2001

EXCLUSIVE: PREVIEW of the Atari ‘Discovery’ computer system!..

We have been fortunate enough to be invited to the headquarters of Atari where we were shown the new Atari ‘Discovery’ machine, which should be released this month. Atari have been working on this machine since the early ‘Nineties, and now that superconducting chips and ‘processor memory’ (the logical development from the Transputer systems of late last millennium – ALL memory within a ProcMem-based system is capable of performing a variety of processing functions upon whatever it contains) are available, the design has come out of the labs at Atari and onto the streets. Well, we think Atari are going to freak a LOT of people right out with this new machine. Here’s what we saw…

(Your Supercomputer hack, Zippy the Chiphead, takes over the story)…

I got to Atari not quite knowing what to expect. Atari have been very quiet since they bought Commodore several years ago, and despite evidence of some activity in their research labs little has been known of what they were working on. After admiring the quaint little display of antique STs in the entrance lobby (did we ever really put up with pixies so large you could actually see them one atatime?)Iwas ushered into a large, comfortable room in which there appeared to be just a large desk and one of those amazing hydraulic chairs which look like they belong on the Star Ship Enterprise. No monitors, no disk drives, not even a fan. After a certain amount of confusion, I was assured that the desk was, in fact, the Atari Discovery computer.

At first sight the computer appears to be a large, black monolith, perhaps six inches thick, mounted on suitably high-tec legs. On sitting down to the machine you find that the whole surface can be tilted so as to be at a comfortable angle for the user. Of course, I sat down at the machine and felt a little foolish, I kept looking for the mouse and not finding one! I reached out a hand to touch the surface of the monolith, and got my first surprise: the Atari logo appeared in the middle of the smooth black surface. It looked just as if it were painted on, except for the fact that it was doing the most amazing colour-cycling. The image was startling to a computer user used to looking at monitors – even the highest- quality monitor cannot render graphics which look like they were printed images. This was my first encounter with Atari’s new display technology – the ‘screen’ is composed of millions of tiny beads which change their colour according to what image is being displayed. The beads are opaque, and if viewed by ambient light, it appears that the surface of the monolith just changes colour. It doesn’t shine, like a monitor, because unless you turn on the backlighting if it’s really dark, the colours you see come from reflected ambient light just like they would for a piece of paper. The effect is uncanny.

On the Discovery, the whole upper surface of the monolith functions as both screen and interface to the computer. When you rest your hands upon the surface of the machine, it comes to life: after the Atari logo has been displayed the monolith changes into what appears to be a fine wooden table with a couple of bits of paper lying on it. (Atari assure me that the user can configure the default desk surface to be whatever he likes, so if you favour cracked Formica instead of walnut veneer, you can have it). The surface of the monolith feels faintly resilient: in fact it is a highly-accurate touch-sensitive surface capable of distinguishing between the lightest touch and the heaviest pressure. Operating the system is totally instinctive, as I found out: just reach for one of the pieces of paper and drag it towards you, and that’s exactly what happens. You can do anything you could do with a normal piece of paper: turn it around a little so as to get a better view, slide it over or under another piece (depending on how hard you press as you slide) . . . of course you can’t make a paper aeroplane out of it, the screen is still only two-dimensional! Examining the paper, I found that it was headed, in a neat hand-written script, ‘Atari HAL operating system Version 0.9’. (The script is again user-configurable, so if you’re into Epson Dot-Matrix circa 1984 on some kind of nostalgia trip you’ll get your way).

Underneath the main heading was a list of sub-headings; running a finger down the list highlighted each in turn and – a neat touch this – increasing pressure of the finger on an item caused the whole surface of the desktop to ‘zoom in’ on the selected area. Very useful for reading the small print. Tapping an item in the list results in another piece of paper being spawned – the paper and desktop look so real that seeing another piece peel itself off is quite startling a-d weird. I generated a sheet headed ‘Demos’ from the parent sheet, and received a written list of the available demos on the system. Simultaneously, a variety of familiar objects appeared on the desktop: a pen, a paintbrush, a globe (spinning, too)

These objects can be grabbed, moved around, and tapped on in order to get them to work. There isn’t enough space here to fully describe all the demos; the highlights included such things as a WP package upon which you could write with a finger, or by ‘typing’ on a representation of a keyboard painted on the desktop, or by using an empty fountain pen upon the surface of the ‘paper’ on the desktop. There was an art package which was operated by using real paintbrushes on the desktop surface – the surface can detect even minute changes of pressure – proper painting, but with all the advantages of computer graphics.

I liked the Lightsynth program from T.E.A. (a new software company calling themselves True Electronic Art) upon which some remarkable effects are possible by using both hands and that remarkable pressure-sensitive surface. Perhaps the most fascinating program was World, a logical extension from the flight-simulator: linked to a large database of world coordinates, the user can ‘fly’ to any point on Earth at any speed and view the surroundings at any scale; of course a lot of fine detail is lost as even with gigabytes of core you cannot digitise every point on the planet, but advanced fractal techniques are used to generate detail. I went to Machu Picchu in the World simulator and found the fractal rendering of the rough Inca stonework to be quite convincing. At the moment World is empty, but the designers promise an update featuring animals and plant growth next year. The company producing World, Dave Bowman Associates, tell us that there will be a companion program, provisionally entitled God, which will allow the end-user to create new planets to explore using World. Generating a convincing planet should be possible in about a week using the new software.

I can only mention a few of the remarkable demos in my limited space here; expect proper reviews in later issues. After my ‘hands-on’ with the Discovery, I talked with the Atari bosses about marketing and pricing of the new machine. Amazingly, the whole system will only cost you #.

Extract ends, ‘Your Supercomputer’ magazine, 21/12/2001

Who knows?

Anything can happen.

Well, I think I’ll just print this out and shamble off to make myself another cup of tea. Tea. Remarkable substance….

I can’t begin to tell you how cool that was to me when I was thirteen.

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