Jump to content
IGNORED

RCA Studio II GOLD MINE! An interview with the Studio 2 Production Manager!


Recommended Posts

I understand that RCA had been working with the system for some time, based on what Pong systems were capable of at the time and probably thought they were doing a great system, when Fairchild came to the market prior to them with an even more advanced console. If RCA had pulled the brake, rechanged things and delay their console even more, they had risked being #3 or even later. It would've made it even more of a footnote, if e.g. the Atari VCS + possibly someone more had been released before the RCA.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Agreed. I know that the Studio II gets put into the 'Gen 2' era of gaming consoles, but really (IMO) this was just the most advanced Pong type console ever created with 'Gen 2' console elements, such as interchangible cartridges. However, the Fairchild, and later 2600, really blew it out of the water and showed how advanced things really were, or could be at the time. Still, the decision to not have color in the system proved to be a major nail in the coffin for the Studio II.

 

I understand that RCA had been working with the system for some time, based on what Pong systems were capable of at the time and probably thought they were doing a great system, when Fairchild came to the market prior to them with an even more advanced console. If RCA had pulled the brake, rechanged things and delay their console even more, they had risked being #3 or even later. It would've made it even more of a footnote, if e.g. the Atari VCS + possibly someone more had been released before the RCA.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Some meaningful hand controllers instead of the numeric keypads bolted to the console had also helped, and didn't need quite as much redesign as adding colour at a late stage of development. Now I'm not so sure the RCA Studio II had been better received on the market and in history if it indeed had been #1 system with interchangable ROM cartridges, and to which degree customers back then understood the difference between this and a system with interchangable custom chip based cartridges like the GI chips in the PC-50x series.

 

What baffles me that the Studio IV would just have a faster 1802 CPU, same single beeper sound as in the Studio III (and clones), and unclear about the graphics improvements. If RCA had seen the VCS even with its early, primitive games, as well as the Bally and perhaps some samples of the new GI chips and whatever else was under development (TI VDP comes to mind, whether it was co-developed with Milton Bradley or not), they probably had decided if they wanted to compete in the lower end of the price segment with "grandma" consoles or really have a go at the state of the art. I suppose the 1802 is an OK chip to use, but it'd be interesting to know the full specs of the IV and early plans of the V. While RCA to me is best known as a record company, it doesn't seem like a company that would spend a lot of money, time and resources on producing a series of entry level, easily forgettable consoles all through the late 70's. Once is understandable, twice is questionable, thrice would be mind boggling.

  • Like 3
Link to comment
Share on other sites

The Studio II project really saw its genesis around 72-73, and had it come out at the time in some form (or even as late as 1975) it would have blown away everything else on the market. It doesn't sound like it changed too much from then to its eventual release other than collating components into the 1802 processor form factor. It's kind of endearing that Joe Weisbecker really wanted to make a home computer that families could afford - like an appliance - and hook up to their tv; Commodore did just that with the Vic-20 years later and absolutely found a market. RCA's people really did seem to believe in the system in that context. Heck, I can kind of get why they'd have the system release in black and white since plenty of people still had those sets in the 70s.

 

Those documents mentioning a Studio IV and V were from August 1977 - around the time the VCS was starting to hit shelves in California. I'm going to go out on a limb and wager they didn't know what was coming from that particular competitor and how dramatically better it would be than the SII and the Channel F. Were they only competing against the Channel F? Maybe the Studio III would have carved out a niche. But you look at those three machines side by side, and Atari's just seems more advanced in every way. Also, it's worth keeping in mind that even Atari had planned to drop the 2600 after a year or two in favor of a successive system until Warner put the kibosh on it - no one knew what a programmable console market would look like or function. RCA was likely just looking at how the gen 1 dedicated market functioned and extrapolated from there.

  • Like 4
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Agreed. Had this been released in 1975 (with color) instead of 1976 right before the first video game crash, then it probably would have done much better. However, like the SG-1000 and other game systems, it was released at the wrong time and was quickly out-shined by the Fairchild Channel F and Atari 2600.

 

The Studio II project really saw its genesis around 72-73, and had it come out at the time in some form (or even as late as 1975) it would have blown away everything else on the market. It doesn't sound like it changed too much from then to its eventual release other than collating components into the 1802 processor form factor. It's kind of endearing that Joe Weisbecker really wanted to make a home computer that families could afford - like an appliance - and hook up to their tv; Commodore did just that with the Vic-20 years later and absolutely found a market. RCA's people really did seem to believe in the system in that context. Heck, I can kind of get why they'd have the system release in black and white since plenty of people still had those sets in the 70s.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Those documents mentioning a Studio IV and V were from August 1977 - around the time the VCS was starting to hit shelves in California. I'm going to go out on a limb and wager they didn't know what was coming from that particular competitor and how dramatically better it would be than the SII and the Channel F.

At a closer look, the first document from August 4, 1977 mentions they're looking at what Atari, GI, Intel and National are doing and that the only approach with the possibility of meeting the critical construction of the Studio IV would be the one proposed by Joe Weisbecker.

 

The document from August 13, 1977 discusses how Bally, Atari/Sears, Fairchild and GI were doing, looking for samples of GI's chips but not received any yet. I do remember that GI had a number of different chips under development, so those not necessarily refer to the AY-3-8900 STIC but some of the more basic chips. The same document yet again mentions "a very dubious GI" chipset a bit below, so it indeed looks like RCA were trying to keep up with what the competitors were working on.

 

If other chipsets had been evaluated, to which extent they had something to evaluate, and it was found that Joe Weisbecker's design was the only viable solution for the next-next system, it really should be something extra.

 

Now we know that RCA made various high resolution colour chips, like the ones many years later found in the COMX 35 computer, and also some higher resolution terminals. A friend of mine has a "Small PC game" board attached to a RCA branded touch keyboard. While I'm 99% sure that is just a serial terminal someone in the past two decades mislabeled as something special, perhaps the Studio IV or Studio V would be the missing links between the Studio II and the COMX.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Sure sounds like it to me, especially when we consider that chips like the Z80 were used in computers and in home video game consoles. Much like other planned systems (Intellivision III, Odyssey 3, etc.) that were never released, we will never know what RCA could have done, if anything, with the Studio game console line, although we have a pretty good idea with the COMX 35 computer you mentioned.

 

Now we know that RCA made various high resolution colour chips, like the ones many years later found in the COMX 35 computer, and also some higher resolution terminals. A friend of mine has a "Small PC game" board attached to a RCA branded touch keyboard. While I'm 99% sure that is just a serial terminal someone in the past two decades mislabeled as something special, perhaps the Studio IV or Studio V would be the missing links between the Studio II and the COMX.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The important sections of the signal:
hagley3.jpg
This gap may be a problem because the input circuit on RCA systems usually expects these equalization pulse right up to the data.
I have the source code for this file but haven't had a chance to look into it.
I hope this is helpful.
ED

 

 

Hi all,

 

I've been a bit strapped for time, but I finally got to play with the uncompressed WAV files that ubersaurus provided. I think what ekeefe described is correct as far as structure goes. But it looks like these files are structure differently from those on other RCA systems.

 

The data part consists of long and short pulses, representing individual bits. I've written a small application that parses the data part in the audio file and converts it into bits, and then bytes. Problem here is that we don't know whether a long pulse represents a '1' or a '0'. And we don't know in what order the bits were written: least significant bit first (LSB) or most significant bit first (MSB). Or whether they use any framing (to indicate start and end of a bit - i've not found a pattern in this, but i've not looked very hard yet) or whether there's a header (the first 80 bytes of the first two data blocks on side 1 are identical and diverge after that), or whether there's checksums etc etc. There's about 2.5k data in each block, which suggests there's more in it than just data...

 

If there's any documentation describing the tape format used, this would obviously come in handy. Alternatively, if we could get a wav file of one of the existing games (Studio II Tennis is the most recognizable candidate). That would allow us to compare to existing code dumps and possibly derive a pattern/structure.

 

FliP

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

It might be a couple weeks, but I'm hoping to visit the Hagley myself (after trying a week ago and getting stymied by a craft fair). I'll see what they have as far as documentation goes. I did speak with Andy Modla the other day, and while he hasn't given me the go-ahead to release the text of it (I have article/video plans that it was a part of) he did make some mentions on how they programmed the games. Maybe it'll help decipher the tapes?

 

 

Joe Weisbecker wrote an interpreter language written in 1802 machine code for programming games. Coding with the interpreter pseudo code, a programmer could write very compact programs, than if using straight assembly machine instructions. Plus the interpreter solved common tasks for games, like a timer. The interpreter allowed 1802 code execution too, but it was rarely used, as Joe's interpreter design was fairly comprehensive for the task of programming games.

The weird thing for me was that Joe coded his demo and published games using the hexadecimal interpreter code, doing the rearrangement (refactoring code) on paper. Then he would transfer the byte code to EPROM for testing, or enter it into RAM with Studio II prototype, by hand.
I think they expected me to do the same, but I would not, it was too laborious. So the Labs had computer mainframe accounts for the IBM 360 series in Cherry Hill and I was able to use a 30 cps paper terminal to write and edit code, remotely from Princeton over telephone modem. I used the IBM 360 assembly language macro feature to create OP codes for the Studio II interpreter and generate the hex values needed for EPROM programming.
This made it so easy to refactor and once I got going I was able to squeeze a lot of features into the 4K byte ROM size for games. Plus it speeded up my productivity considerably. No one else wanted to use my tools though, although later 1978-1979? when the interpreter was converted to VIP microcomputers another Labs MTS engineer, not associated with Studio II, used a similar approach I found out later.
I also devised a UART circuit with the help of hardware engineers so the terminal could send the hex codes to a development board and load into RAM directly for testing, by passing manual entry, Yea!
cleardot.gif

I'll also get in touch with the archivist there again - he offered a reduced rate to digitize more tapes, and I'm happy to pay him to get a few more done (Studio II and coin labeled ones, maybe?) Also, based off of the arcade machine images BL provided, I wonder if the Mines/Fighter VIII tape contains Fredotronic game data?

Edited by ubersaurus
  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I've paid the Hagley to digitize the following tapes for me as uncompressed wav files. Should get them back in a week or two, at which point I'll post them for folks with more technical knowledge to try and decipher to get working binaries out of them. I also hope to get up to the Hagley myself in the next few weeks, see if I can find some more information out about their development systems. It might help sort these out! I requested three tapes with "Studio II" right on the label, and since Video-Mate was seemingly the prerelease name for the system that file should ostensibly also work on an SII (maybe it's an early rendition of the built in games or something, who knows).

I would assume coin Bowling at the very least is an 1801 project - I think that's what the arcade systems were running on?

 

Studio II-TV Tennis
COSMAC Elf Display/New Studio II 5 game set
180-Basic Video-Mate 3 game package/180 Space War
Cosmac 180 Bowling/Studio II Quiz
Mines/Fighter VIII
Coin Bowling 4/Bowl 5

Edited by ubersaurus
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Wow, I need to keep up with this thread better. (I blame a combination of work and the Nintendo Switch.) Anyway, great to see dumps for most of the Visicom carts! I have seen CAS-190 for sale at least once. I lost an auction for it a few years ago. They don't appear often, for sure, but I'm still looking.

 

The collection of tapes is definitely interesting. Hard to say what's on them, but finding something like an arcade prototype would be amazing. They could be a mix of Studio II ROM files, files intended to load into an RCA computer like the Cosmac, and files intended to load into a more powerful computer or mainframe used for development.

 

I actually have quite a bit of experience with cassette tape digitization from archiving Astrocade programs. Tapes, like any magnetic media, degrade with time, so it's important to get a a good digital copy. But since the digital data is encoded into an analog audio signal, some amount of signal degradation is surmountable. Here is some general advice on tape archiving. Definitely save in a uncompressed format like WAV or a lossless format like FLAC. Audio compression tends to remove sounds that humans can't easily hear, but those sounds may be essential to a computer. Also, I've found that the quality of equipment used in digitization is important. Use a gold-plated audio cable. They're not very expensive, and it can make a big difference. A dedicated sound card is also useful, as is a high-quality tape deck. Tapes breaking is a potential risk that I don't really know of a good way to counter. They can be repaired, but there will be data loss if it breaks at an inopportune location. I don't know that they would want to loan out a tape, but I'd be glad to try recording them if they wanted.

 

Once you have the recordings, you need to figure out how the data is formatted. It might use a standard format that already has processing programs available. For example, we figured out that the Astrocade's original interface used the Kansas City Standard, and there were already tools for it written with some Casio systems in mind. Some audio processing filters might also be helpful. I've had good results applying a high-pass filter to Astrocade recordings, but that's just something you have to play around with.

 

I'm looking forward to hearing more about these, as well as the documents. Are there any plans to make high-quality scans of the paper documents? Even if they're kept in a good archive, there's always a risk of losing unique documents from fire, theft, etc. And of course only the most dedicated will actually travel to Delaware to see them.

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

But the Cosmac VIP series were not Weisbecker designs, just using the chips conceived by him? I.e. will Blazing Lazers later on publish documents that indicate that anything from the early Studio IV designs were carried over to the Cosmacs? When were the VIS chips designed, to be used in some RCA graphics terminals and later in the COMX? I tried to look up any dates, but found very little information on a brief Google search.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hello Guys,


RCA did develop a home computer, the VIP II.


Here is a picture of the brochure:


vip2_brochure.jpg


I'm not sure if this was the Studio IV or Studio V, but it did use an 1802. It also ran floating point BASIC, had a full keyboard, a hex keypad and had color and sound.


It was never released.


An old VIPER magazine ran an ad for the VIP II. You can see it here:




The ad appears on pages 26-27.


Using the information in this ad, and the brochure I had, I built the VIP II. You can see pictures and my design/build process here:




I don't know exactly when the RCA VIS chips (CDP1869, CDP1870 and CDP1876) were released, but they were used in the RCA Interactive Data Terminal and the COMX-35.


Here are some pictures related to the terminal:


IMG_2695.jpg


IMG_2648.jpg


IMG_2703.jpg


Here is a picture of a COMX-35:


comx35.jpg


You can read more about it here:




I built my own COMX-35. Here are a few pictures (My system, graphics and text):


avi_comx_system_complete4.jpg


space_game.jpg


serialrommonitor1.jpg


If the release dates of the VIS chips is really important to you guys, I can look it up. I have a bunch of old RCA data books from that era.


I hope you found this useful.


ED

  • Like 6
Link to comment
Share on other sites

 

Hello Guys,
RCA did develop a home computer, the VIP II.
Here is a picture of the brochure:
vip2_brochure.jpg
I'm not sure if this was the Studio IV or Studio V, but it did use an 1802. It also ran floating point BASIC, had a full keyboard, a hex keypad and had color and sound.
It was never released.
An old VIPER magazine ran an ad for the VIP II. You can see it here:
The ad appears on pages 26-27.
Using the information in this ad, and the brochure I had, I built the VIP II. You can see pictures and my design/build process here:
I don't know exactly when the RCA VIS chips (CDP1869, CDP1870 and CDP1876) were released, but they were used in the RCA Interactive Data Terminal and the COMX-35.
Here are some pictures related to the terminal:
IMG_2695.jpg
IMG_2648.jpg
IMG_2703.jpg
Here is a picture of a COMX-35:
comx35.jpg
You can read more about it here:
I built my own COMX-35. Here are a few pictures (My system, graphics and text):
avi_comx_system_complete4.jpg
space_game.jpg
serialrommonitor1.jpg
If the release dates of the VIS chips is really important to you guys, I can look it up. I have a bunch of old RCA data books from that era.
I hope you found this useful.
ED

 

 

Wow! Some amazing stuff and information. Talk about what could've, should've, would've been with the Studio III, IV, and V if the Studio II had been released a year or two earlier. However, the same could be said of many a game system like the SG-1000, Atari 5200 (which was a repurposed Atari 400 home computer), Atari 7800, etc.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think i've figured out the audio files - ubersaurus pointed to the FRED manual, which contains a description of a tape system for the development system used for the Studio II carts. Confusingly, the initial system used different frequencies and a fixed length (5 ms) to indicate a '1' or a '0'. It was upgraded however to use a more reliable pulse width format: a long pulse indicates a '1' and a shorter one is a '0'. Memo #9 describes this.

 

The data is encoded in 10 bits: a start bit (always '1') followed by the 8 bits in lsb order and a parity bit. This indicates the number of 1s in the main 8 bits: if this is an even number, the parity bit is 1. Otherwise it's 0. It's a very basic error check: it helps but it's far from foolproof...

 

Side one of the digitised tape appears to contain the same file three times, but the third is not complete. The other side appears to be the same program twice. The audio is degraded in several parts, so it needs a manual fix. Not too hard, since it's easy to see whether it's a long pulse or a short one, but time consuming.

 

I've not yet been able to make sense of the binary file that comes out however. It seems that development was done on an advanced version of FRED, or possibly an early Cosmac VIP. The files are 2k, which suggests that it's more than the game itself and includes the kernel for the development system... I've attached the binary of side 1 / part 1 which according to the label is 'swords'. Perhaps someone will recognise it, or can compare it to a known dump of the game...

 

FliP

 

 

AUD_2464_09_B41_ID01_01_01.rom

  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think i've figured out the audio files - ubersaurus pointed to the FRED manual, which contains a description of a tape system for the development system used for the Studio II carts. Confusingly, the initial system used different frequencies and a fixed length (5 ms) to indicate a '1' or a '0'. It was upgraded however to use a more reliable pulse width format: a long pulse indicates a '1' and a shorter one is a '0'. Memo #9 describes this.

 

The data is encoded in 10 bits: a start bit (always '1') followed by the 8 bits in lsb order and a parity bit. This indicates the number of 1s in the main 8 bits: if this is an even number, the parity bit is 1. Otherwise it's 0. It's a very basic error check: it helps but it's far from foolproof...

 

Side one of the digitised tape appears to contain the same file three times, but the third is not complete. The other side appears to be the same program twice. The audio is degraded in several parts, so it needs a manual fix. Not too hard, since it's easy to see whether it's a long pulse or a short one, but time consuming.

 

I've not yet been able to make sense of the binary file that comes out however. It seems that development was done on an advanced version of FRED, or possibly an early Cosmac VIP. The files are 2k, which suggests that it's more than the game itself and includes the kernel for the development system... I've attached the binary of side 1 / part 1 which according to the label is 'swords'. Perhaps someone will recognise it, or can compare it to a known dump of the game...

 

FliP

 

 

Actually, 01 is Tag-Bowling!

 

I received the additional tapes I requested today, labeled the files accordingly with the names the Hagley provided for each one, and put them in the dropbox (also updated the initial files to include their labels). Give em a look!https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ngogb8xl8zyv44q/AADIWoc2nV3w9KPZZJtkxS_Sa?dl=0

Edited by ubersaurus
  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Actually, 01 is Tag-Bowling!

 

I received the additional tapes I requested today, labeled the files accordingly with the names the Hagley provided for each one, and put them in the dropbox (also updated the initial files to include their labels). Give em a look!https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ngogb8xl8zyv44q/AADIWoc2nV3w9KPZZJtkxS_Sa?dl=0

 

thanks for the new files - I've not looked in detail, but some appear to be formatted differently - closer to what ekeefe described, with the lead/sync tone immediately before the main part... the wave form is also different, suggesting they've been recorded on a different machine... It makes it a bit harder to decode, as I need to change parameters etc for each individual file. On the up side, they might load on existing hardware/emulators...

 

FliP

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
 Share

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
×
×
  • Create New...