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Monday, November 28, 2016

It started with Pong, Odyssey, OXO, and Spacewar!

by Mark Ollig
Copyright © 2016 Mark Ollig

Many baby boomers will recall playing the video game Pong on a television set back in the mid-1970s.

Pong, a video table tennis game, was designed by 24-year-old engineer Allan Alcorn, while working for Atari Inc. in 1972.

The first coin-operated cabinet version of Pong was installed in September 1972, at Andy Capp’s Tavern, in Sunnyvale, CA.

Playing Pong became extremely popular with the local bar patrons.

However, two weeks after it was installed, the Pong arcade machine began having problems.

Eventually, a phone call from the tavern manager was made to Atari, saying the Pong machine was broken.

When Allan Alcorn came out to investigate, he found Pong was malfunctioning because too many quarters had been jammed in to the machine – which might seem like a nice problem to have.

I can empathize with Alcorn.

His story took me back to when yours truly was repairing a payphone, which happened to be located inside a tavern.

After removing the metal outer housing shell of the payphone, I discovered coins had become lodged inside the coin chute assembly, causing the payphone to be “out-of-order.”

An assortment of nickels, dimes, and quarters had jammed the mechanized parts; causing them to become inoperable.

Removing the coins fixed the problem.

The home version of Pong (using a game console connected to any manufactured television) was called Home Pong, and was distributed through Sears stores in 1975.

In 1967, Ralph Baer, an engineer with Sanders Associates, Inc., was also creating video games that could be played on a television.

One game, named Chase, was played by connecting a brown controller box to a television set.

In 1972 (same year the coin-operated cabinet version of Pong was installed), Sanders Associates licensed Baer’s controller box to Magnavox, a maker of television sets.

Baer’s brown controller box; a multiplayer, multivideo gaming system, became known as the Magnavox Odyssey video game console.

Magnavox began home distribution of the Odyssey three years before Atari’s Home Pong.

Since the Odyssey game console was licensed by the television maker Magnavox, many folks incorrectly assumed the Odyssey game console would only work on a Magnavox television.

It was learned the Magnavox Odyssey game console worked on any television set.

The folks at Atari quickly picked up on this and began printing the following on their Home Pong game boxes: “Works on any television set, black and white, or color.”

Pong and Odyssey ended up becoming very popular during the 1970s.

Back in 1961, a video game played on a minicomputer was developed by four Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students.

They named it: Spacewar!

This video game operated over MIT’s DEC (Digital Equipment Company) PDP-1 (Programmed Data Processor) computer, built in 1959.

In February 1962, Steve Russell completed the code programming for Spacewar!, while Dan Edwards, Peter Samson, and Martin Graetz added additional features.

Today, anyone can still play Spacewar! using the original programming code operated over JAVA, which most STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) students know, is a cross-platform programming language designed to run on any computer system.

The emulator for playing Spacewar! is:

In 1958, the Tennis for Two video game was created by William Higinbotham, using an analog computer.

It was played using an electronic oscilloscope, which was a piece of test gear normally used for measuring voltages, frequencies, amplitudes, noise, and a few other things.

If you read my Nov. 14 column, I can confirm using an oscilloscope in the electronics lab at the technical college in Wadena.

In 1952, the first computerized digital graphical game was called OXO.

This video game involved a human playing the tic-tac-toe game against a computer.

The human player used a rotary telephone dial as the controller.

This player would dial a digit from 1 to 9, which represented the location of where to place an X or O on the tic-tac-toe board displayed on the computer’s screen, or cathode ray tube (CRT).

The programming code for OXO was written by Alexander S. Douglas at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

The OXO game was played on a British-made Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) computer, originally constructed in 1948.

To view a detailed screenshot of an EDSAC simulator running the OXO game, visit:

Going back to 1947, we discover what may be the inspiration for the first CRT based game using World War II radar display images.

Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device, US Patent 2,455,992 was filed Jan. 25, 1947, and issued its US Patent Dec. 14, 1948. Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann are named as the inventors.

This patent describes how a player controlled the trace of the ray or electron beam on a CRT, analogous to how an Etch A Sketch is used in making solid lines on its gray screen.

Follow me on Twitter at @bitsandbytes.

Parts of this column, originally published Feb. 14, 2011, were modified by the writer.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Consumer online chat/text surpasses voice interaction

by Mark Ollig
Copyright © 2016 Mark Ollig

“Good morning, thanks for calling WXYZ Company, how may we help you today?”

A traditional voice telephone call with a company’s human employee verbally answering our questions about their product or service has taken second place to Internet chatbots, cellphone texting, and online messaging.

Real-time, online chat messaging over the Internet on a retailer’s website, or social media network, such as Twitter and Facebook, and Short Message Service (SMS) texting using a cellphone, are being used by more millennials for conducting their commerce.

This was the conclusion in a recent report by a west coast consumer relations company called [24]7.

Headquartered in Campbell, CA, [24]7 provides automated live chat, and virtual smart-speech digital agent chatbot technologies to retail websites.

Their virtual chat services operate over many store websites and online messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger, and mobile messaging apps (applications).

The technology used by [24]7 assists online customers with the purchase of a service or product from a retailer’s brick-and-mortar store, or their online shop.

Virtual chatbots, or bots, are software programs written to simulate human conversation, and are designed to answer questions, offer suggestions, and provide assistance from the specific company they are programmed for.

The [24]7 report, titled “A Retailer’s Guide to Chat,” shows an increased use in online automated chatbots and text messaging when visiting online retail company stores.

This report states 37 percent of the US millennials ages 18 to 34 said they use online chat channels, such as Facebook Messenger, when making purchases.

Messaging apps are a favorite with millennials; 66 percent find benefits using them for interacting with retailers.

Examples of popular messaging apps include WhatsApp, QQ Mobile, WeChat, and Facebook Messenger.

I imagine one reason this survey focused on millennials, is because their global spending power was $2.45 trillion in 2015, according to one Minnesota digital marketing research firm.

Our friends at Pew Research reported in August 2015, using messaging apps to communicate was a common practice by the 18-to 29-year-olds; indicating they’re very comfortable with the technology.

Many millennials, per the [24]7 report, trust using automated bots and retail text/chat messaging services.

Ah, but what about having a conversation relating to a store purchase with an AI (artificial intelligent) chatbot?

Of the millennials questioned, 43 percent said they would engage in such a conversation.

Millennials surveyed also said they felt better about their online shopping experience when using messaging apps for tracking their orders from a retailer.

Another benefit for having live text messaging; you can save the text conversation (or session) and go back to it later for any clarifications.

Convenience of using a chat app for directly communicating with the retailers website to resolve problems, was also mentioned as a benefit.

Of course, there are concerns when using an online chat/messaging app.

Security and privacy was the highest concern, stated 28 percent of surveyed consumers.

Distrust of using third-party apps was cited by 12 percent.

In April, Pew Research reported the current millennial population has surpassed the existing baby boomers; thus becoming this country’s largest, “living generation.”

It seems those of us left in the baby boomer generation are a bit more apprehensive; I’ll say, reasonably cautious, when doing business using chatbots and text messaging.

No doubt using online chat/texting for making the sale is popular; however, the report noted being able to talk directly with a human after the sale is made; whether to follow up on, or to resolve a problem with the sale, remains important to customers.

Although online chat and text messaging are gaining status as a preferred method for interacting with retailers with millennials, direct human involvement is still valued by consumers.

Businesses and retailers should be educating all consumer age groups on the benefits of interacting with them using secure messaging, and online chat apps.

In order to attract sales for online shops, and brick-and-mortar stores, companies need to provide consumer resources, such as virtual chat guides, video how-to demonstrations, and customer testimonials through their websites and social media networks.

Consumer education for all age groups is essential in order to earn our trust, confidence, and satisfaction when using chat/text technology in the marketplace.

“With chat technology rapidly evolving, it’s becoming a much more efficient and engaging customer service channel,” said Scott Horn, chief marketing officer for [24]7.

Their website is

You can follow me on Twitter at @bitsandbytes.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Bristol’s ‘Big Hex Machine’

by Mark Ollig
Copyright © 2016 Mark Ollig

Yours truly is writing this column the day after the US presidential election.

I noted the sun still rose, the birds still sang, and my coffee still tastes pretty good.

Not too long ago; ok, many years ago, when I attended telephony school in Wadena, we learned about and built several types of electronic circuits; ranging from power supplies to ohm meters.

During the morning class, we learned theory, and traced the currents, resistances, voltages, and power flowing through circuit schematics.

We also worked those lengthy capacitance formulas.

During the afternoons, we paired off in twos in the electronics lab and built the electronic circuits we were taught about in the morning.

Each lab desk had a large wooden “breadboard” and shelves of plastic bins filled with a variety of electronic components, spools of wire, and tools.

The breadboard’s surface was designed as a base for connecting electronic components and wiring of the circuits we built using circuit schematics.

It was a solderless breadboard, which saved us from having to solder the wires to the components.

I later learned about soldering when I worked fulltime at the telephone company during the late 1970s.

Back then, the telephone company used an electro-mechanical, all-relay, analog voice-processing switch.

Installation and maintenance of individual subscriber lines and trunking wiring circuits required the use of rosin core soldering techniques for their connections in the telephone central office.

One subscriber could have 14 separate wiring solder points made to specific terminal blocks located on the wiring mainframe.

My central office soldering days ended in December 1986, when the telephone company installed a new digital central office for processing voice calls.

Instead of wiring and soldering each connection, one could sit in front of a computer display screen and program the subscriber lines and trunks using a keyboard.

But I digress-back to my school days.

Once in a while, a student would sneak over to another lab table’s breadboard and switch the polarity of a DC capacitor.

This action created a large firecracker “pop!” sound when the unbeknownst student turned on their power supply and learned too late their DC capacitor’s polarity had been reversed.

This practical joke caused the other students to erupt in laughter.

Rest assured, yours truly never took part in this electronic delinquency.

After witnessing this prank, I made sure to check my lab’s electronic components before applying power to them.

Today, students at the University of Bristol in the UK are learning in a unique way how computers work.

They and their teacher built a large-sized 16-bit computer with all its cabling and electronic components installed on a plywood sheet using 86-square-feet of surface space.

The plywood is used as a breadboard, and is wall-mounted in their lab for easy viewing and hands-on access.

They called their computer the Big Hex Machine.

This computer processes and programs information via a distinct 16-bit hexadecimal numbering system.

Each single 16-bit hexadecimal number is actually two bytes – as there are 8 bits in 1 byte.

Imagine counting in decimal from zero to 15; which is 16 distinct values.

In hexadecimal, the value also starts with a zero; however the hex 10 equals an A, 11 equals B, 12 equals C, 13 equals D, 14 equals E, and 15 equals F.

I haven’t thought of hex and decimal conversions for a long time, and feel a slight headache coming on.

The Big Hex Machine is being used as “an ultimate teaching tool,” which gives a full and easily seen visual of how the wiring paths are used for connecting the inputs and outputs of the computer’s electronic components.

Its wiring and component modules can easily be traced.

Numerous “hex modules” used with this 16-bit computer include logic gates NOT, AND, OR, and XOR, as well as an arithmetic unit module for making operational logic decisions.

Its non-volatile memory, storing up to 32,768 bytes of information, can retain its data during a power loss.

A web-based application controls how the computer operates.

Students are writing and programming code into this computer, executing it, and observing the results on a custom-built, box-shaped LED matrix screen.

“It’s a result of a great collaboration between students and staff and a real testament to persistence, commitment and teamwork. Most importantly, it’s an achievement of thinking a bit differently,” said Richard Grafton, senior creative teaching technologist in the Department of Computer Science.

The Big Hex Machine is impressive to look at, and provides a great beginner’s hands-on learning tool for students.

I uploaded a couple photos of the Big Hex Machine itself on the wall, and one with two students and a teacher standing in front of it at:

The University of Bristol can be followed on Twitter via their @BristolUni name.

My non-hexadecimal postings are found using @bitsandbytes.

The Bigs Hex Machine. [from L-R] Richard Grafton, Professor David May and Sam Russell, in front of the Big Hex Machine
Source: University of Bristol

Friday, November 4, 2016

'Fabulous electronic machine' surprisingly picks presidential winner

by Mark Ollig 
Copyright © 2016 Mark Ollig

The evening of Nov. 4, 1952, people all across the country closely watched their televisions.
CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite was reporting on the voter returns from the 1952 US presidential election.
On that evening, CBS showcased a pioneering computer called UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer).
Univac, an electronic digital computer, was manufactured by the Remington Rand company and was used by the US Census Bureau in 1950.
Univac’s large equipment cabinets required the room equal to a spacious two-car garage.
As Walter Cronkite reported from his anchor desk in the CBS New York City studio, a nearby teletype machine directly connected to the Univac computer, located 100 miles away in Philadelphia, sent and received information.
Across this studio, CBS newscaster Charles Collingwood was seated near a Univac operator’s console the size of a large desk.
The console was not directly connected to the Univac; it was an exact replica, with working lights blinking on and off.
“This is the face of a Univac. A Univac is a fabulous electronic machine which we have borrowed to help us predict this election from the basis of the early returns as they come in,” described Collingwood.
“This is not a joke or a trick. It’s an experiment. We think it’s going to work, we don’t know . . . we hope it’ll work,” he optimistically added.
Around 7:30 p.m. CST, Univac concluded the winner of the 1952 US presidential election would be Dwight Eisenhower – even though only a small number of the votes had been counted.
Upon learning this, the CBS folks did not immediately share Univac’s prediction with its national audience. Public opinion polls showed Adlai Stevenson to be leading Eisenhower.
Some people with CBS thought the Univac television experiment was going to turn out to be a colossal failure.
Univac’s final national electoral vote numbers predicted Eisenhower getting 438, and Stevenson having 93.
The actual electoral tally ended up with Eisenhower receiving 442, and Stevenson taking 89.
On the popular vote totals, Univac projected 32,915,000 votes for Eisenhower; the official total was 34,075,529.
As the late voter election return totals came in, Cronkite quoted former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen (who was in the CBS studio) saying; “It looks as if General Eisenhower will be elected with the greatest popular vote in history.”
In the end, the Univac passed the television experiment and was a remarkable success.
The future of televised computer election predictions was born.
“We saw it as an added feature to our coverage that could be very interesting in the future, and there was a great deal of pride that we had this exclusively. But I don’t think that we felt the computer would become predominant in our coverage in any way,” Cronkite later said.
In a somewhat related story; as a youngster growing up during the 1960s, I regularly watched Saturday morning cartoons (usually with a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal).
One cartoon featured Wile E. Coyote building a “do-it-yourself UNIVAC Electronic Brain” with the hope it would be able to think of a way to capture the always-elusive Road Runner.
I decided to build my own Univac computer which would answer questions (for a modest fee, of course).
Using a small cardboard box, I cut out a rectangular opening on the front large enough to insert a sheet of paper, and a smaller opening for depositing a dime.
Several colorful “thinking computing lights” were drawn around the box using crayons from my Crayola box with the handy built-in sharpener.
A small stack of neatly placed sheets of paper, and a few sharpened pencils were put next to the box – I mean computer.
Along the top of the box, with a black crayon I printed in large letters: “UNIVAC COMPUTER.”
I wrote the following on a piece of paper and taped it to the side of the box: “Write your question on a piece of paper. Insert paper in opening along with a dime for your answer. Thank you, UNIVAC COMPUTER.”
I placed my cardboard Univac computer on the kitchen counter next to the radio, and waited for someone’s question.
The cardboard computer’s processing power was the brain of an 8-year-old boy; yours truly, who would collect the questions (and dimes) and then go to the family den, where the World Book Encyclopedias were located.
I researched the questions, and wrote the answers on paper.
The answered questions were placed next to the cardboard Univac, where they would be retrieved by the questioners.
My family, especially my dad, got a kick out of this enterprising operation.
I recall dad wrote the following question and placed it, along with a dime, into my UNIVAC computer: “How do I get my 8-year-old son to take out the kitchen wastebasket?”
Moments later, the kitchen wastebasket was being taken out by his 8-year-old son.
So, who is going to win this year’s presidential election?
I’d like to think the original Univac (now in the Smithsonian Institution) would accurately predict the outcome.
You can watch the Nov. 4, 1952 CBS video at:
Follow me on Twitter via the @bitsandbytes username.
Parts of this column originally published Nov. 4, 2013 were modified by the writer.