Glenside Color Computer Club
The 22nd Annual “Last” Chicago CoCoFEST!
Recap by Salvador Garcia
I was over at the 22nd Annual “Last” Chicago CoCoFEST! on Saturday April 27. This Fest is held annually by the Glenside Color Computer Club (GCCC). Each year this group wonders whether it will be the last CoCoFEST! Thanks to the support and generosity of people this Fest has been going on for 22 years, much longer than the Color Computer, or CoCo, has been available. While many hold the CoCo as a distant memory, GCCC plus other supporters have kept this ingenious device viable for projects done today.
The following are descriptions of some of the exhibitors that were present to display their technology and products. While I tried to talk with all exhibitors, some were not around when I was there and regretfully I had to leave early.
Steve’s Laser Show
As I arrived at the CoCoFEST! I was just in time to attend the Laser Show. This event showcases the CoCo’s ability to interface with the outside world to control physical devices. In this case, the CoCo was connected to a laser projector that was designed and built by the presenter, Steve Noskowicz. Steve was patient in explaining how the device worked. His presentation was accompanied by music. Different images and figures were projected on the screen by the laser projector using a series of mirrors and (if I understood correctly) a light intensity modulator made out of an old speaker.
Steve meticulously programmed each point of each of the images displayed. The software controlled the location, duration and intensity of each of the points. By using some clever software design on the CoCo Steve was able to animate the figures, including producing a 3D rotating image of a rectangle. He also showed us other presentations he had made, including an animated Motorola logo and a presentation that he made for the Boy Scouts to teach them about constellations. In this latter presentation he even had an image of the space shuttle taking off and landing.
Steve also showed us the technique he used to animate the images, allowing us to see how he painted each dot with the laser and how persistence of vision allowed the illusion of seeing a steady solid image. There was some flickering for the more complex images, but for the most part it was impressive to see the quality that these had given the hardware used
The images were not high definition as we might be accustomed to see in today’s graphics products, but what we saw was impressive in what could be accomplished using technology that could be considered obsolete by today’s standards.
A full shot of the CoCo laser projector setup. Note the project in the back of the image, next to the pillar.
Another shot of the laser project CoCo setup.
|A look inside the laser projector.|
|Another angle of the laser projector.|
LogiCall V7.0 Disk Management System Ensemble
Bob Swoger’s LogiCall presentation was after the Laser Show. LogiCall is a disk management system that runs on all models of the Color Computer (and other computer systems), works with Vcc and DriveWire and provides a full user experience to access the content that is available on the attached disk drives.
Using LogiCall lets the user have a more productive and fun experience with the Color Computer. This ingenious piece of software was written by Bob Swoger, John Mark Mobley and Chris Hawks. Their goal was to bring new life to the CoCo by permitting the user to interact with it in a totally different way as was originally designed. The original command line interface is replaced by LogiCall with a fully navigational menu system.
The menu is capable of mapping the drives that are available and launching any executable programs that reside there. To make optimal use of memory LogiCall exits the CoCo before the program is called and returns after the user exits the program. LogiCall lists the different stored files on the current drive and displays the in an easy to read format that is part of the user interface menu. Pressing <ENTER> at the program prompt allows the user to select a program to run using the arrow keys rather than typing the program name. Of course, both ways work.
Not only can the user navigate the file system of up to 4 disk drives and up to 256 virtual drives, it can also run system commands to copy, rename, move or delete files using a single keystroke. Other functionality is also available to format diskettes or perform administrative tasks such as back up. It will also call the Word processor or Terminal software by pressing a single key. It will also display text files and pictures without first calling the otherwise needed application. A two page help file is displayed when F1 is pressed to avoid look up in the manual.
Since the software is written in BASIC the user who is knowledgeable in this language can customize LogiCall as needed or desired. Again, this description does not do this software justice. The following is a You Tube link to a walkthrough that Bob S. presented, keeping in mind that it pertains to a previous version of LogiCall for the Sinclair Spectrum and TS-2068. Still the video perfectly illustrates what LogiCall is all about:
David was present at the expo. Among other items that he showcased, he was demonstrating how a CoCo emulator could be run using today’s operating systems. While I did not ask enough questions, I made a few assumptions. David demonstrated a CoCo emulator he wrote using a computer running Windows XP. The emulator did not run directly on top of Windows XP, rather it ran inside a Virtual Box environment running Windows 98. I did not ask him why he did not run the emulator directly on top of Windows XP, but I assumed that it might not have been directly compatible with XP.
For those not familiar with emulators, an emulator is an application that mimics the functionality of some device. In this case, if you do not have a real Color Computer, you can locate a CoCo emulator on the Internet. After downloading and installing this program you can run it and it will display a screen similar or almost identical to the Color Computer’s original green screen. The emulator application will let you interact with it as though it were a real CoCo, allowing you to enter commands and BASIC code.
David mentioned that he also had a Virtual Box environment for MS-DOS 6.22 where he could run the emulator. This led me to believe that the emulator was more compatible with MS-DOS and Windows 98 than with more modern operating systems such as the NT line. Seeing Windows 98 run in the virtual environment that in turn ran the CoCo emulator was quite a sight.
Virtual Box is free software from Oracle that allows the user to install an operating system within another operating system. For example, I may have a PC running Windows 7. I can go ahead and download and install Virtual Box in this environment. Now the Windows 7 environment becomes the host. The Virtual Box software behaves as though it were a fully functional computer, also allowing the user to map physical drives to its virtual environment. The user can then insert an install disc into the optical drive of the physical computer and the virtual environment will recognize it as though the disc was in this environment. Once the install process begins the user can go ahead and install the operating system of choice in that virtual environment. Operating systems supported are Windows and Linux, along with others such as the MS-DOS 6.22 mentioned earlier. Sorry, Mac OSes are not supported, at least not as of this writing.
Once the user has finished installing the operating system in the Virtual Box s/he can go ahead and install any software that is compatible with that operating system. Since David installed Windows 98, he was able to install his CoCo emulator without any problems. The following link takes the reader to a page that presents various emulators for the Color Computer and other Radio Shack computers.
A CoCo emulator running on Windows 98 running on Windows XP using Virtual Box.
|A close up of the emulator screen.|
I next visited Brian Schubring, also known as the Music Man. He gave me a detailed tour of his setup. He had a decked out Color computer using a PS/2 keyboard and VGA LCD monitor. He was running music software called UltiMusE3. This is a fantastic piece of software that run on the Color Computer 3 on top of OS/9 Level II. UltiMusE, short for Ultimate Music Editor was written by Michael J. Knudson and can be used for a variety of music related tasks. Certain aspects of this software stand out. First, the author cleverly used the hidden high resolution video buffers to store MIDI data. This allowed a fast response time and excellent MIDI timing routines. The second feature that stands out is the ability for UltiMusE3 to multitask, thanks to the OS/9 Level II environment it runs in. While multitasking is ubiquitous today, back in the 80s and early 90s it was almost unheard of especially for a hardware platform such as the Color Computer.
UltiMusE Pro, an enhanced build of the original application, UltiMusE3, is available for free download at the Source Forge Website here:
Brian’s CoCo was interfacing with external hardware to produce high quality music, making use of MIDI. MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface is a set of three concepts: a communications protocol that goes on between the computer in question and the musical instrument, a hardware digital interface which both the computer and the instrument must have and a standard set of connectors. MIDI allows the computer to control musical instruments that are compatible with MIDI. Although this might sound trivial, MIDI is a sophisticated technology that allows high quality music from various instruments to be produced that otherwise would not be possible if the instruments were controlled through an existing port of the computer (serial, parallel, USB, etc.).
What I have described here about MIDI only begins to scratch the surface of this technology. While Brian gave me a detailed tour, what I have included in this description does not do it justice.
|A full shot of the CoCo MIDI setup.|
A slightly closer look at the CoCo MIDI setup.
The CoCo setup used a PS/2 keyboard plus other interfacing hardware for the MIDI setup.
|A screen capture of UltiMusE3. (Stock photo taken from sites.google.com/site/dabarnstudio/ultimuse3) |
Cloud 9 is a company that designs, manufactures and commercializes CoCo compatible hardware and software products. Among their flagships products are NitrOS-9 and expansion modules that can be plugged into the Color Computer’s main board.
NitrOS-9 is an operating system modeled after UNIX. Today, with so many Linux distributions and other UNIX-like operating systems available it is hard to envision the value that OS-9 had when it came out. I remember it was the beginning of the 80s when I first was introduced to OS-9. It was quite a feat. Up to then most (if not all) operating systems were character based. OS-9 was the first operating system that I saw that was graphics based. Keep in mind; this was before Windows and the Macintosh. OS-9’s abilities of being multi user and multi tasking were unheard of back then for personal computers.
The expansion modules allow the Color Computer to interface with outside devices such as hard drives, floppies and flash cards. Some also allow the user to add memory capacities unheard of when the Color Computer was first introduced by Radio Shack. I remember getting my first CoCo with 4K of RAM and about a year later I enthusiastically upgraded to 64K, applying some software patch that the Radio Shack representative gave me.
The Flash card expansion modules allow the CoCo to store files, using a FAT16 format, on the Flash card. I got a chance to see a specific card for Compact Flash. The representative that was there mentioned that they are moving the technology to support SD Cards too. Once the file is written to the Flash device (and the hardware turn off) the card can be removed and inserted into a compatible slot on a PC and the files can be read. This is an easy and practical way to transfer files back and forth between the CoCo and the Windows PC. I should mention that this also supports other operating systems, as long as they have support for the file system that is used.
A Cloud 9 representative was troubleshooting a software application known as DriveWire. This application which runs on the CoCo and on a Windows based PC allows the CoCo to store and retrieve files from the PC. This is again just scratching the surface of this application. The CoCo and PC are connected by means of a serial cable. If the PC does not have a serial port then a serial/USB converter can be used. Once the software is installed on the CoCo and the PC the CoCo becomes a “client” and the PC becomes the “server”. Software for servers running different operating systems is available; it is not limited to just Windows PCs.
Richard Crislip & DriveWire
Richard had an impressive setup using DriveWire to transfer files between a PC running Windows XP and the CoCo. As with many exhibitors, his CoCo was decked out to use a standard LCD VGA monitor. He shared his VGA monitor between the CoCo and his PC by using a video switch. His CoCo 3 provided VGA output which was then connected to a special adapter/converter box that was in turn connected to the video switch.
The DriveWire serial cable was connected to the CoCo’s own serial port affectionately called the “bit banger port” because the serial communication is emulated in software. I did not see whether Richard used a serial to USB converter or whether his PC had a serial port. Although eating a pizza for lunch Richard was kind enough to show me around his installation. He explained how the communication was done between the two computers. He also mentioned that DriveWire could have “partitions” as large as 4 GB. While this might be a huge capacity today, back in the 80s it was impossible to have it, unless you were rich and had a huge space and power supply.
Richard also explained that to run his setup, the CoCo needed to have the HDB-DOS 1.1B ROM, a product by a collaboration of Tandy and Microware.
|A full shot of the CoCo/Windows PC DriveWire setup.|
A close up of the video switch and VGA adapter for the CoCo.
|A screen shot of the DriveWire application running on the PC.|
The CoCo side of the DriveWire demo setup.
RaspBerry Pi (R-Pi) was also present at the CoCoFEST! John Mark Mobley demonstrated this tiny $35 Linux computer. This particular device can run a CoCo emulator compatible with Linux, although caution must be exercised to verify that the emulator will run on the particular distribution that is compatible with the R-Pi.
There isn’t really much to say about the Raspberry Pi, except that it is one of the most popular single board computers available at present. Although the price is low, the Raspberry Pi has enough horse power to run Linux at an acceptable speed. Once the small computer is set up the user can boot Linux, use any of the applications available for this platform and connect to a network, including the Internet.
As the popularity of this platform takes off even further we can expect to see more electronic interfaces for it. If the hardware and the Linux distribution is supported by DriveWire then once a hard drive or flash card is connected to this small computer it can be configured as a file server and used with this application.
For those who like to design hardware around the R-Pi and make use of the integrated components such as GPI/O, I2C, UART and SPI then there is a product called Pi Crust (http://picru.st/) which breaks out these interfaces. Using such products with clever software and a crazy idea the R-Pi can have many applications.
|The RaspBerry Pi booth showcasing this product.|
|Close up of the RaspBerry Pi (stock photo).|
FPGA Color Computer Emulator
An item of interest at the CoCoFEST! was an Altera DE1 FPGA that had been programmed to emulate the Color Computer. The CoCo emulator was part of Lost Wizard Two of the shows exhibitors spent some time chatting back and forth about the compatibility of the emulator. Frank mentioned that he had not been able to get Donkey Kong to run on the FPGA emulator. Brian added that there seemed to be something off in the emulation of the 6809’s cycles.
Still, this emulator is a perfect example of the fusion between an old technology and a modern one. To understand the significance of this CoCo hardware emulator we need to understand what the Altera DE1 is. At first I thought it was a computer and that the emulation was part of a software package that ran on top of the FPGA, but this is not the case. To understand how this comes together we need to know what a FPGA is.
An FPGA is a Field Programmable Gate Array. This is one way to say that this device is an open book when first purchased. It is a computer waiting to happen. While some products claim to work out of the box, an FPGA is a blank page that is anything but ready to use. For this product to be useful the programmer must develop a program that defines the functions of the FPGA. If you want, your FPGA could be a calculator. The purpose of an FPGA is to allow the programmer to make it into whatever device he wants, within the specifications of the FPGA of course.
In this case the programmer has come up with a program that configures the generic electronics of the FPGA to emulate a 6809 and on top of that a Color Computer.3. The Altera DE1 board is connected to a keyboard and monitor and when powered up the familiar green screen comes up. From then on the user can interact with the Altera as though it was a real Color Computer 3.
The person responsible behind this project is Gary Becker. He hosts a Yahoo! Group dedicated to the FPGA CoCo 3. The group can be found here:
Also, Gary has started a KickStarter project for the new generation of CoCos. Unfortunately he was not able to meet the pledged goal. The Yahoo! Group remains one of the better sources of information for this project. If the FPGA CoCo 3 is something that interests you go to the address above and join the group.
|A complete shot of the FPGA Color Computer using a VGA monitor and PS/2 keyboard.|
|A close up of the Altera DE1 board used for the Color Computer Emulator.|
John W. Linville
John was present at the CoCoFEST! with an assortment of interesting products. Known for his CoCo video game FAHRFALL, John is a software developer with a knack for interesting applications.
CoCoVid was on display. This is product that allows the CoCo to reproduce videos. The videos may come from a DVD or from an online source, such as You Tube. The video is processed so that it conforms to the CoCo’s specifications Once the video is ready the CoCo can reproduce it using CoCoVid. Although not exactly High Definition, the video’s features are recognizable.
FAHRFALL was also on display. This arcade style video was featured on HackADay. John authored a blog discussing the making of this product. You can read all about it here: http://fahrfall.blogspot.com/
John had a Dragon computer running his game called Follow ME. This game mimics the old Simon game where a series of colors and tones are displayed and played. It is up to the player to reproduce this same sequence. While simple at first the game becomes progressively more difficult.
Another piece of software at John’s both was Sluzzle. No, this has nothing to do with refreshing icy beverage. Rather, Sluzzle is a game where an image is broken up into blocks and then scrambled. The player slides the broken up tiles from one location to another until the image is back together in its original form. This game is reminiscent of the old number puzzles where we had to order tiles numbered from 1 to 8 or 15, depending on the size of the puzzle. Our only option was sliding the tile left and right and up and down until all the tiles were ordered. You can read more about this game here: http://vdgtricks.blogspot.com/
|CoCoVid showing Wendy’s “Where’s The Beef” commercial.|
|Follow Me game running on the Dragon computer.|
|The one, the only… FAHRFALL.|
|John W. Linville behind a demo of the Sluzzle game.|
CoCo Stuff Everywhere!
There was no shortage of CoCo hardware, software and literature! Everywhere I looked I saw CoCos of all models, including the MC-10 and some other CoCo compatible computers. There were hardware accessories galore. Items that caught my attention were back issues of Rainbow Magazine.
This brought back old memories as I was once a subscriber to this magazine. This was a time when the Color Computer’s popularity was decreasing due to a move forward in technology that made available other computers, including the IBM PC.
Another vendor that was present was Chris Hawks' HAWKSOFT. Regrettably I did not get a chance to talk with Chris so that he could give me a detailed tour of his booth and products that he has available. A quick glimpse of his display revealed an RGB to S-video adapter, software for the CoCo and MM/1 and X-10 related hardware and software.
The remaining images present some of the products that were available. My apologies to those that were left. My time at the FEST was limited and I zipped around quickly, trying to talk to as many people as possible.