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I never watch the Super Bowl, but last night . . .

February 6, 2012

I saw the whole thing in its entirety and it was a pretty damn good football game.  The reason I was watching it was because John Eichinger (my computer repair friend) and I were downloading software onto this laptop that is new to me, this jet plane of a machine.

I have never been a spectator sports guy so I almost never watch football or baseball games on the TV.  But lately, I’ve been spending too much time in places with those multiple, huge, hi-definition big screens that surround you like old style 1950s billboards, crowded together, insisting on your attention.  Luckily, last night, at John’s house, there was only one medium definition screen with the sound turned way down.  After all, we were working.  But something caught my eye and inspired me to open up my memory and I burdened John with a whole bunch of my past hi-tech endeavors.

The thing that got me going was when one of the cameras up on the edge of the stadium caught the image of this special unmanned camera that floats over the playing field and is magically driven by three cables so that it can follow the game action as though it was an owl or a hawk, close in and just above the players and their action.  This was the first time I had actually seen this camera itself but I became aware of it over this last football season.  It is like it floats just a dozen or so feet off the playing field and is right in the middle of the action.  When I first saw the images from this camera I was thinking that they must have a small, remote control helicopter dangling a micro video camera and chasing the game plays so close at hand.  However there is no helicopter zipping around out there.  This floating video camera is suspended by three or four cables which are are spread out at equal angles around the sidelines of the playing field.  The cables are wound around motor driven reels which feed out and take up the cables so as to change its position both in the horizontal and vertical dimensions.  Commercially, it is called a “Sky Cam.”  Wikipedia says that Garret Brown invented it in 1984.

In 1982, Intel released its hot dog new micro processor, the “AT,”  the 80286, the first commercial Intel processor to have a five digit designation.  The previous processors used for commonly sold PCs were the 8086 and the 8088 and their variants, four digit designations.  In the year of the AT, I was occasionally selling myself as a free lance, “hired gun” systems engineer for PC projects.  One of my marketing friends had a client who ran a huge auto parts supply outfit that supplied auto parts distributors.  In the industrial area of San Jose, near Spartan Stadium, this guy had a collection of huge, monstrous warehouses that were often a city block square, with stacks of parts bins sometimes thirty feet high.  Everything in these warehouses were handled by cranes and massive, overgrown fork lifts that made their drivers look like squirrels, not full sized men.  I was brought onto this project to design a custom revision of the order entry element of an off-the-shelf inventory control system that this company was using.  We had several long conversations with the owner of this outfit, a guy who had a thick hill-billy accent that he had no intention of attenuating.  It kept his opponents off guard, they assuming he absolutely had to be a back woods dullard, which he wasn’t . . . not by any means.  Near the end of  one of our concept meetings, now sitting among numerous empty beer cans which we had just consumed, this owner brings up a new topic,

“You know, with all this new technology, I’ve been wondering about something?”

“Which is?” I ask curiously.

“I have a video camera at the end of every aisle in all of my warehouses.  But the aisles are so long, you really can’t make out what’s happening half way down the aisle.  What about a mobile video camera, like mounted to model helicopter?”

All of mumbling conversations in this large, dingy, 50s style industrial office halted.  We all looked to one another.  What an off the wall idea.  This was the eighties, both small video cameras and model helicopters were brand new and, in today’s terms, neither item was really not all that small.   We took pause and tried to come up with a mental picture in our heads.

Today, the real deal for about $50

Then it hit me, my software friend, Howard.  Even though he was a few years older than me, Howard was very into serious model making.  He had introduced me to the world class model/hobby store in Campbell, D&J Hobbies.  I told the business owner that I’d look into this idea.  It could possibly turn into something if it could be done at all.  It took only one visit to D&J to see that the helicopter idea was way ahead of its time; the choppers were too unreliable and the video cameras were just way too big and heavy.  I let the business owner know of our research and this idea died a quick death.  However, this was an intriguing concept and I toyed with track driven video crawlers (as in army tank tracks) and a video camera carried by a small blimp.  Both ideas were too involved and complicated to be developed as a side project or a hobby.  At one point I thought of tethering the blimp between two cables to pull it back and forth across a field (or an aisle) so that the weight of the propeller motors could be eliminated.  Then, BANG, it hit me,  if I simply added one more cable, at a substantial tangent to the others, the blimp wasn’t needed at all.  If the cables were mounted high up, like on flag poles or three story buildings, you could pull the camera to any position over the field, horizontally, you only need three points to define any place on a plane.  Additionally, using gravity as the fourth cable, you could raise and lower the camera over the field up to the height of the poles suspending the cables, the forth dimension.  I just invented what would come to be known as the SkyCam.  It wouldn’t work in the warehouses but it would be great over a parking lot.  This would be a terrific security tool for parking lots, boat yards, rock quarries, any  large open space.

I worked up some simulation software and showed it to my parents.  They didn’t have a clue, and once again told me I was wasting my time on hair-brained schemes, “go get a normal job.”  I showed it to a few security companies but they weren’t much impressed.  They were more into just hiring another minimum wage guard than developing technology.  In that I’m just entirely not interested in spectator sports, not in any way, shape or form, it never struck me that nearly all spectator sports are played in large open spaces and fans always want a better, closer in, clearer view of the action.  Thus, it was left to Garret Brown to invent his SkyCam a few years later.

During this era of the just introduced “AT” chip, the Intel 80286, I had screwed up my right knee so badly that I was stuck in bed for nearly a year.  I was able to procure an AT level PC and I wrote a ton of software.  Though I generally don’t like to write computer code I needed something to keep me occupied and productive.  A friend gave me a copy of a compiler for the computer language “BASIC.”  Compilers are specialized programs that take the computer code that you have written in a word processor and turns it into machine language, those ones and zeros that only computer processors understand.

In these days, I came up with the concept of an “applications generator.”  With the coming of the personal computer, two general families of software developed.  There was “vertical” software.  This would be software that was specifically designed for a certain application (business).  A software developer would write a vertical application that supplied all necessary software to run a Safeway style supermarket.  There would be vertical software for dry cleaners, plumbing supply stores, car parts, loan appraisers, civil engineers, auto dealerships, etc., etc., etc.  Actually, this was just a down sized version of what computer companies had been providing for years on their mainframes and minicomputers.

Along comes the PC.  Now, “horizontal” software comes on the scene.  This is generalized software for the new personal computer user.  This sort of software would be like a generic word processor or spread sheet.  In these days there were products that kids today have never even heard of, like Wordstar (word processing), VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 (early spread sheets) and Sidekick (personal information management).  While the internet was existent and in use by the military, universities and high end technology companies, it was very complex and unusable by the layman, being based in the esoteric UNIX operating system developed by Bell Labs.  Lay users would have to wait for the advent of the World Wide Web, about ten more years in the future, to comfortably use the internet.

The problem with vertical software is that it is very expensive.  It will give you all the software tools to run your particular business, but the guy who wrote the software has to get paid for all the homework he had to do to learn about your business.  His business isn’t yours, his is software.  He invested a lot of time and work to give you a good software package for your business.  The better the package is, the more work it took and the more it is going to cost.

The problem with horizontal software is that is is cheap but you have to learn about it.  You have to learn what it can and cannot do, then use it to help in your business.  This can be a long, frustrating and incomplete application of technology to your particular operation.  But, it is very cheap compared to vertical software packages.

My idea of an applications generator was to find a middle ground between vertical and horizontal software.  The plan was to write up a variety of programs for each discreet business department and then provide the customer with a collection of specific collection of programs that fit each of his specific business departments.  For instance, keeping it simple and basic, one business department is payroll.  We write up programs that can process an hourly based payroll.  We write up a program for a salary based payroll.  We write up a program for a commission based payroll.  Similarly, many businesses have inventory.  We write a program for piece-part inventory.  We write a program for real estate inventory, we write a program grocery inventory.  We write a program for new car inventory.  We go through the different general categories that nearly every business uses, order entry, banking, cash dispersal, etc., etc. and we pre-write the programs for the generalized user.

When a customer comes to us and wants what he sees as an old style vertical software package, we review his operation and define how each of his departments operate.  We enter our results into the generator and out comes all the packages the customer needs without writing any code at all.  The generator is designed so that as it connects the different departmental modules, it massages them to fit together as seamlessly as possible.  In all likelihood, the generated system will not fit the customer’s particular operation perfectly but we already anticipated that and have a group of specialized code tweekers who will adjust the code to fit his requirements and keep him very satisfied.  I always thought this was a pretty good idea.  I got three IBM management level software engineers to help me with this project.  They thought it was a pretty good idea, too.  We got together two nights a week and every Saturday for nearly the whole year to develop this project.  I wrote a shitload of code and they checked, critiqued and streamlined my work.  In the end, we realized that this was a huge project and none of us had any idea how to market it to a major software house.  The IBM guys were on the verge of retiring from IBM and my knee was healing.

Our only real idea as to what to do with this project was to try and raise some money to hire someone on the inside of the then current high tech marketing scene and have them present it to the big software guys with a bunch of bells, whistles and all the right catch phrases for that particular day in the high tech world.  We raised a few thousand dollars but it never really went anywhere and we were burnt out.  The project evaporated.  It was becoming apparent that the PC was here to stay, and probably, within a few years, our application generator wouldn’t be so necessary as the lay person wouldn’t really be such a lay person at all and much more computer savvy than our mainframe contemporaries, at that time, wanted to admit.

There was one element of the project that I came to take particular pride in.  I had developed what I called the “screen generator” which would have been used by the tweekers rather than the customer.  It was like a specialized paint program.  You could build up data entry screens and documents to be printed.  It allowed you to enter text, build boxes, add borders, fill with colors, define buttons, etc.  You could grab and drag different elements to wherever you wanted on the screen.  In the end you’d hit save and you would have a screen file that you could use in your application.  It even automatically generated the code that defined the screen.  It was pretty nifty.

There was one pesky element of the screen generator that I refused to ignore.  As you would drag an element across the screen, it would leave a black streak behind in its wake from its original position.  I worked for weeks and weeks to alleviate the streak but it was a pretty complex fix.

I finally got it to work like I wanted it, smoothly and reliably.  Back in this day and age, all the paint programs would leave that streak on the screen and you’d have to hit a “save” button and then hit “refresh” to get the screen to fill in the streaking with the proper background color.  My screen generator did it automatically.  The IBM guys got over to my house before six o’clock on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.  Once I figured I had sufficiently debugged the screen generator, I showed it off to the guys.  The three of them had their heads buried in my monitor, and then they started playing with the mouse trying to break my finished program.  After about fifteen minutes they all smiled at each other and turned to me and said in unison, “Patent it.”

This response struck me as very strange.  In the first place, not being a programmer, I didn’t realize you could patent code, and in the second place, I really didn’t think it was that big a deal.  I was just being stubborn.  I stuck it out and wrote and rewrote it until it did exactly what I wanted it to do.  We broke out the beer that night and really didn’t do any work at all but talked about the possibilities of what we had spent so much time working on.  None of us had nearly enough money to patent anything, and surely, as fast as the computer world was flying at that time, by the time we could raise money and work our way through the legal system, surely someone, probably many someones, would come up with a way to fill in the streak behind a moved screen element within the next few months.  A patent was worthless in this environment.  However, the suggestion that one was even warrantable for my work, a non-programmer, was very flattering indeed coming from these management level IBM software engineers, on the verge of retiring.

While John and I compared notes last night, on some of our more esoteric and eclectic pursuits in the realm of high tech, there is but one more lost dream I will bother to yet mention here.  You have to understand, I told you about an autobiography by Rudy Rucker in my first posting to this new blog.  Well, I finished Rudy’s book just a few hours before arriving at John’s house last night.  While Rudy started out as a mathematician, he ended up a computer scientist like me and John.  Each of us have our different backgrounds and perspectives, but the fact that we went through that PC computer revolution during the 1980s puts us into a special brotherhood who experienced the primordial soup that got the next generation of computer reality under way.  Reading Rudy’s book stirred up all too many memories and feelings that have lain stagnant for far too long.  Spending time with fellow computer nerd John Eichinger only swept up those memories and feelings even further.  How could I have forgotten so much?

I associate my early projects to the early products, like Intel’s AT processor.  So, then in 1983, Compaq computers came out with the first truly IBM compatible PC and they put it in a sewing machine case.  It was called the “luggable PC.”  I had a real hankering for the “sewing machine” as we used to simply call it.  I was from the world of mainframes, where each hardware device resided in a refrigerator sized enclosure.  A working computer would be assembled from numerous refrigerator enclosures, usually interconnected with cables strung under a light weight false floor.  To have a fully functional computer that you could carry around, I just thought this was way too cool.  But don’t get too excited, you youngsters, it weighed 28 pounds, and that was stripped down.  It was definitely a lug.

For my amateur “Ham” radio training, I had a fair understanding of wave theory.  For my long involvement with the San Francisco music scene, I had a handle on entertainment.  About the time the sewing machine computer came out, I had come up with an idea for computerizing a high class dinner club’s entertainment.  It would have to be a big club, holding enough of an audience to both pay for a popular and expensive rock and roll group, and to also pay for some high end technology.  It would be a large, circular building, with a broad, low section of a dome for it’s ceiling/roof.  The dinner tables would be arranged on a series of tiered, descending, concentric rings where at the bottom, at the center, would be the bandstand, rather the stage.  This was the physical setting.  Oh, yeah, one more detail, the chairs surrounding the tables would be something more than simple frames with legs, a seat and a back.  They would be more like trim recliners on wheels.

Now, the mind blowing concept; there would be a control room where all the instruments and all the voice microphones would be fed into and processed.  Not that the actual sounds the bands made would be processed, though this would be possible, like a wa-wa pedal, but no, the sounds would be analyzed, assigned to certain conditional parameters and then drive the movements or intensity or color of lights located throughout the room.   This was going to be a computerized light show.  The laser beam lights we know so well today had yet to be perfected, but we still had the classic spotlights, floods and stage lighting that served us so perfectly well for years.

Using what are called “band pass” filters, where you can isolate certain wave frequencies and characteristics, and assign a light’s movement, intensity or flicker to happen when the the music’s particular pre-determined wave characteristic occurred.  The lights would simultaneously respond to the music’s happenings.  It would be a hugely complex computer driven light show, but defined by the artists themselves, not the computers.  The computers only connected the artist’s music and visual intention to the machine’s movement servos and changing the light’s intensity and brightness.

Once you’ve finished your dinner, kick out the locks on your chair, lean back, let the band get started . . . and enjoy.

(The old style light show)



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