Computer Chronicles Revisited 26 — The Sony CD-ROM, Pioneer PX-7, and Halcyon
This episode of Computer Chronicles shows some of the minor tweaking to the show’s format between the first and second seasons. The first is the addition of Wendy Woods as a correspondent. Woods took over narrating the customary B-roll feature following the introduction and also conducted remote interviews with guests related to the topic of the episode.
The second change was that Stewart Cheifet now delivers a brief “cold open” before each episode introducing the topic. This was often done as a remote shot. The third and final change was that the main portion of the show now ended with a commentary segment, which was initially presented by our old friend Paul Schindler.
Gary Kildall’s Favorite Subject
In our first cold open, Cheifet shows off the movie WarGames being played off of a LaserDisc. Cheifet noted the film itself was used making a photographic process that was almost 100 years old. But these images were coming from a “virtually indestructible” laserdisc. Up until now, he noted, LaserDiscs had little to do with computer–but watch out, because the lasers were now coming for the PC.
Moving into the introduction, Cheifet and Gary Kildall pointed to another version of WarGames, this time played off of a Capacitance Electronic Disc (CED), which Cheifet described as already being a “dinosaur”–despite the fact it was touted by Kildall in a prior episode–that was no longer in production. So how could we then talk about a great future with video discs based on laser technology? Kildall explained that the CED was built like a phonograph record with a stylus and grooves. RCA had built the CED in an unsuccessful attempt to compete with the VCR, but the latter’s success led to the demise of RCA’s format. But laser storage was a completely different technology. It started with movies and was now being used for computer-controlled video, write-once devices, and offered phenomenal storage capacities for computers. Kildall enthused that laser disks were currently his favorite subject to talk about.
“The Ubiquitous Floppy Disk Is Not Yet an Endangered Species”
Wendy Woods narrated the B-roll footage, which mostly showed the production process for laser-based optical storage disks. She explained that the only similarities between optical magnetic disks were their circular shape and ability to provide random access of data. The biggest difference between the two was how much data could be stored. A 12-inch LaserDisc could store about 1 billion bytes, which equated to between 15,000 and 20,000 pages of text.
This enormous capacity did not come without some disadvantages, Woods noted. For now, these optical discs were restricted to read-only or write-once applications. And the initial mastering costs for such disks were high. Because the information spots on the optical disks were minute–about one-tenth the size of a particle of cigarette smoke–they had to be produced in a clean-room environment like those used to manufacture computer chips. The base material of the disc itself was polished glass sealed with layers of coatings. A high-intensity laser beam was then focused through an objective lens to mark the coating in small pits or bubbles, which formed the digital code, which could later be read back by a lower-energy laser.
Like the technique used to make phonograph records, Woods said, a master disk was struck from which a series of plates were formed. These were the molds for making copies. While the image source can vary, the disc stored information by scanning it much like a television camera. An image gateway compressed the picture and enhanced it for retrieval. With a high-resolution monitor, an excellent image could then be recalled from thousands in storage in about 8 seconds. And while Woods quipped, “The ubiquitous floppy disk is not yet an endangered species,” that could change given that a single 5-inch optical disc could store the same amount of data as 2,000 floppy disks.
Compact Discs in Computers by the End of 1985?
In the studio, Geoffrey Tulley of Pioneer Video, Inc., and Vladimir Langer of Sony joined Cheifet and Kildall. Kildall reiterated that laser storage technology was his favorite subject and joked that he had to remember to leave enough time for the guests to speak. He then explained the two different types of storage technology under discussion. The first was the LaserDisc that stored about 1.5 billion bytes of information, roughly the size of a law library. The other was the smaller compact disc (CD) that could hold about 10 encyclopedias on a single disc.
Kildall then asked Langer, the general manager for Sony’s data products division, about the company’s CD-ROM format. Langer explained the CD-ROM was made using the same process as audio compact discs. The only difference was that the CD-ROM contained digital data for computer processing. He showed a sample CD-ROM–containing the records of the previous year’s Summer Olympics in Los Angeles–which he said could carry 540 MB of data.
Kildall asked about the drive used to hold the CD-ROM. Langer said the drive was a simple mechanism identical to that of the consumer audio CD player. It was packaged in a 5.25-inch floppy drive format. Kildall clarified it therefore looked like a floppy disk drive in a small personal computer. He also asked about the price. Langer replied the CD-ROM would be marketed at computer manufacturers rather than consumers, but he estimated the cost would be about 50 cents per megabyte. Kildall noted the cost was not really in the technology but in the information stored.
Cheifet followed up, asking when we would see an actual computer with this type of CD-ROM storage system. Langer said Sony planned to make evaluation units available to manufacturers during the first quarter of 1985. He said he expected to have a few major customers for the technology by mid-1985. Kildall said that meant we could see CD-ROM machines by the end of 1985.
Cheifet then asked Langer to clarify the major advantage of optical storage over magnetic disks. Langer said the main advantage was that the CD was virtually indestructible. It was also removable, which gave users tremendous value over a fixed hard disk, which was essentially captive inside the machine. And unlike a floppy disk, the CD could basically be mishandled and still remain perfect.
Kildall noted that since the CD-ROM was a read-only device, its main purpose was really to provide a source of information as opposed to archiving or backing up a computer. Langer replied that the market was still defining the application of the technology. He noted the CD-ROM had generated tremendous excitement with the Library of Congress and various publishers. The educational publication market in particular also anticipated a tremendous growth that would require higher capacity storage devices. Kildall remarked the CD-ROM could change the entire publishing industry.
Cheifet then turned to Tulley and asked him to describe his company’s product, the Pioneer PX-7. Tulley explained the PX-7 was a microcomputer marketed by Pioneer in Japan. It used a format called MSX, a computer architecture and software standard used by a number of Japanese manufacturers. The Pioneer model featured a LaserDisc player as well as a full personal computer based on the Z80 microprocessor.
The PX-7’s main feature was that it could combine images retrieved from the LaserDisc with computer-generated graphics. Tulley demonstrated a game on the PX-7, Sega’s Astron Belt, a single-player space shooter. The computer generated the game action on top of video backgrounds retrieved from the LaserDisc.
Kildall clarified that this game did not require a ROM cartridge, cassette, or floppy disk–the data came right off the LaserDisc. Tulley said that was correct. This meant that when distributing games or educational programs, you could incorporate motion and still-frame pictures at full television quality. Kildall added another advantage was that you did not just have to watch a linear movie playing–the computer could actually go back and play segments, make branching decisions, and so forth.
Kildall noted that while Astron Belt was a game, there were hundreds of other applications for this type of system. He asked Tulley if he had any experience in other areas like education. Tulley said there were some people looking at making those types of applications. He noted the PX-7 itself was only marketed in Japan, where there was a very active LaserDisc industry that produced software like travel guides and encyclopedias. He said there was also an industrial market for the technology in the United States, especially for things like military simulators.
LaserDisc as an Artistic Medium
Between studio segments, Wendy Woods returned with a short remote feature on the “world’s first interactive video art game.” Lynn Hershman created Lorna, a story about a woman with agoraphobia who hadn’t left her house in 20 years. This was a live-action film presented on LaserDisc, but the viewer could “manipulate” the video in order to experience the “repetitive and repressed nature” of the main character’s life. Hershman told Woods that she considered the LaserDisc technology exciting due to the interactivity it provided.
Woods noted that Hershman was among the first artists to explore the LaserDisc as a creative medium; this was largely because the cost and availability of LaserDiscs created barriers that locked many other artists out of the market. Hershman said that as people saw what the possibilities were with this medium–and how much reality it would present–more people would use it and the audience would evolve.
Fictional Killer AI Inspired Video Game Console Prototype
Now we come to the final studio segment, which is undoubtedly the most remembered part of this episode. Joining Cheifet and Kildall were Rick Dyer and Jay Eagle. Dyer’s company, RDI Video Systems, was best known for producing the Dragon’s Lair LaserDisc video game in conjunction with animation director Don Bluth. Now Dyer was here to demonstrate a prototype for an actual LaserDisc-based video game console called the Halcyon.
Dyer said he named Halcyon after the HAL 9000–the fictional artificial intelligence featured in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the movie, Dyer said you could talk to HAL and it could talk back and recognize a person’s name and voice. HAL also had intelligence, which meant it could learn and control functions within its environment. Dyer said that was what Halcyon was all about. Kildall asked if that meant Halcyon had speech recognition, speech synthesis, and artificial intelligence. Dyer said that was correct.
Cheifet asked about the importance of the LaserDisc component to Halcyon. Did it just carry pictures or actual program logic? Dyer said both. It contained information where the computer was presenting the player with situations.
Cheifet then helped Dyer demonstrate a game developed for the Halcyon called Thayer’s Quest. Cheifet wore a headset with a microphone to show how to control the Halcyon using speech recognition. The initial exchange went well enough:
Halcyon: DO YOU WANT TO PLAY THAYER’S QUEST?
Halcyon: IF I HAVE YOUR VOICEPRINT, PLEASE SAY YOUR NAME.
Halcyon: NICE TO SEE YOU AGAIN, STEWART CHEIFET. CAN I CALL YOU STEWART?
Dyer claimed this was the most advanced speech recognition that had ever been put on the market. He said Halcyon had the ability to understand up to 200 words. Unfortunately, the speech recognition started to falter when Cheifet actually tried to play the game.
In Thayer’s Quest, the player watches an animated story (similar to Dragon’s Lair), and has to make several choices along the way for the main character. This should be as simple as speaking a number. But the Halcyon seemed to have difficulty understanding Cheifet. When he kept trying to speak option “1,” the Halcyon asked him to repeat his answer several times, at one point admonishing the host, “SPEAK CONSISTENTLY, STEWART.” Eventually, Cheifet gave up and selected option “2” instead, which seemed to be understood. Cheifet clarified that the player did not move linearly through the story–it branched depending on the decisions that were made.
Kildall asked about what learning actually went on with the Halcyon. Dyer claimed the system learned about a user’s strengths, weaknesses, and likes. He said that as you became involved with a program, the Halcyon would ask questions and learn about you and your personality.
I’ll interject here to say that it’s apparent to me from the video that Gary was not buying these claims, but he was too much of a gentleman to directly call Dyer out on television. Still, Kildall persisted with some follow-up. He asked if the Halcyon contained any genuine artificial intelligence–i.e., did the machine actually extrapolate anything beyond just recognizing the user’s voice. Dyer said it learned based on your answers. Kildall retorted that it recognized the words that you spoke. But when a new user came in the Halcyon would have to be trained again using a separate set of words. Dyer said that was correct. Cheifet pointed out that he had started playing Thayer’s Quest before the segment began and the Halcyon remembered his history from the previous session.
Cheifet then asked about the applications of Halcyon beyond Thayer’s Quest. Eagle, an executive with Proton Corporation, said to continue the 2001 analogy, the next generation of Halcyon applications would allow the user to control their home environment–e.g., operate their audiovisual system, open and close doors–through the voice interface. (It’s not made clear in the episode, but Proton apparently manufactured some–or most–of the components for the Halcyon prototype.)
There was then another exchange where Kildall made it clear this was not a machine with AI, although it might be a good starting point to develop something along those lines in the future. Dyer dug his heels in and insisted Halcyon already had AI, at least in the sense that it had the intelligence necessary “to be useful to consumers” along the lines of a robot. Kildall also didn’t back down and emphasized this was just a real good starting point.
“Bach Never Sounded Better!”
In his commentary, Paul Schindler addressed the question of how far optical storage could go. He noted that audio compact discs were already rapidly replacing traditional vinyl records. Indeed, he’d recently replaced his own Brandenburg Concertos LP with a CD and that “Bach never sounded better!” Similarly, once optical discs became available as a computer peripheral, he would start replacing his floppy disks. And while you couldn’t write to a CD like you could a floppy disk right now, he expected re-writable optical disc units would be available by the 1990s, At that point, floppy disks would then be about as popular as punched paper tape were today.
A Busy March for IBM
This episode’s “Random Access” dates the broadcast at sometime in March 1985.
- IBM said it would stop production of its PCjr model, leaving about 300,000 machines orphaned. Although IBM said it would continue to support existing users, the company had not made it clear if it planned to introduce a new machine for the home market.
- Oakland-based Dynamical Systems planned to introduce Panorama, a new graphical window manager to challenge IBM’s proprietary TopView, which it refused to license to PC clone manufacturers. Dynamical claimed Panorama ran faster than TopView, could handle 10 times as many windows, and only used about half the memory.
- IBM also continued its push into the software market with 22 new programs costing less than $150, with most priced under $20.
- Continuing a recurring “Random Access” thread, the Japanese government finally agreed to extend greater protection to U.S. software copyrights. The Japanese computer industry had been holding out for a limited copyright term of 15 years and mandatory licensing of U.S. software. But a new proposal allowed for a 50-year term with only limited domestic copying rights.
- IBM and Intel announced separate prototypes for parallel processing machines. IBM’s Yorktown Simulation Engine boasted 512 microprocessors, while Intel said it had a concurrent computer with 256 microprocessors.
- NASA said it planned to acquire what would likely be the world’s largest supercomputer for its Ames Research Facility in California. NASA said within 2 years its supercomputer would be running at 10 times the speeds of today’s machines.
- Paul Schindler returned with his weekly software review, this time for Be Your Own Coach, a no-frills program that helped produce workout schedules for avid runners. The program cost $50 on the IBM PC and Apple II, and $39 on the Commodore 64. Cheifet added that running software was becoming more and more popular. There was even a program that featured dancing stick figures–perfect if you didn’t want to watch Jane Fonda.
- Kodak announced plans to buy floppy disk manufacturer Verbatim for $175 million.
- A new study suggested introducing computers into the office did not lead to a reduction in jobs. The study showed 58 percent of firms surveyed did not cut their staff and in fact 12 percent actually added workers.
- Finally, Cheifet noted that it was now becoming trendy for rock groups to travel on the road with computers. He said that machines from Compaq, NEC, and IBM had been spotted in the dressing rooms of performers including Rick Springfield, Todd Rudgren, Styx, Jefferson Starship, and Tina Turner. The machines were used to handle tour costs, travel, and research on local radio stations.
Halcyon’s Failure to Launch
Neither of the two computers featured in this episode–the Pioneer PX-7 or the Halcyon–were ever sold in the United States. The PX-7 was only released in Japan and Europe. The LaserDisc player–a Pioneer LD-700 model–was a separate peripheral that actually was sold in the United States starting in 1983.
As for the Halcyon, it has become infamous as one of the greatest products that never made it to market. Although the Halcyon garnered a lot of enthusiastic early press during the prototype stage, the console never shipped a single retail unit. Simone de Rochefort explained in a 2018 retrospective for Polygon, that while the Halcyon’s may have foreshadowed a future dominated by voice-operated home automation machines like Alexa and Siri, Rick Dyer’s promised console was the wrong product at the wrong time:
Halcyon was slated to come out in 1985, with a price tag of $2,500 for the voice-controlled model.
You might recognize this as the worst time to release a home console. The home video game market had been plummeting since the 1983 crash, and in 1985, a once billion-dollar industry would be valued at just $100 million.
Of course, 1985 was also the best time to release a console, if you were Nintendo. The [Nintendo Entertainment System], which had been out in Japan since 1983, finally made its way to North America that year.
The base model was only $90.
Of course, it was probably clear to anyone who watched Stewart Cheifet struggle to use the Halcyon’s voice control during the demo that Rick Dyer’s console was more vaporware than revolutionary hardware. Indeed, Gary Kildall himself later described the entire Halcyon segment as “the biggest waste of videotape, computer, and TV cable time that I had ever seen.” Writing in a manuscript for his unpublished memoirs, Kildall said his longtime co-host Cheifet “made a singular error” in booking Dyer and his prototype for the show. And even Dyer apparently knew things had gone poorly:
The crew was going to lunch. so we broke down the set. and I was left alone with [Dyer]. He wanted to do the segment over, because he felt " it just didn ' t go right." I can ’t imagine how he could have come to this conclusion, do you?
Tape’s not rolling, and the set’s hot lights are off. I patted [Dyer] on the back, and assured him that it would show well, but he should get HAL’s feelings on it to make sure.
On a semi-positive note, Kildall said the entire debacle “showed that natural languages and computers are not a good fit, and that was worthwhile.”
After Dyer’s Chronicles appearance, his investors got cold feet and RDI was out of business by the end of 1985. Still, the pre-Chronicles hype for Halcyon was quite real. The November 1984 issue of MicroTimes contained an especially enthusiastic review of Thayer’s Quest from Jina Bacarr, who played the game on a Halcyon prototype unit at RDI’s offices in Carlsbad, California:
With keyboard at my fingertips and headset resting securely on my hair (there went my thirty dollar styling, but it was worth it), I awaited with great anticipation as the story began to unravel before my eyes.
After a detailed introduction to the story of Thayer and the Five Kingdoms, I was next treated to some of the most beautiful animation I’ve seen since Disney’s Jungle Book. I was immediately taken by the style of the artwork, the audio variation of the many voices, and the well-defined characters. It was more than I expected–I really did feel that I was experiencing the action as Thayer. Of course, I got zapped a few times, and it did take some time before I caught onto the idea that some of the items presented to me were there for the taking and could be used to help me win the game.
Bacarr said she was so taken by the game and the Halcyon’s voice interface that she returned to the RDI offices later that night and convinced the janitor to let her in so she could resume playing the adventure.
Another writer, John D. Gresham, wrote in a note accompanying Bacarr’s article that while Halcyon was no doubt “ambitious,” it would likely “have a way to go before it reaches into all of our homes.” Similarly, Dan Persons, writing in the January 1985 issue of Electronic Games, said that Dyer conceded to him in an interview that the Halcyon’s “prohibitive” price tag meant the console would “appeal mainly to the avaunt-garde electronics buyer.” Consequently, Persons said most people would first see the Halcyon in an arcade, where Thayer’s Quest would be “introduced as a keyboard-operated laser game.”
In fact, Thayer’s Quest had a life outside of the aborted Halcyon launch. The arcade version was marketed as a “conversion kit” for arcades that already had RDI’s earlier game, Dragon’s Lair. The game was later remade and sold under the title Kingdom: The Far Reaches, as a CD-ROM program for Macintosh, Windows, and MS-DOS computers in the mid-1990s. Dyer even managed to create and release a sequel, Kingdom II: Shadoan, in 1996.
Dyer himself currently works as a real estate agent in California, having left the tech industry at some point in the 1990s.
Notes from the Random Access File
- This episode is available at the Internet Archive.
- Geoffrey Tully remained with Pioneer until 1993, overseeing the company’s CD-ROM and other optical disc products as a senior vice president. He’s currently a technology consultant based out of Los Angeles.
- I’m not sure when the first CD-ROM drive actually made it onto the consumer market. Clint Basinger of Lazy Game Reviews published a video in July 2020 on the Hitachi CDR-1503S (also known as the Amdek Laserdrive-1), which came out in 1987 and retailed for $884. Basinger also demonstrated one of the earliest known CD-ROM applications, Microsoft Bookshelf, also released in 1987.
- Speaking of Microsoft, it was actually behind the MSX hardware-software standard used by the Pioneer PX-7. Tony Smith had an excellent write-up about the MSX project for The Register back in 2013.
- Wendy Woods–also known as Wendy Woods Gorski–was editor-in-chief of Newsbytes News Network, one of the first online publications covering the tech industry. It was originally launched on The Source, which I discussed back in Part 22 of this series.
- Lynn Hershman–now known as Lynn Hershman Leeson–remains a well-respected artist and filmmaker. Her interactive video piece Lorna was later acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art.
- I could not track down any definitive information about our other two guests, Vlaidimir Langer or Jay Eagle, although Langer may have later served as a vice president at computer peripherals manufacturer Logitech.
- There was only one other known game developed for the Halcyon, NFL Football. Yes, this was apparently an NFL-licensed game. It was a LaserDisc port of an arcade game that used the older CED technology. The players selected plays, which were then recreated using actual footage taken from multiple games between the Los Angles Raiders and the San Diego Chargers.
- The Sega game Astron Belt included footage from the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
- If this was the first time you’ve ever heard of IBM’s TopView, I’m with you. It was an attempt by Big Blue to preempt the coming of Microsoft Windows. But it didn’t fare much better than the PCjr. By 1987, IBM abandoned TopView in favor of its new OS/2 platform.
- The Kodak-Verbatim marriage didn’t last. Kodak sold Verbatim to Mitsubishi in 1990. Today the Verbatim brand is owned by Taiwan-based CMC Magnetics Corporation.