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Nowadays, if you want to play a new video game, it means shelling out 60 bucks online or in-store. In the late 1970s and 1980s, you could just turn on your radio to get a brand new video game sent to your computer.
This may seem like a fairly advanced capability for a time before wi-fi, but thanks to the ways that early computers were designed, it was commonplace. To understand how this was possible, we need to step back into the groovy 1970s.
The state of technology in the 1970s
In 1977, the world's first microprocessor-driven PCs were released. These were the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the TRS-80. All these machines had one thing in common – they used audio cassettes for storage.
Hard drives at the time were still quite expensive, and everyone at the time had access to cheap audio cassettes. Early computer designers actually flaunted cassette storage as it aided in the early adoption of personal computers. As PCs became more common, so to did the emergence of their use as video game machines.
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As the 1980s rolled around, engineers at the Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, NOS, a Dutch broadcasting organization, realized something incredible. Since computer programs and video games were stored on audio cassettes, it meant that their data could be transmitted with ease over the radio. They started taking programs and video games and setting up broadcasts where people could "download" games onto their own personal computers.
The audio that was transmitted would've sounded reminiscent of a dial-up modem booting up. You can actually hear what one game's data sounds like in the video below. (If you know your way around audio converting, you can even download the game to your PC through this sound too!)
Video game transmitting radio shows
NOS started a radio program specifically for transmitting gaming data called "Hobbyscoop," and it became incredibly popular. The company even created a standard cassette format called BASICODE to ensure computer compatibility.
Eventually, transmitting games through computers became so popular that radio shows popped up all around the world. A Yugoslovik station called "Ventilator 202" broadcasted 150 programs between 1983 and 1986. As the practice evolved, it became less of a novelty and rather a practical way for people to share calculation programs, educational tools, encyclopedias, and even flight simulators.
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Looking back to the start of these radio transmissions, the radio host Zoran Modli was tasked with informing the Radio Belgrade technicians that only "hissing and growling would be heard" for the next several minutes. A perplexing statement to anyone outside of the knowledge of what was going on.
Radio West's first broadcast in the UK was a 40 pixel by 80 pixel black and white image of Charlie's Angels star Cheryl Ladd. Joe Tozer, the host of the broadcast, had this to say about that moment.
“On the night it was quite exciting. I’d written the Cheryl Ladd graphic code myself, as it was small and could be easily coded for both the BBC and ZX81 Micros, and it seemed really amazing to have images being transmitted over the radio. I think we’d done a couple of unannounced test transmissions during closedown earlier in the week as proof of concept, and surprisingly found AM worked better than FM. On the night the recorded program went out it all worked, and there she was on the screen — Cheryl Ladd in glorious 40x80 pixel Teletext-style black and white.”
This eventually turned into a show called "Datarama" that made video game transmissions regular to the airwaves.
How to transmit data over the radio
Transmitting data through audio formatted radio waves simply involves some encoding and modulation techniques. Depending upon the data type, it can also involve the process of sampling, quantization, and then finally encoding.
To transmit digital data, it has to be modulated using different techniques like ASK - Amplitude Shift Keying, PSK - phase shift keying, or QAM - Quadrature amplitude modulation. We won't get into what each of these techniques involves, but the best way to think of their processes is to realize that they are simply taking data in one format and translating it into data that can be broadcast over public radio.
Some other general rules of thumb to keep in mind for the entire encoding process are this:
- As the frequency of radio signals goes up, they have more room to store data modulations on their waves.
- As the bandwidth of a signal goes up, more data can be encoded per second.
- As the frequency of a radio station goes up, the shorter the range will be, in general.
Encoding game data onto radio data really keeps to the same principles that all modern data encoding keeps to. Learn those, and you too can transmit 1980s video games through radio waves.
The death of radio wireless data transfer
This futuristic and intriguing process of data transfer eventually came to an end in the late 80s as 16-bit computing became common. Processors for these computers were much faster and thus required much more storage capability, 250 times more than previous computers. This meant that cassette storage was no longer feasible, and manufacturers would start using floppy disks and hard drives for computer mass storage.
As transmitting video games over the airwaves died out, so too did any major wireless transmission of data. People had no widely used way to transmit game data wirelessly until the invention of Wi-Fi in 1991.
So, turning on the radio in the early 1980s meant you were either met with songs from David Bowie, the Police, Def Leppard – or – ear-numbing screeching and beeping.