By on May 17, 2009

In the late 70s, after Volkswagen had launched their new worldwide dealer network under the mysterious V.A.G. moniker. The V.A.G. dealers received a strong voice, their own national advertising campaign and a renewed focus on the importance of service. No wonder. Then as now, after-sales is the VW dealer’s number one profit center. The profit contribution of parts alone was often 30 percent or more. In 1979, for the first time, VW invited the service guys to the IAA auto show in Frankfurt. The suits asked me to come up with a spectacular concept for their debut. My first idea: fix cars live, Formula 1 pitstop style. Everybody liked it—until someone found out that the maximum height of the booth was 2.5 meters, way below the heights of the lift. Scratch that idea. Then I had an odd thought: Why not do it virtually?

This was 1979. “Virtual” wasn’t part of the vocabulary yet. I, however, was a closet nerd. Four years before, I had bought a copy of Popular Electronics at the magazine shop of the Düsseldorf Airport. I saw an ad for something called “Altair.” Supposedly the first computer. I sent $400 to a company called MITS in Albuquerque. For months, nothing happened. I wrote the money off. Then I received a postcard that required my presence at the Düsseldorf customs office.

In front of a suspicious customs official, I opened a strange package. It contained unpopulated circuit boards, hundreds of resistors, bags of chips and a manual. I was supposed to explain what it was. I couldn’t. It was the world’s first personal computer, unassembled. There was no customs tariff for an unassembled personal computer. We decided that it was “training material”—no duty. The customs official rightly assumed I was crazy, and he didn’t want to make my life any harder than it already was.

A year later, after a lot of soldering, I had a working Altair. I was also a member of the Homebrew Computer Club—most likely the only member from Germany. I even had an occasional article in Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Computer Calisthenics – Running Light without Overbyte. I bought a roll of punched tape from a hippie who was long on hair and short on personal hygiene. Bill Gates’ BASIC required a Teletype, hard to get in Germany, where the 5 bit Baudot Fernschreiber ruled. I got a used Teletype, olive color. It carried a plaque reading  “U.S. Army.”

Time had moved on, In 1979, a geek could buy an Apple II with GRAPHICS! So I sold Volkswagen on the strange idea that we show how a car is serviced . . . via interactive video. Which didn’t exist. At the IAA, the customer was supposed to input in the computer car model, color, and type of trouble. And voilà, a video would appear.

You put in “Golf,” “Yellow,” “Brakes,” and a video would show a yellow Golf that had its brakes fixed. Breathtaking.

We spent half a million Deutschmarks to video about 500 short segments (green Golf enters workshop, red Golf enters workshop, blue Golf enters workshop, black Golf enters workshop, green Golf goes on lift . . .  You get the picture). In the meantime, an engineering firm in Hannover custom engineered a box that interfaced a Sony U-Matic 3/4″ videotape machine to the Apple II. The U-Matic didn’t even have timecode. So they put a 50Hz signal on one audio track, and the box counted the ups and downs of the frequency. My friend “Spermy Hermy” Hettche (he fathered a lot of children) wrote the software.

A day before the car show, the stuff actually worked. We put in “Golf,” “Yellow,” “Brakes.” U-Matic seeks. Yellow Golf appears. U-Matic seeks. Mechanic looks at yellow Golf. U-Matic seeks. Yellow Golf goes up lift. U-Matic seeks. Mechanic looks at brakes. And so on. Ad nauseam.

On the opening day of the IAA, we provided 10 video stations. A few people approached. After the third seek of the tape machine, they usually gave up and walked away. How exciting can it be to watch someone fix your brakes? Especially when interrupted by 30-second seeks of a tape machine? In contrast. . .

Another booth. A desk. A person. A telephone. The customer would tell the person how badly the dealer had treated him. The person called the dealer. “Here is Volkswagen. Herr Maier has a complaint. He’ll be there on Monday, and you will take good care of him.” That was the hit of the show.

The interactive video idea was swept under the carpet and forgotten.

Ten years later, I ran into Nicholas “Nic” Negroponte at a joint event. He had created the MIT Media Lab. As Wikipedia puts it, they developed “into the pre-eminent computer science laboratory for new media and a high-tech playground for investigating the human-computer interface.”

I told him about the Apple II and the U-Matics. “When was that?” he asked. “1979. It was a disaster. I’m still embarrassed.” “Don’t. Be proud. You most likely did the world’s first interactive video.” Yes, well, interactive video never really caught on. I’m not surprised.

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31 Comments on “Autobiography Of BS© Pt. 1: How I Invented Interactive Video...”


  • avatar
    Billy Bobb 2

    Around the time of the Type 4’s intro in the US, VW promoted a plug-in rapid diagnostic system.

    Within months the expensive oscilloscope looking gizmo on the roll around cart was being used to throw our jackets over when the shop warmed up.

    Remember the under the seat battery with the 3rd diagnostic post?

    Worthless, expensive, overengineered.

  • avatar
    tsofting

    Fantastic, Bertel! Reminds me of my first “PC”, an Osborne 1 – circa 1982! You know the one with a 3 – 4 inch monitor that looked like a sewing machine tilted halfway over when the keyboard/lid was closed! Never since have I paid so much money for a computer, whether calculated in absolute or relative terms!

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    Beautiful story. I love it. It’s always fun reading about someone re-inventing the wheel, the hard way.

  • avatar

    Billy Bob: Typ 4 as in 411 or as in Transporter T4?

    Tsofting: I remember the sewing machine

  • avatar

    Mhmmm… Tape reels… can;t even remember the last time I had to use one of those.

    Interesting idea… too bad the technology of the time made it so cumbersome.

    Interactive videos never caught on? Maybe not before Youtube… but the advent of flash-based media handling has brought cheap interactive video to the mainstream. I remember when publishers were experimenting with interactive video on CD-ROM (very clumsy stuff)… and who can forget Dragon’s Lair?

    You have decades of royalties coming, for sure.

  • avatar

    Dragon’s Lair was Laserdisk. Random Acess. Ca 1982 if I recall right. U-matic was a professional (at the time) cassette. 3/4 inch. Farago will remember.

  • avatar

    Bertel:

    Not only do I remember 3/4″ (I was a videotape editor at CNN), I remember my first system: the Sony 1/2″ Portapak. Reel-to-reel. Black and white.

    And I played Dragon’s Lair. Made by Don Bluth, ex-Disney guy who was banking bucks from his Secret of NIMH (Not in MY House?). Also maker of Banjo the Woodpile cat. And how’s this for an update?

    “On March 11, 2009, a Dragon’s Lair-esque version of the film under the name Banjo the Woodpile Cat Adventure Game was developed and released on the iPhone and iPod Touch by Iconic Apps.”

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    Talking about interactive. I once had the great idea of interactive research on eating behavior. Some years ago, about the scare of eating meat, when the craze about the mad cow desease was at its worst.

    My idea was a computer stand at every McDonalds, with an EAN-code reader. On every sold hamburger package, there would be a code that you could let the computer scan. If every link in the chain was fitted with codes, and when the product was processed in some way, it would get a new code. That means you could backtrack the chain of events, from hamburger back to a happy cow standing in a field somewhere.

    So, you are afraid of how your meat is being processed? Scan the package, you will see a happy cow. Not just any cow, Your cow, the one that you actually end up eating. Webcameras all over the field. Then you would see some live footage from the distribution, moving your cow to the slaughterhouse. Footage from the actual transport of your own cow. Place for some adverts from local logistics, and so on. Then, webcameras along the entire production line. Cows entering at one end, hamburgers being packaged at the other. You will see Your hamburger being made. Not just any hamburger. Your hamburger. Then footage from the bread being made, the tomatoes and sallad being harvested, and so on. And the packages being delivered to Your local McDonalds. live footage on the packages being opened and prepared. footage of Your Big Mac being made. And then delivered.

    If every link is coded, and every place is being filmed, it’s only a matter of logistics and scripts. The point is, you could have a two-minute film about the actual events of you particular meal being made. And it could all be paid for by all the companies involved from their pr or advertising budget. A win-win. Local logistics, local comapnies, local meat-making. A global world consisting of local producers. Why I didn’t sell the concept, I don’t know. Perhaps the world isn’t prepared for that kind of knowledge yet?

  • avatar

    Sony 1/2″ Portapak. Reel-to-reel. Black and white. Jeez, how ancient are you? That was in the early 70’s. We had one. I think we had one before that fax machine came out.

  • avatar
    skor

    Since we’re taking a trip down Nerd Memory Lane, the first computer I laid hands on was freshman year of college, around 1982 or so. It was a CP/M box with 8 inch floppy drives.

    My second experience was on a Digital PDP-10. The machine was hooked to the ARPANET, I had my first e-mail account in 1983.

  • avatar
    shaker

    Ingvar —

    Not to diminish your technical accomplishment, but… children exposed to this kind of truth before a certain age may never eat a “moo-burger” again:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa_the_Vegetarian

    Bertel: Great trick using one audio track as a time counter – (just like the “control” track, but you could get access without opening the hardware – smart!).

    I was reading PE at the time of the Altair article – I was too poor to afford it (and the assembly task was too daunting). Without a tape/card reader and teletype, all you had were the front panel lights for amusement after hours of assembly (and $400 was a king’s ransom in the day).

    My second job had an Apple II setup like the one pictured (but with 2 floppy drives) wired to a PCB testing interface. Boot from the first floppy, run the app from the other. I loved running that thing (I was merely operating the computer), especially when visitors were gawking at me like I was Mr. Spock… :-)

  • avatar
    Billy Bobb 2

    Sir:

    411 & 412. What tanks! Twice the steel of the 75 Rabbit!

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    @Shaker. yeah, well, its was only an idea, a concept. And I got it after reading “Super Size Me”. The notion is also that, the ones who have absolutely no problem eith eating meat, even the meat of animals they raise themselves, are people who actually handles animals every day, at their farm. Farmpeople just don’t have those issues. And the point was also that most people have no problem with eating processed food, as long as they don’t know how it’s made. And the ones who do, are worried just because they don’t know the process and the chain of events. So, why not make people more familiar with the process, and reacquaint people with their roots?

    the thought is stunning, but just not politically correct. But it is doable, there are no technical limits. And as long as it is practically doable, someone somewhere will do as I foretold, sometimes in the future.

  • avatar
    KeithF

    Great story Bertel. What an interesting life you have led. Keep the stories coming. They are such a nice change of pace from the (also fascinating) industry meltdown stories on this blog.

  • avatar

    where the 5 bit Baudot Fernschreiber ruled. I got a used Teletype, olive color. It carried a plaque reading ”U.S. Army.”

    The one I used as an Airman was labeled “USAF,” and at the time I could actually read Baudot from the tape. And to clench my cromagnerd credentials, I could also read the Hollerith code on IBM punch cards (remember those?).

  • avatar
    fincar1

    I got into computing by teaching myself WordStar on an Osborne I. This one had a great big 8″ external monitor though. I later paid for my sins by being for several years a system admin in the government chemistry lab where I worked. Some of my users would forget their user id’s, never mind their passwords.

    Thank you, Bertel, for the great Sunday morning entertainment.

  • avatar
    mpresley

    Ten years later, I ran into Nicholas “Nic” Negroponte at a joint event. He had created the MIT Media Lab.

    MIT? A “joint” event? Not something organized by Richard Stallman, eh? :-)

    Bertel’s articles are always first rate. Thanks for your time and effort, Mr Schmitt.

  • avatar
    tsofting

    @fincar1:
    Same here; Osborne 1, WordStar, plus all the document files stored on the same floppy, big, green “TV”-monitor on top of the “sewing machine”, and the killer app;”extended utility” (or something like that), which enabled the external monitor to display a larger picture (no idea of the size) than the tiny built-in monitor!

  • avatar
    mpresley

    Back in the day, a personal computer was very much like an MG. In order to use it, you really had to know how it worked, and how to work on it; it was always great fun, but after a year or two you just knew it was time to chunk it for something much better.

  • avatar
    Hippo

    My first “computer” was a Sinclair 1000, probably around 1980 or so.

    Made real good money on those early fuel injected VW’s, in those days service was the gig.

  • avatar

    Great Story!!!

    If Al Gore alleges he invented the internet, you then have a much better shot at the Interactive Video Patent and a post OBE chill-session with Tim Berners-Lee.

    Hillman Curtis alone probably owes you millions!

    +You Really should put a book together of some type, it would be cool.

  • avatar
    the duke

    Bertel, if you continue this it will become my new favorite series on TTAC. Great stuff, keep it coming!

  • avatar

    I’ll continue it. One every Sunday. I worked for them from 1973 (launch of VW Golf I) through 2005. There are enough funny stories ….

  • avatar
    SiliconValleyGuy

    For Bertel Schmitt:

    Bravo! Your story and the associated dates and details sound authentic. You should submit your story to the oral history section of the Computer History Museum (CHM) located at the URL:

    Computer History Museum Oral Histories

    For Bertel Schmitt, Frank Williams, and other contributors:

    You obviously used either the Teletype Model 33 ASR (Automatic Send and Receive) or the Teletype Model 35 KSR (Keyboard Send and Receive) Baudot Code machines. Although these machines were first shipped in 1963 by the USA Teletype Corporation, the basic Baudot Code electromechanical hardware was developed much earlier during the mid-19th century for use with Lord Kelvin’s first Transatlantic Cable (UK to USA in 1858 and 1866).

    Yes, the various branches of the US military were early volume adopters of this telecom technology. See below for the details.

    More details for the computer history geek:

    Both the Baudot Code and the Hollerith punched card technology were originally developed in France during the 18th century. Later, Herman Hollerith used a standardized set of punched cards equal in size to the 1890 US $1 dollar bill to record and process the 1890 US Census data. Even later during the 1920s, the IBM corporation adopted the Hollerith card as the standard for their punched card and tabulating machinery.

    See the following Wikipedia URLs for more details about the above items:

    Emile Baudot

    Lord Kelvin (William Thomson)

    Hollerith Card

    Teletype Model ASR 33

    Even more details for the computer history geek:

    Show up at the Computer History Museum, located in Mountain View, California on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and attend a free 90 minute walk-through presentation of computer history, including ALL of the computers mentioned in your article and the associated comments, including one of only two versions in existence of Herman Hollerith’s punched card hardware for the 1890 US Census.

    In addition, HUNDREDs of additional historic computers are on display, including one of only two copies in existence of Charles Babbage’s five ton Computing “Difference Engine No. 2″ dating from 1837. Any monetary donations will be gratefully accepted by the CHM, a non-profit organization.

    See the following URL for more details about the Computer History Museum location, hours, and extensive online videos:

    Computer History Museum

    Note: The CHM online videos are actually hosted by the Computer History Channel on YouTube:

    YouTube Computer History Channel

  • avatar
    no_slushbox

    Given the above described ordeal it’s not at all surprising that German cars are overcomplicated and filled with Achilles’ heels.

    “Everybody liked it—until someone found out that the maximum height of the booth was 2.5 meters, way below the heights of the lift. Scratch that idea.”

    The Japanese, when confronted with this problem, would have simply designed a shorter lift. And that is why I buy their cars.

    The Volkswagen display was really a local version of video on demand, kind of like a video jukebox, not interactive video.

    Still, it was an impressive effort for the time; Rube Goldberg would have been proud.

  • avatar

    no_slushbox:

    The Volkswagen display was really a local version of video on demand, kind of like a video jukebox, not interactive video.

    I humbly beg to differ. VOD is simply linear video, delivered on demand. The 1979, admittedly Goldbergesque, implementation was interactive video: From hundreds of snippets, it assembled an always fresh video, based on customer input variables. Wikipedia: “The term interactive video or interactive movie sometimes refers to a nowadays uncommon technique used to create computer games or interactive narratives. Instead of 3D computer graphics an interactive image flow is created using premade video clips.”

    The early implementation was boring, and as mentioned, I’m not surprised that interactive video is nowadays uncommon.

  • avatar

    SiliconValleyGuy:

    It was the ASR33, the tape reader and punch were essential. Yes, current loop.

    And thank you for the reminder of the great Computer History Museum in Mountain View. I remember when it still was in Boston. Which was used in derogatory remarks when faced with outdated (i.e. more than 6 month old) equipment at the times:

    “Send that piece of crap to Boston.”

    “Why Boston?”

    “They have a computer museum there.”

    Or, when we unpacked the first IBM Laserprinter designed for PCs, and found that it had a honking controller on an ISA board, and loose toner that created duststorms in the office:

    “Send it to Boston right away.”

    PS: We always thought that Baudot referred to the 5 bit variety as opposed to the 8bit (or rather 7bit) ASCII. But I stand corrected. The 5bit machines survived in Europe until their bitter end. The 8bit TTY was rare in Europe and had to be obtained through unorthodox means.

    PPS: I left Germany in 1981 and moved to the U.S. where I kept being involved in computers as well as cars. A harmless article on the trials and tribulations of SCSI termination escaped into the wild and was translated into hundreds of languages. Granite Digital still owes me a lot of money for the referral.

  • avatar
    Kurt.

    @Frank Williams,

    You make me happy to learn that I am not the only one to waste brain cells learning to read Baudot Code from tape and the Hollerith punched cards. Every night for years I sat up proof reading tape and cards through my early twenties.

    I went to the Smithsonian and saw my old gear in the Air and Space museum. How times have changed!

  • avatar
    Kurt.

    And we had Model 28 teletypes. We got the ASR33 later just before we went “digital”!

  • avatar
    allerton

    A bit late to the party, I’m sad I missed this post before.

    I worked in the interactive video industry in the mid-80s – when we had laservision discs with close to instant random access. The peak of this tech was probably the BBC’s “Domesday System” which not only had interactive video discs, but had a custom laserdisc player that could read data encoded into the (I think) audio channel, so it could act like a primitive CD-ROM. Fun times, but yes, definitely a technical dead end, even without the problems of trying to do it with tape!


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