Autobiography of BS©: How I Invented Interactive Video

apple II

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? Except that virtual reality had yet to be invented. This was my contribution to the cause.

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 inch 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.

This story from the SWWE (Stories We Wrote Elsewhere) archives appeared first on May 17, 2009 in
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