Me: So, how did you become involved with RCA and the making of the Studio II?
“I graduated from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC with a degree in Industrial Arts and Computer Science. I had made a special study of microcontrollers, which were just emerging. As luck would have it, I applied at RCA Distributor and Special Products Division in Swannanoa, NC, and they were excited to find someone with formal training in micros. First job out of college for me, they promised that they would employ me in a video game project, but it wasn't quite ready to start so for several months, I worked as a tech on an antenna line.”
Me: You said you were there the whole time. How long was that for?
“I was given the job of running production until the line was discontinued and we shut down the operation. Less than a year passed between startup and shut down.”
Me: Could you describe the assembly line?
“S2 was made on a human intensive assembly line of 125 or so mostly women. Chips were hand inserted, as were discrete components. Everything was wave soldered except a few wires. Board cleaning was in an ultrasonic degreaser using Freon TF. (I told you I had a good memory.) Production rates were 1000 units a day on a single shift. Three or four adjustment/troubleshoot stations were in the line for rough testing of the RF components. We had a small cartridge with a test program for the console that put different patterns on the screen, tested the keys, beeper, expansion slot. RF output levels were verified on a final test station using a Boonton RF power meter. Spec was 3 mW or less.”
“The product is built around an RCA 1802 microprocessor. If I recall correctly, the unit used a 3.58 MHz color burst crystal for clock. It had one RAM chip (2K or so), one ROM chip (16k or 8k), a 555-timer based beep circuit, a 7805 voltage regulator. The ROM/RAM contained internal latches. Seems that there may have been some 4000-series glue logic here and there. Board was an FR2 double-sided plated-through item and I think the connector for expansion was a 32/64 pin 0.100" or .156 spacing. Failures in production were mostly solder shorts or board etch problems, so we made testers to pre-verify etching and to automatically detect solder bridges.”
Me: what do you recall about the popularity of the system?
“Units piled up in the warehouse and never did sell briskly. Competitive product from Magnavox was color, high resolution, sound-via-TV stuff wtih joysticks, so the monochrome block displays and keypad-only UI were outclassed from day 1.”
Me: What happened to all the unsold units, then?
“After 6-8 months, units were made available to employees at a discount. Eventually, RCA saw the writing on the wall, abandoned software development and the Studio 3, and shut it down. Inventory was sold to Radio Shack for 10 cents on the dollar, and few years later, Radio Shack bought the entire facility. It is still in operation mostly making antennas, for which there is a limited market.”
Me: Just how many units was this, in terms of what was manufactured? What about the game cartridges?
“Full production of the units was 1000 per day and I estimate maybe 9 months at full rate... 50K or so, total. Cartridges started later, at a rate of 3K/day for 9 months or about 150k? They are all identical except for having either 1 or 2 ROMs. The ROMS were masked, not EPROMS or flash. Costly to tool. I can read out their contents for you if you ever want to peek inside some.”
Me: What became of all the equipment used to manufacture the Studio II and its games?
“All of the test equipment was scrapped. Some wound up on a shelf at SDX and I found it in the 1980s. Funny. I had built it. Still remember the smell and appearance.”
Me: One of the biggest design flaws of the Studio II was the use of an external RF switch and power supply- which have often become lost over time. Do you know why this was done?
“RCA did a lot of FCC and UL products. The switchbox localized the RF leakage to a single unit that was bought from another supplier, so it could be certified as Part 15 compliant. UL for the whole unit could be avoided by keeping voltages on the console below 28V. The power and signal both employ the coax, meaning cheaper interconnects and this was a consumer product they hoped to build in the millions. Pennies count. This technique is widely used in old RCA products, like mast amplifiers, etc.”
Me: Tell me about the ease of producing the system itself
“Things moved slowly at RCA. I am not sure how long it was in design, but suspect a year or two. They had very little experience producing micro-based products, or developing software. We programmed our test equipment (which we made out of 1802 micros in machine language. We did not even have an assembler. The unit we used was called an Elf, and originally had an 1801 processor, which I think was PMOS. The 1802 was CMOS and ran on +5 volts, and was capable of static operation.... i.e., you could stop the clock with no penalty. Very low power. We thought it alone would be a great product for RCA, but it never took off. Intel, Intersil, Motorola, and a bunch of other companies ran away with that market. Programs were loaded in one byte at a time with switches and a LOAD button, and then run. Tedious.”
Me: You mentioned a Studio 3 system? I've never heard anything about that before...
“There were tons of rumors about the S3, which was under development up north, in either Deptford or Princeton. I think they pushed the S2 to market because they had an investment in it. When it failed, and they did an honest assessment of the S3 to competitive products, there was just no sense in doing it. They had been leapfrogged.”
Me: The Studio II had a surprising amount of clones released overseas, some much more advanced then the US system. Do you know anything about those?
“I never heard of them licensing it overseas, and certainly not producing it anywhere else. Clones are news to me. I did have a tech who authored a game in Swannanoa. Forget his name. It is entirely possible that in trying to recover a few bux from the design, they sold off the S3 project and the IP for the S2”
Me: I've gotta ask- do you still have anything from your time with RCA, such as source code or prototypes?
“Sadly, I have nothing from those days at all. Certainly no source code. However, maybe 20 years after I worked there, I got a client who had a small terminal using an 1802 micro, which was programmed in assembly language and I was able to patch defective code for them. (The old 'dead programmer' problem... I specialize in such things.)”
Me: So everything Studio II was made in the Swannanoa facility?
“With absolutely no reservations, the Swannanoa facility on Bee Tree Road was the only production facility for Studio2. The Distributor and Special Products Division was headquartered in Deptford, NJ.
Google map this house, across the street from the plant. There is a street view.
151 old bee tree road swannanoa nc
Zoom in/out to see it. Building at upper right in the layout was where we produced the units. Factory has a sign in street view that says "TDP Electronics".”
Me: Would you be able to read the ROM's of some undocumented Studio II carts?
“My approach to getting the ROM contents would be to remove the console ROM(s) and directly read the contents. I have an EPROM reader that probably has the chips in its support list. Failing that, I have a Fluke 9010 micro system troubleshooter console from that era that would require that I remove the 1802. Failing that, the 1802 pins go into a high impedance state on reset, meaning I could add another parallel micro to read out the ROM contents for disassembly. I actually have an 1802 or two here. I can envision making an emulator. The 1802 is a neat little general register architecture, (Von Neumann like the 68000's). I liked it. Ahead of its time. First CMOS micro.
Once the system ROM(s) are out, a little study would show where the DMA routines live (video is DMA driven in the S2, as I recall) and where the display literals live. Subroutines can be identified by entry and exit points and I think there might be one interrupt process in the unit to decipher. Back then, and particularly with this machine, things were simple. I know it probably doesn't sound simple to you, but I grew up with that stuff and went on to build missile test equipment and some fairly advanced products. I have the tools, too. I can reverse engineer the schematics and start a documentation project.
Game ROMs can get the same treatment, though they're easier to manipulate. I'd make an edge connector fixture to plug in the ROM and read it out directly for inspection.
As far as the ROMs are concerned, I reverse engineer hardware and code a lot. It's not a big deal for me and I am equipped. Somewhere I have an 1802 disassembler or can get one. I speak assembly languages and I do know a little about the Studio 2 architecture. I make my living doing engineering projects, and usually charge a bundle, but would love to explore doing small kickstarter projects to do something like re-animating the S2, cheaply, for enthusiasts.”
Me: Would it possible to make a multicart for the Studio II?
“on the multicart.... i am guessing that's a combined cartridge with all the games, and designing one would be relatively simple. Large, cheap flash memories are widely available and all that's needed is some glue logic (mostly latches), a board layout, a little selector mechanism. the binaries for the games, and a board layout/fab. That used to be expensive, but not so much anymore. I'll look into what's needed.”
Me: I mentioned the urban legend of the Bingo game for the US Studio II...
“I don't know about the Bingo thing, but can imagine it would be easy to code.
It IS possible that at a trade show or ham fest or swap meet, a prototype Bingo cartridge appeared. Stuff is in a 1000 garages all over the land. Who knows?”
Edited by Blazing Lazers, Fri Mar 1, 2013 5:11 PM.