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Porting ZGRASS... anywhere

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I read in a couple places that ZGRASS was ported to PC, Mac, and Amiga as "RT/1". Does anyone have any of these? I haven't been able to find a download for Amiga, and the applicable occurrences of ZGRASS and RT1 on Google are so few that I have little hope of this existing.

 

Is there original source code available for ZGRASS on the astrocade? I haven't found that either.

 

Has anyone considered porting ZGRASS to other platforms, say something comparable in the 8-bit world, like the Atari 8-bits??

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I read in a couple places that ZGRASS was ported to PC, Mac, and Amiga as "RT/1". [...] I haven't been able to find a download for Amiga, [...]

First off, for those that don't know what ZGRASS is, here's the short definition from Wikipedia, "GRASS (GRAphics Symbiosis System) was a programming language created to script 2D vector graphics animations. [...] A later version that was adapted to support raster graphics was known as ZGrass." The full ZGRASS article is here:

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GRASS_(programming_language)

 

Outside of the Wikipedia article, I have never heard of "RT/1." Who made this? When was it released? Could you please provide any non-Wikipedia link(s) to some of the information about "RT/1" that you have found?

 

I'd love to play around with a version of ZGRASS (if that's what "RT/1" is: a port of the language) for the Amiga. The Amiga's hardware seems like a perfect match for ZGRASS on a 16-bit computer, just as ZGRASS for the Atari 8-bit seems like a great fit too. I guess an Atari version of ZGRASS would have to be called AGRASS (Atari GRASS), as ZGRASS was short for Z80 GRASS.

 

For those who may not be familiar with what the ZGRASS language is capable of producing graphically, here are some screenshots, which are on the front of a folder:

 

post-4925-0-72162400-1456354437_thumb.jpg

 

The inside and back of the folder has many more pictures that can all be seen here:

 

http://www.ballyalley.com/documentation/zgrass/uv-1_folder/uv-1_folder.html

 

Just last week I re-scanned this folder in at 1200dpi. Here's an example of one of those pictures ("dumbed down" to 600dpi so it's not too large):

 

post-4925-0-16853600-1456353169_thumb.jpg

 

Is there original source code available for ZGRASS on the astrocade? I haven't found that either. [...] Has anyone considered porting ZGRASS to other platforms, say something comparable in the 8-bit world, like the Atari 8-bits??

I'm not sure how the language could be ported to the Atari without the source code (or, possibly, a disassembly of the ZGRASS ROM). The ZGRASS language isn't available in binary or source form for the Astrocade-- although just recently (within the last month) a prototype ZGRASS Viper 1 was sold which contains ZGRASS 32 (a 32K version of ZGRASS-- called, for that very reason ZGRASS 32). I think (but am not sure) that the National Videogame Museum purchased that system.

 

Here are a few pictures of that recently sold Viper 1:

 

post-4925-0-53926200-1456352076_thumb.jpg

post-4925-0-63767200-1456352075_thumb.jpg

 

The version of ZGRASS that you'd want to get your hands onto would be the one released with the DataMax UV/1 computer:

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datamax_UV-1

 

That system featured hi-res mode, which the Astrocade only had available in the arcade games that used the Astrocade chipset (such as "Wizard of Wor" and "Gorf").

 

I don't know of any UV-1 computers available, nor of any dumps of this system's ROMs. Possibly you could contact Tom DeFanti about ZGRASS. In the early 2000s he sent me a whole bunch of information on ZGRASS. All of this information found its way to various parts of BallyAlley.com. For instance, you can find it here:

 

General ZGRASS Documentation:

 

http://www.ballyalley.com/documentation/zgrass/zgrass.html

 

The ZGRASS Manual:

 

http://www.ballyalley.com/documentation/zgrass/zgrass_docs/ZGRASS_Glossary_Manual.pdf

 

ZGRASS Videos:

 

http://www.ballyalley.com/astrocade_videos/Datamax_UV-1_Videos/Datamax_UV-1_Videos.html

 

Ken, let me know of anything that I can do to possibly help you obtain your goal of getting ZGRASS going on an Atari. (Yeah, I know the first step needs to be getting some form of ZGRASS...)

Edited by ballyalley
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Well, you could try revise engineering it from the user manual.

 

Of course, the results may not be 100% accurate. But you'd have to make allowances for the different architecture anyway.

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Outside of the Wikipedia article, I have never heard of "RT/1." Who made this? When was it released? Could you please provide any non-Wikipedia link(s) to some of the information about "RT/1" that you have found?

 

 

The text on the Wikipedia page appears to be taken from Thomas A. DeFanti's page on EVL about GRASS.

 

https://www.evl.uic.edu/entry.php?id=1935

 

"The last version of GRASS was RT / 1, a port of GRASS to other platforms that seperated the language from the display model and allowed it to be ported to other platforms. Versions existed for DOS, Windows, SGI platform using OpenGL, HP-UX, AIX, Macintosh and Amiga."

 

I sent an email to Tom DeFanti inquiring about the ports. This took a few tries. Invalid email addresses. The last one I sent hasn't bounced so far. We'll see how this goes.

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I sent an email to Tom DeFanti inquiring about the ports. [...] We'll see how this goes.

 

Good luck finding out about the ports of ZGRASS, from Tom. I suppose if you manage to get a hold of him he may be able to point you to some form of the original GRASS or ZGRASS. If ZGRASS is ever dumped into a ROM image, then I hope that support for it is added into the Astrocade emulation in MAME. Possibly Tom could actually post into this thread?

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Remarkably, I have an answer.. . He was pretty nice about the interruption and provided a lot of interesting facts:

 

Hi Ken,

The Graphics Symbiosis System (GRASS) was written in PDP-11 assembler and only ran on the PDP-11 and Vector General Display. I stopped working on it in the late 1970s. The Zgrass language was written in Z-80 assembler and ran only with a Bally Arcade chipset for graphics. J. Fenton and Nola Donato and I wrote it, and we stopped working on it in the early '80s. In the mid-80's, I started working on the C version of Zgrass called RT/1. It ran on several platforms (IBM PCs and the like, and Apple Macs) mainly with Truevision Targa graphics frame buffer cards, and we kept it going until the early '90s when I switched my attention to virtual reality on SGI computers.
GRASS had lists of x,y,z endpoints that defined lines to be drawn by the graphics hardware (it was a caligraphic or stroke display, not a pixel display). Zgrass was a 2D pixel-based system, as was RT/1.
GRASS was backed up on then standard 9-track mag tape. I have one of these, but how to read it, and if it is readable are unknowns. I don't have any media with Zgrass code preserved. I have one Mac 3/5" floppy with RT/1 on it, but I don't know if it has source code or just the executable.
All these languages had BASIC-like syntax, with the addition of pretty sophisticated string manipulation so that one could craft and execute program segments with programs. And, of course, they had high level primitives optimized in assembler that made the languages operate as real-time instruments with a keen sense of timing, like video games and musical instruments. The sense of time, of course, never really existed in standard graphics languages which pretty much built up complex frames in orders of magnitude slower than 30fps.
If I run into any more documentation, I will contact you. Whatever I have is stored in my cabin in Wisconsin, and I don't get there often, typically going only mid-summer.
Thanks for your inquiry.

..tom..

 

 

 

Not a lot of good news. Looks like the business end of *grass could be largely lost unless someone else who worked on it retained the related media. Perhaps when summer comes around he'll be able to recover something.

 

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Remarkably, I have an answer.. . He was pretty nice about the interruption and provided a lot of interesting facts

Thanks for sharing the full email with us. I'm glad that he got back to you so quickly. Now I'm going to

 

The Graphics Symbiosis System (GRASS) was written in PDP-11 assembler and only ran on the PDP-11 and Vector General Display.

The GRASS system is what was used in the original Star Wars movie trench computer animation sequence:

 

animating_the_death_star_trench_tn.jpg

 

http://www.ballyalley.com/articles_and_news/articles_and_news.html#AnimatingtheDeathStarTrench

 

Surely there are some Star Wars fans that must have looked deeply into this subject before. I'd like to see more information about the links between GRASS and Star Wars.

 

In the mid-80's, I started working on the C version of Zgrass called RT/1. It ran on several platforms (IBM PCs and the like, and Apple Macs) mainly with Truevision Targa graphics frame buffer cards, and we kept it going until the early '90s

 

I'm a little fuzzy on Tom's explanation of RT/1. Was RT/1 a commercial product? If so, when was it released? Tom makes no mention mention of the Amiga. Was that version actually created? I recently ran across a mention of the Targa graphics card in an article about ZGRASS-- but I can't remember where. Somewhere on BallyAlley.com-- I just can't remember in which article. Ugh.

 

GRASS was backed up on then standard 9-track mag tape. I have one of these, but how to read it, and if it is readable are unknowns.

Getting data off those 9-track tapes will be an interesting issue if the tape is still available. The Atari community has archived 9-track tapes from Atari, right? Maybe if this GRASS tape pops up, then they can help sort out any archived-related issues.

 

I have one Mac 3/5" floppy with RT/1 on it, but I don't know if it has source code or just the executable.

Reading a floppy disk will be easy compared to a 9-track tape! If Tom comes across this Mac disk over the summer, then that would be great. Even if the source code isn't available, it would be neat to see the RT/1 system running. How difficult, do you suppose, the target Targa boards to come by nowadays?

 

[GRASS, ZGRASS and RT/1] had BASIC-like syntax, [...] they had high level primitives [...] that made the languages operate as real-time instruments [...].

It is the real-time use of ZGRASS that I always found intriguing. For instance, Jane Veeder created "WarpItOut" using ZGRASS. Here's an article (with some pictures) about it:

 

http://www.ballyalley.com/documentation/zgrass/zgrass-uv-1_articles/Artist%20to%20Warp%20Speed/Chicago%20Computer%20Artist%20Accelerates%20to%20Warp%20Speed%20%28Softalk%29%281983%29.pdf

 

Here's some video of "WarpItOut" in action:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcU1LyGdg3k

 

"WarpItOut" was placed inside an arcade game-like cabinet for use. It looked like this:

 

post-4925-0-59659300-1456711376_thumb.jpg

 

Looks like the business end of *grass could be largely lost unless someone else who worked on it retained the related media. Perhaps when summer comes around he'll be able to recover something.

This is sad to hear, but not unexpected. I wonder if Tom can tip you off to some other people to talk to. Perhaps Larry Cuba?

 

Man, this makes me really yearn to work on the Bally Alley Astrocast podcast! Interviewing these people needs seems like it really should happen!

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Yesterday I OCRed an article by Tom Meeks called ZGRASS Language. This was published on pages 5-7 of the April 1981 issue of The BASIC Express (formally known as Cursor) newsletter. It begins with an editor's note:

 

"To show our readers the ease with which ZGRASS (the system language utilized by the AstroVision Add-Under for the Bally Arcade) can be learned, we asked Tom Meeks, who is a proud owner of the UV-1 (hi-res, $5,000 version of the Add-Under) to write an article for us explaining the use of the language. Tom, needless to say, is in love with the unit and plans to purvey ZGRASS-32 units to educational institutions."

 

Here is the article's first paragraph:

 

"Actually, it's much harder to write about Zgrass objectively than to learn it in the first place. There is something about the Zgrass language that brings out the "G-O-l-l-y!" and "Gee-Whiz!" in me. So, while I'll do my best to be objective and cool in appraising the capabilities of Tom DeFanti's brainchild... the truth is that it's just too much fun to pick at with any fervor."

 

This article shows some programming examples, which are really quite interesting. The article can be read here:

 

http://www.ballyalley.com/documentation/zgrass/zgrass-uv-1_articles/ZGrass%20Language/ZGRASS%20Language%20(1980)(Tom%20Meeks).html

 

Hopefully this summer Tom DeFanti can find some of his ZGRASS material-- that would be super neat!

 

Adam

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Remarkably, I have an answer.. . He was pretty nice about the interruption and provided a lot of interesting facts:

 

...All these languages had BASIC-like syntax, with the addition of pretty sophisticated string manipulation so that one could craft and execute program segments with programs. And, of course, they had high level primitives optimized in assembler that made the languages operate as real-time instruments with a keen sense of timing, like video games and musical instruments. The sense of time, of course, never really existed in standard graphics languages which pretty much built up complex frames in orders of magnitude slower than 30fps.
If I run into any more documentation, I will contact you. Whatever I have is stored in my cabin in Wisconsin, and I don't get there often, typically going only mid-summer.
Thanks for your inquiry.

..tom..

 

Not a lot of good news. Looks like the business end of *grass could be largely lost unless someone else who worked on it retained the related media. Perhaps when summer comes around he'll be able to recover something.

 

 

 

 

ZGRASS sounds really powerful for making Video games - particularly the BASIC features for controlling the graphics operations per frame in real time.

 

vwBASIC for the 2600 has similar fine grain 30 fps (or even 60) control over blitter operations and musical instruments.

 

The quick start guide has a couple of examples:

vwBASIC_quick_start_guide.pdf

 

vwBASIC also mirrors ZGRASS "numerous instructions for specifying 2D object animation, including scaling, translation, rotation and color changes over time."

 

If you want to code with something like ZGRASS on the Atari, vwBASIC may be fun to try! :)

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Remarkably, I have an answer [from Tom Defanti].

 

[back in February, Tom wrote, "Whatever I have [related to ZGRASS] is stored in my cabin in Wisconsin, and I don't get there often, typically going only mid-summer."]

 

Perhaps when summer comes around he'll be able to recover something.

Now it's mid-summer. Do you wanna try contacting him again?

 

Adam

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Now it's mid-summer. Do you wanna try contacting him again?

 

 

Thanks for reminding me.

 

Tom, not nearly as lazy as I am, replied to me right away.....

 

I looked through my stuff in September. I did not find any GRASS/Zgrass related stuff that isn't on videotape. I did find a source code listing for the Bally Arcade, but it is marked confidential on every page, and this is my signed-out copy. I'd need to get permission from someone, I do not know whom, to release me of this confidentiality. Is there any traceable ownership (Astrocade?). On the other hand, you may already have this document--there were a bunch handed out to the programmers and developers.
I have a 9-track tape in my office here with source code in .rol format for GRASS (PDP-11 assembler) if it still reads. It's been untouched for ~35 years.
Have you contacted Steve Heminover in Chicago? He has piles of related materials, I believe.

 

 

So, pending questions. . .

 

1) What is the state of Bally/Astrocade proprietary/confidential information? Who owns it? Who would have to give Tom permission to release it? (assuming he has something new we haven't seen before.)

 

2) Who has the resources to read that old tape? Is 9-track tape/source code in .rol format for PDP-11 assembler enough information?

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1) What is the state of Bally/Astrocade proprietary/confidential information? Who owns it? Who would have to give Tom permission to release it? (assuming he has something new we haven't seen before.)

 

2) Who has the resources to read that old tape? Is 9-track tape/source code in .rol format for PDP-11 assembler enough information?

 

I'm glad that you heard back from him. I'm not sure who owns the rights to this information. Bally sold the rights to Astrovision in the early 80s. I have no idea who owns the rights now. I'll ask this questions to the BallyAlley Yahoo group today.

 

I really glad that the ZGRASS source code exists in some format!

 

Adam

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I think it would be very difficult to determine what became of the ZGRASS rights without looking at the associated contracts. If it's a major company like Bally, Warner Bros., etc., I doubt they would just release them. It's not that they'd exactly care. In fact, I'd say the odds of any consequences for just releasing it without permission are minuscule. But there's no advantage to them even taking the time to figure out who owns it.

 

At one point, Alternative Engineering, a small third party hardware developer, had a license to release the add-under with ZGRASS. I don't know the terms of that deal, but it's not impossible they still have those rights. I've talked to one of Alternative Engineering's owners, Ed Larkin, fairly recently. I believe he no longer had any documents, though, and wasn't sure how to contact the other former owners of the company.

 

Does Tom have other versions of ZGRASS, such as for the Datamax UV-1 computer?

 

I could probably find someone who could read an old tape if he were willing to loan it out.

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I think it would be very difficult to determine what became of the ZGRASS rights without looking at the associated contracts. If it's a major company like Bally, Warner Bros., etc., I doubt they would just release them.

I agree with this-- it would be difficult to find who owns the rights to ZGRASS. I did ask on the Bally Alley Yahoo group if anyone know who owns the rights to the Bally games. Only one person answered that post. I was hoping for more of an answer, but no one ever follow-up on my question. On November 7, Lance Squire replied to what he knows about who owns the rights to the games:

 

"Near as I can tell from this Wikipedia article:

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midway_Games

 

What ever assets were left of Bally/Midway are now owned by Warner Bros.

 

Someone could contact them, but I don't think they would care about the Zgrass source being released.

 

But then, I am Not a lawyer. :)

I really have no idea how to track the rights down the publishers. Does anyone have experience with this? How is it done?

 

Does Tom have other versions of ZGRASS, such as for the Datamax UV-1 computer?

Even getting a clear picture of the UV-1 computer from Tom DeFanti would be great. The only picture of the UV-1 that I've ever seen is very grainy and is quite low-quality. It's hard to even know what the machine looks like from the picture. This page on BallyAlley.com has pictures of the ZGRASS and the UV-1 computer (that runs the ZGRASS language):

 

http://www.ballyalley.com/pics/hardware_pics/zgrass_pics/zgrass_pics.html

 

If anyone knows of other pictures of the UV-1 computer, then please point them out to me.

 

I could probably find someone who could read an old tape if he were willing to loan it out.

That would be cool if the 9-track tape could be dumped-- although it seems that Tom would first need to be assured that the ZGRASS code could be released... and I'm not sure how to do that.

 

Adam

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I added a much-later edition (possibly the last version) of the Datamax UV-1R, ZGRASS Graphics System: Operator's Manual by Real Time Design, Inc. to BallyAlley.com. This version of the manual is from January 4, 1983. Thanks to Michael Matte for sending me photocopies of his manual. Now we just need to somehow get ZGRASS dumped and in usable condition.

 

You can download the "Operator's Manual" here:

 

http://www.ballyalley.com/documentation/zgrass/zgrass_docs/zgrass_docs.html#DatamaxUV1RZGRASSOperatorManual

 

Here is some additional details about the manual:

 

The System

 

The Datamax UV-1R Zgrass Graphics System is a highly interactive, dedicated micro-computer color graphics system designed to easily produce visuals in motion. The UV-1R (University Version 1 Rack-mount) hardware is Z80 microprocessor-based. The Zgrass (Z80 GRAphics Symbiosis System) software is both a high-level computer graphics language and a sophisticated operating system. The EPROM (Erasable Programmable Read Only Memory) firmware houses Zgrass and allows for easy software updates. The system's heritage derives from video arcade games, and the high-speed animation "tricks" so easily programmed on this computer are a result of the development of video game technology and custom video chips.

 

The Operator's Manual & Supporting Documentation

 

The Datamax UV-1R Zgrass Graphics System Operator's Manual has been designed to function not only as a guide for initial set up of the system, but also as a reference manual useful during routine operation of the system.

 

The TABLE OF CONTENTS doubles as a QUICK REFERENCE section, listing ail section headings. Detailed instructions, descriptions, and appropriate illustrations are presented in the body of the manual to guide the user. The TROUBLESHOOTING section provides tips for solving problems. The INDEX OF SYSTEM TESTS locates all the testing programs (macros) contained within the body of the manual and explains how to use the UTILITY DISK to load and run these tests.

 

References are made throughout this manual to the following additional supporting documentation of the system:

 

The Datamax UV-1R Zgrass Lessons - The lessons were designed to aid the interested novice in learning how to control the system and create useful custom software.

 

The Datamax UV-1R Zgrass Glossary - The glossary defines and demonstrates commands and terms necessary tor the use of the Zgrass language.

 

This manual instructs you on the set-up and testing of the computer and connection of peripheral devices. In addition, it provides you with important information about operating the system... such as, the hardware features and specifications; basic disk and audio tape management techniques; graphic considerations; etc.

 

The included chapters are:

 

1 - Introduction
2 - Hardware Features
3 - Initial Set Up
4 - System Power-Up
5 - UV-1R ZGRASS Graphics System Configuration
6 - Peripheral Device Configuration
7 - Troubleshooting
8 - Index of System Tests

 

Thanks again to Michael for providing the manual. Enjoy!

 

Adam

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Has there been anything new on this front? I feel like the only way to figure out for sure the legal status of the ZGRASS materials is to track down information on astrovision itself - unless it got bought out, whoever owned the company likely still has the rights, or at least whoever owns their assets now. Google tells me the president was Dan Dawson in the 80s - maybe he's a starting point?

Edited by ubersaurus

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the only way to figure out for sure the legal status of the ZGRASS materials is to track down information on astrovision itself - unless it got bought out, whoever owned the company likely still has the rights, or at least whoever owns their assets now. Google tells me the president was Dan Dawson in the 80s - maybe he's a starting point?

 

I have not heard anything else about ZGRASS since this thread went dormant. I was told by someone, though I never got confirmation on this, that the software rights to the Bally games reverted to Bally went Astrocade, Inc. went under. I'm not sure why that would have happened. Also, I'm not sure if Bally ever owned the rights to ZGRASS, seeing as that product was never released.

 

There are so many people out there that could be interviewed about the Astrocade. Where is the Kevin Savetz of the Astrocade world?

 

Adam

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I guess the logical starting point, then, would be to contact DeFanti and ask him who he signed his copy of the ZGRASS materials out from. If he was contracted with them as the internet suggests, then it really comes down to the details of the contract (which I assume Bally/Midway would have retained ownership of the language and the add under system even if it was unreleased, barring a clause stating he got it).

 

I'm not sure how one would confirm if the Astrocade rights went back to Bally/Midway unless someone on Netherrealm's legal staff knows about it or could look it up, except maybe one of the folks who was working on the software back in the day (Jamie Fenton or someone else). As someone pointed out, I doubt they'd actually care one way or the other - the only old game properties they ever do anything with are solely arcade games - but I can understand why he'd want to make sure he's protected.

 

The alternative option, I suppose, would be to donate all of it to someplace like the Strong that specializes in video game archival projects, and let them do the legal legwork to determine if it's something they could make available to researchers/enthusiasts or not. Lord knows they probably have way more contacts with existing entities than any of us.

Edit: I reached out to the Strong folks to see what their process is, and generally unless the IP rights are transferred over to them, they only retain materials for researchers to look through on-site rather than make things available online. So on one hand the code would be properly archived and protected, and one could ostensibly go there, run through the source code for whatever purpose, etc. but unless the IP holder can be tracked down and is agreeable to it, nothing could be posted online.

Edited by ubersaurus

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contact DeFanti and ask him who he signed his copy of the ZGRASS materials out from.

Ken Jennings (the person who started this thread) made contact with Tom. Ken, are you following this thread anymore? If so, would you like to try to contact Tom DeFanti again? If not, then I could try to follow-up with him if you send me his contact information.

 

The alternative option, I suppose, would be to donate all of it to someplace like the Strong that specializes in video game archival projects

I love the idea of museum donations, but doesn't stuff like this normally fall into a black hole?

 

the Strong folks [...] retain materials for researchers to look through on-site rather than make things available online.

Does the Strong museum keep a list of the material in their collection online so that we know it exists?

 

On a related note, I'm currently reading Moving Animation: A History of Computer Animation by Tom Sito (2013, MIT Press). On page 60, while discussing how the Death Star trench scene from Star Wars was created, Larry Cuba says of DeFanti's GRASS program that runs on the PDP mainframe, "GRASS was thirty years ahead of its time." The paragraph closes with a summation of the later version of GRASS for the Z80 CPU, "ZGRASS also proved very useful to developers of interactive games." I'm not sure if the book talks about ZGRASS in more detail, but I know that there is a whole book in that sentence!

 

Adam

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Strong's video game archive site: http://www.museumofplay.org/about/ichegthey have finding aids for a variety of papers (like Ralph Baer's, Carol Shaw's, Jerry Lawson, Atari Games, etc.) to facilitate looking at them in person, but as noted none of those are necessarily online. When I heard them give a talk at Magfest this past January they talked about wanting to get more stuff online, but recognizing that copyright law does limit their options. And Rochester is a little off the beaten path, but certainly there are Atariage members and other game historians who can get out that way!

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Strong's video game archive site: http://www.museumofplay.org/about/ichegthey have finding aids for a variety of papers (like Ralph Baer's, Carol Shaw's, Jerry Lawson, Atari Games, etc.) to facilitate looking at them in person, but as noted none of those are necessarily online. When I heard them give a talk at Magfest this past January they talked about wanting to get more stuff online, but recognizing that copyright law does limit their options. And Rochester is a little off the beaten path, but certainly there are Atariage members and other game historians who can get out that way!

 

That's an interesting contrast to The Internet Archive, which seems to be much more of the "better to ask forgiveness than ask permission" persuasion. While I can to a certain extent understand the concern, realistically this is probably the best way to look at it. Can anyone think of an instance where someone has shared information about old, no longer commercially available software, and suffered anything worse than a cease and desist letter?

 

I hope they at least have such papers privately digitized and backed up off-site.

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That's an interesting contrast to The Internet Archive, which seems to be much more of the "better to ask forgiveness than ask permission" persuasion. While I can to a certain extent understand the concern, realistically this is probably the best way to look at it. Can anyone think of an instance where someone has shared information about old, no longer commercially available software, and suffered anything worse than a cease and desist letter?

 

I hope they at least have such papers privately digitized and backed up off-site.

Re: backed up digitized copies, that's a question for them, but as far as online access their hands are tied by law to follow certain rules and regulations, as a museum and an archive. Sure, Atari/Warner or Activision is unlikely to come after them for having having design documents for River Raid or a variety of arcade games,but it is all still copyrighted material. Blizzard is more likely to come after them if they made publicly available their World of Warcraft software materials, for example. The RCA materials over at Hagley Museum and Library aren't scanned online (though they are working on getting select items from the video game portion up), and they have an agreement with the rights' holders to only allow materials older than 25 years reprintable. I don't think Technicolor or whoever owns the relevant parts of RCA really cares all that much, but you've got to cover your ass, so to speak. Given DeFanti's concerns about legality, I do think an archive or museum - whether that's the Strong, the Computer History Museum, or the National Videogame Museum, etc. that's willing to back up whatever's on the tapes and allow people to get at it on-location (or take the heat if there is any blowback) is a good option.

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I've seen some recent communiques with Jamie Fenton, and she doesn't think she still has a copy of ZGRASS - it's likely DeFanti has the only surviving copy of the program. Given the volatility of magnetic media (most experts agree that we have about 10 years left before the vast majority of magnetic media goes bad) getting it backed up somewhere ASAP is paramount.

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I spoke with Tom over the phone yesterday. My audio recorder's battery was dead so I didn't have the opportunity to ask/get our conversation down in that format, but I took some notes while speaking with him. He did not mention the source code or the other items he might still have GRASS code on. Some of this might be stuff ya'll already know.

 

 

Defanti said he got involved with Bally when one of his former grad students (I think he said Larry Meske, but I could have misheard) started work with Dave Nutting Associates, a "skunkworks" consulting group working on some new graphics chips for their arcade machines. They were interested in also using this for a home system that would become the Professional Arcade, and thought GRASS might be a good fit for a home computer add-on that they were considering for the home system too. So Defanti was brought in to help convert GRASS to the Z80. He had a lot of positive words about their graphics chip - he noted that it was powerful for its day, with three line buffers, two resolution modes, a strong array of colors and a bitmap. As such, it provided a lot of flexibility that ZGRASS could take advantage of. He also noted the big difference between GRASS and ZGRASS is that ZGRASS can't do real-time rotations on objects unless they're fairly small, but due to the frame buffer it was also able to do a number of other effects pretty easily.

 

Jamie Fenton helped with rewriting GRASS for Z-80 (and introduced some user-friendly pieces of the code, though I wasn't able to keep up on the specifics), as did another grad student, Nola Donato (who has gone on to have quite a career if the internet is any guide). As we know, the add-under didn't happen under Bally as they decided to drop out of the home market in favor of their other endeavors, and it didn't make it out under Astrovision either. With the help of some of his students, it did practically get out the door as the UV-1 under a small company called Datamax; Defanti said they stuck with the Bally chips since they were so flexible and it wouldn't require a lot of money to engineer a new one. He said they sold a few hundred units, as they were reasonably popular among video artists.

 

"Most of the people who bought them were video artists who could record what they were doing and put out legitimate NTSC recordable video, which the Apple IIs didn’t do. It was quite ideal for the artists because it was easy to use, kind of a version of BASIC but much more sophisticated with what you could do with screen manipulation, and all sorts of time-based things that you could coordinate."

 

He also mentioned the RT/1 version of GRASS but noted that was about the time he basically gave up on it.

 

Defanti being a computer scientist has no formal background in video art, but explained his interest with GRASS for it in this way: his hobbies, both then and now, include photography, video- and film-making. He surrounded himself with people who were much better at those things than he was, and wanted to build a way for visual technology to make things look better that they were working on; GRASS definitely fit the bill there. He was very pleased with the videos that have gone up online of what people have done with it, though he did note that his goal was to make it widely available to everyone - even on to weather forecasters - could have used it.

 

I've reached out to Donato to see if she'd be interested in talking not only about her experience with ZGRASS but also her work with Mattel Electronics and 3DO. I'm also hoping to confirm that the National Videogame Museum got the ZGRASS add-under that was up for sale a few years back - if so, I'd love to talk to them about dumping the ZGRASS code on there. If we had that, coupled with the schematics and documentation one could reasonably rebuild it in an emulator, similar to what's been done with RCA's FRED and Studio IV machines.

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I spoke with Tom [Defanti] over the phone yesterday. [...] Some of this might be stuff ya'll already know.

 

There is a ton of information here. Thanks for continuing to investigate the ZGRASS language. I'd love to be able to try this language out on real hardware or (possibly, someday?) emulation. Out of all of the hundreds of UV/1 systems sold to artists (for thousands of dollars each), I'm still surprised that not one unit has cropped up for sale since I've started looking for one back in 2001/2002. I don't even know of anyone that owns a UV/1 system anymore.

 

Keep up the great work, Kevin!

 

Adam

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