Photo of the Week - Know your History! (03 - VideoBrain Family Computer Model 101 (1977))

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EDIT: Check out all of the VideoBrain-related topics on Armchair Arcade here - http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/taxonomy/term/1135

Welcome to the third of the ongoing series of exclusive photos here at Armchair Arcade from my private collection, the VideoBrain Family Computer Model 101 from 1977. The system pictured has its cartridge door raised up with the Wordwise 1 ED03 cartridge inserted. The next step would be to push the cartridge door down, making it flush with the system. The button just below would raise the lid again, i.e., eject the cartridge. One of the two single button joysticks that doesn't self center is plugged in. The underbelly of the Music Teacher 1 ED01 cartridge is displayed to the left of the system. Everything else pictured should be self explanatory with this delightfully well-maintained example of this particular computer model.

The photo's main page.
The full-size image.

Without further ado, here are some neat facts about this week's photo (feedback welcome!):

This self-named computer from the VideoBrain Computer Company of California utilized the same F8 microprocessor as found in the Fairchild Video Entertainment System (VES, 1976), the first fully programmable cartridge-based videogame console. The VideoBrain came standard with only 1KB of RAM and a highly unusual and awkward compressed 36-key half stroke keyboard, but did output both color and sound. This was also one of the very first computers to utilize software on cartridge like the Exidy Sorcerer (1978) and come with joysticks like Interact's The Home Computer System (1978). Four joystick ports were standard, a full year before Atari's 400 and 800 (1979) computer systems. Despite these early technical innovations, limited availability in Macy's department stores and competitively priced bundles, the VideoBrain never caught on and was quickly forgotten.

As can be seen in the photo, the packaging is rather progressive and tasteful for a 1977 design (though I believe the system didn't see wide release until 1978). The system itself looks surprisingly like a smaller Atari 5200 SuperSystem (1982), with a downward slope and an almost triangular side profile. The pop up cartridge door is rather neat and when closed, maintains the sleek lines of the system. Besides the four front controller ports, the only other ports are on the back: a very specialized power adapter port whose unusual mate (which actually has a twist lock after plug-in) should be just visible in the photo and an accessory port, which looks somewhat like a typical Atari 2600 VCS joystick port. A 3/4 channel select switch and a hardwired RF cable that goes to the TV switch box round out the external features of the system. The box smells a bit musty, almost like water damage/mold, but that's common for systems of this vintage of unknown origin. As should be clear from the photos, everything was in remarkable shape and quite clean, though unfortunately my system only goes to a black, blank screen, even after pressing the "MASTER CONTROL" button as instructed. And yes, the keyboard really is awful, with keys that are too closely spaced together and configured in a very odd manner. Even for touch typists, the best way to do anything on this system is probably with a single finger.

Modern availability of VideoBrain product is quite low, but there seems to be little competition for systems, with small bundles like the one shown in the photo sometimes had for less than $200 (though obviously mine does not work, so take that as you will). Loose cartridges pop up very infrequently on the typical auction Websites.

The Obsolete Computer Museum has posted some related brochures for those
interested, here.

AtariProtos.com has a really great and comprehensive section on the system as well, here. Check out, under "Cartridges", the Gladiator game, as it's one of this modest system's best looking.

If my system were working, I would have acquired and posted direct feed video footage of the system's startup and various output, but it was not meant to be at this time. Hopefully I can acquire a working replacement CPU shortly.

The other aforementioned also-rans from 1978, the Exidy Sorcerer and Interact's The Home Computer System, will be covered at later dates. Those systems, the VideoBrain and many others are mentioned briefly in my upcoming book, along with exhaustive looks at 41 other systems. Be sure to keep visiting Armchair Arcade for ongoing coverage, as well. See you next time!

Comments

Mark Vergeer
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Hmm

I just love those antique quirky systems, Bill I would love to look around your 'superb basement' sometime :-)



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Bill Loguidice
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VideoBrain - Quirky is not a strong enough word

Quirky indeed. The VideoBrain has four built-in programs: Text, Clock, Alarm and Color Bars, but no built-in operating system or language! In fact, I believe there never was a version of BASIC released for the system, only APL/S on cartridge. While I would love to get that APL/S cartridge to truly make the thing usable (along with one of the expansion modules for access to a cassette deck) from more than a pre-package program standpoint, I'm not holding my breath.

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yakumo9275
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History

It reminds me of some of the clone systems we'd get in australia (like the clone 98% compat trs80's etc).

-- Stu --

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Matt Barton
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Great Post

Another great post about an obscure bit of computer history! The name of this unit definitely hearkens back to an even older period--I'm thinking of 50s and 60s sci-fi, with all their talk of "positronic brains" and what-not. Most people think of Data from ST TNG when "positronic brain" is mentioned, but the term was used much earlier in various episodes of Doctor Who during the 60s (Patrick Troughton's tenure).

It's a shame this unit doesn't work, though. Any idea what the problem may be? Perhaps the aforementioned mold smell might indicate water damage to the internals?

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Bill Loguidice
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Electronic Brains
Matt Barton wrote:

Another great post about an obscure bit of computer history! The name of this unit definitely hearkens back to an even older period--I'm thinking of 50s and 60s sci-fi, with all their talk of "positronic brains" and what-not. Most people think of Data from ST TNG when "positronic brain" is mentioned, but the term was used much earlier in various episodes of Doctor Who during the 60s (Patrick Troughton's tenure).

It's a shame this unit doesn't work, though. Any idea what the problem may be? Perhaps the aforementioned mold smell might indicate water damage to the internals?

It may be any of the things Mark said, which are typical of older systems. Someday I'll pick up the skills or know someone who can properly troubleshoot it. In the mean-time, it looks like I can trade a spare Spectavideo SV-328 and some accessories and software to the gentleman at the Atari Protos Website for a working VideoBrain and quite a few of the cartridges. We'll see.

It's funny you mention 60's sci-fi. I'm reading a free 60s sci-fi e-book from the early 60's right now and besides being aggressively sexist (no really, the author seems to go out of his way to be) typical of books from the era, it also mentions the "ship's brain" and various other euphemisms for "computer", while never actually mentioning "computer".

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
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Mark Vergeer
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Leaky capacitators is my bet....

Leaky capacitators is my bet....or a fried chip here and there....



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Mark Vergeer
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How are those plastics holding up?

Bill, I'm quite curious after the plastics of these old machines. How is that holding up? The casing of the European Snes'es are turning yellowish because of oxidation etc and will no doubt become brittle in a couple of decades. So how is the quality of 'hardware' in your collection? Any signs of degrading plastics?
Cheers...


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Bill Loguidice
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Cracking and discoloration? - We're here to help
Mark Vasier wrote:

Bill, I'm quite curious after the plastics of these old machines. How is that holding up? The casing of the European Snes'es are turning yellowish because of oxidation etc and will no doubt become brittle in a couple of decades. So how is the quality of 'hardware' in your collection? Any signs of degrading plastics?
Cheers...


Editor / Pixelator - Armchair Arcade, Inc.

Well, the plastic quality of the VideoBrain and quite a few of my other systems seems exceptional - as good as new. It seems like the tan, white or cream colored systems, particularly systems from Apple and Nintendo, discolor quite easily (top of my head, I also have an Atari 130XE that's quite discolored and I believe that's more grayish normally). A few miscellaneous items seem also to have brittle plastic that cracks easily, but overall, no major complaints. I've also only come across a few signs of rust, like with the original Commodore PET from a few "Photo of the Week" back...

Here's a recent article on the discoloration subject: http://www.vintagecomputing.com/index.php/archives/189

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
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Mark Vergeer
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Thanks for that link - great article!



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Bill Loguidice
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A VideoBrain Update

As some of you may remember, I’ve had a nearly pristine VideoBrain with a single controller, box, a few cartridges and other materials since 2007. As you may also remember from the above blog post, it didn’t work.

Back in May of this year, I bid on and won a badly beaten VideoBrain with the super rare Expander 1, the latter of which was by itself, but in superficially good condition. The VideoBrain itself came with a joystick with a missing outer stick shaft (it just has the metal joystick rod), and a keyboard with the SHIFT key ripped off (and no parts remaining, just the bare keyboard contacts exposed where the key, spring and other plastic bits should be). Also, there was no power supply, which you’ll know is particularly critical with the VideoBrain because of the unique locking connector.

Anyway, I was able to try the second VideoBrain last night with the power supply from my original broken system, and lo and behold it worked right away, though a bit sporadically (I would get junk character screens more often than not). Not being technical by any stretch of the imagination, I decided to open up both units and do essentially a motherboard swap, and cross my fingers. What’s interesting is that these are two VideoBrains from two different production runs. They clearly tried a few different methods of motherboard and processor shielding/heat sinking, and had a few other variations between runs. Given the relatively limited number of units produced and the relatively short time the company was operational (maybe a year at best, based on previous reports), I’m surprised there were this many differences.

Long story short, after hours of hand wringing and admonishing myself for what I got myself into, I finally got the correct orientation and placement of plugs (I’ve since marked them with black marker so it can be redone in the future if need be) and have one seemingly perfectly working system with a full working keyboard (even the sporadic functionality in the first test is now gone). I’ll be sure to take plenty of photos of at least the one unassembled unit, though I’m not sure it will be realistic for me to do it to the working one (it’s almost fully back together at this point).

This being my first live exposure to a working VideoBrain, I must say a few things struck me about it. First, the RF output seems to be pretty crystal clear, which fans of the APF IM, Timex Sinclair 2068, and many other systems know is a major accomplishment. Second, I’m very impressed by the graphics and sound, keeping in mind the late 1977 release of this system—the only other comparable system with color graphics and sound was the Apple II, and the VideoBrain definitely has the Apple II beat in core sound capabilities. Added to the fact that this is the first ever cartridge-based computer AND it has four joystick ports, it was an amazingly forward looking design (of course the keyboard layout is garbage, but it does have full stroke keys). As is typical for VIDEOGAME consoles of the time, it also seems that the games (I only briefly tried its top game – Gladiator) come with many variations on the one cartridge. There’s even music on the title screen (at least on Gladiator). Again, impressive stuff. Even the four built-in programs (again, comparable to say, the first programmable videogame console, the Fairchild Video Entertainment System, with which it shares some features) are interesting, consisting of text entry, clock, alarm and color bars.

I’ll try to post those photos soon, and hopefully can do a video look soon as well. I’m trying to acquire one cartridge that works with the Expander 1 to make sure that works, and then I’ll see about getting it into the hands of someone who can do a tear down and replicate it. After my testing with the VideoBrain is done, I’m moving on to my APF IM stuff, which is also long overdue…

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