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Maes

Computer Technology Retrofuturism

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While browsing through a bunch of old computer magazines (mostly the famous Greek magazine Pixel and some old PC Master issues), the thing that is more interesting to do -at least for me- is check out the various "Latest Gizmos from Japan/London" or "Glimpse into the future" type of articles or remarks.

Sure they are shit-old by now, but it's often interesting to see whether they "got it right", they were too optimistic, or totally missed certain developments.

Some common patterns:

  • Almost every prediction about the growing importance of optical media came true, although some were too optimistic (imagining holographic storage with "unlimited" capacities to be mainstream by now) or too limited (e.g. they imagined LaserDiscs to be in use, and store data like C64 tapes, with maybe a couple of 100-200 MB max!) Then again there had really been some abominations like pulsed audio data been recorded on special audio CDs for speccys and amsters...
  • CPU speeds and bit widths: CPU speed estimates were much more conservative, in the 100s of MHz max, as the GHz range didn't even surface outside of specialty radar/telco publications. Bit widths were expected to greatly exceed 64 bits by now (64-bit memory has been in use in IBM compatibles since the Pentium I, but CPU architecture is still largely 32 bit). More exotic predictions like commonplace 3-state logic by the mid 90s didn't become a reality.
  • Many estimates imagined the future "home computer" to be a sort of super-Amiga-like machine with dozens of custom chips and multiple CPUs, rather than increasing CPU speeds. This has only materialized for the GPUs and multi-core CPUs, as the tendency on PCs and Macs has been to use generic hardware, vs exotic custom chipsets in the 80s and early 90s.
  • Virtual reality was overhyped already from the late 80s. We're not commonly using VR cabins/enclosures or 3D goggles by now, so I'll call this one a definite strike. None predicted the use of specialized and cheap "pseudo 3D hardware" though (our everyday OpenGL and Direct3D video cards).
  • Almost none predicted that a Unix derivative would eventually emerge as a desktop OS (nor the whole GNU/FOSS thing). UNIX was touted in these magazines as an arcane, mysterious OS that only the most hardcore scientists in secret military bases ever used, and was absolutely unreachable, cost-wise, usability-wise and hardware-wise, for the average home or small office user, and would be like this forever. And yet, in the future, even home Macs use Unix!
  • A really wacky news item had Sir Clive Sinclair designing a clockless CPU (!) that would have an "equivalent speed of 200 MHz" (compared to Z80s and 68000s). Muuuuch later, I realized they were talking about an Asynchronous CPU, which is still something exotic and out of the reach of the many. Good going, Sire!
  • Internet and broadband home networking was largely missed. In the 80s, publications and aficionados hoped -at most- for slightly faster modems and more "BBS-like" services. In the early 90s....they were still hoping for the same things, maybe with more Compuserver/AOL like services. And then one day the Internet came. That one pretty much slipped everybody's attention.
Then again there were a lot of announcements for products that never made it to the market or made it after considerable alterations etc.

Post your own computer-related "retrofuturism" stories here.

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Bit widths were expected to greatly exceed 64 bits by now (64-bit memory has been in use in IBM compatibles since the Pentium I, but CPU architecture is still largely 32 bit). More exotic predictions like commonplace 3-state logic by the mid 90s didn't become a reality.


Only the data bus was 64-bits and I'm pretty sure even now most RAM types don't support true 64-bit addresses.

There also wasn't a big need for desktop applications to have more than 32-bits. 16 to 32 was a big move because of the flat memory model, but no one really saw the need for 32 to 64. There are 64/128 bit instructions with MMX/SSE, but those were made to aide software rendering in the mid 90's which was also the time GPUs started to appear, so again people stopped caring about 64-bit.

AMD is apparently(there isn't much info) creating a new 128/256 bit instruction set called VPX.

Internet and broadband home networking was largely missed.


The thing is even if you can physically send a couple Mbps through a cable, you still need a fast enough network card and processor to receive it. In an era where most embedded chips only had a clock speed of a few megahertz, this was likely impossible.

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Scet said:

The thing is even if you can physically send a couple Mbps through a cable, you still need a fast enough network card and processor to receive it. In an era where most embedded chips only had a clock speed of a few megahertz, this was likely impossible.


That, and they had no fucking clue that monstrosities such as Facebook and AJAX applications would emerge.

Scet said:

Only the data bus was 64-bits and I'm pretty sure even now most RAM types don't support true 64-bit addresses.


Yeah, should have specified that. This is also one of the reasons why a transition to 64-bit instruction sets WON'T give a speed increase: in the past the transition to 32-bit CPUs (e.g. 286 to 386, not counting 386 SX) or even from 8-bit Z80 to 16-bit 68000 meant that both the data and address bus became 32 or 16 bit, and the data bus and instruction set were those that mattered for speed. Often, a CPU would have a LARGER data bus or register width than was allowed by the memory config (e.g. 68000 had 32-bit registers and instructions, but only 16 bit data bus)

But what is happening today with x86 and x86-64 is quite anomalous in computer history: for the first time, the data bus has exceeded the CPU instruction set/register/address space width. We already have a 64-bit data bus ever since the Pentium I (nearing 15 years), so just transitioning to 64-bit instructions won't bring any speed increases this time (quite the opposite, it may add overhead for non-number crunching tasks).

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Maes said:

That, and they had no fucking clue that monstrosities such as Facebook and AJAX applications would emerge.


Well there was Geocities and MySpace with ActiveX, JavaScript, DHTML and CGI scripts. The web has always been a complete mess of various technologies that don't want to work together, it just keeps getting worse.

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Aye, but I hope I don't have to go through the hand motions of using my weapons. Using the SSG during a campaign of any significant length would get tiring.

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Us distance-runner videogamers will have an easier time of it. I can run 10 miles, so 10-20 minutes of VR gaming shouldn't be too difficult (If the actual running speed is less than half of the virtual running speed. Or just a DDR pad).
EDIT: About hand motions, I guess something like the wii zapper would be good, just holding a button. But I'd love a simple pump shotgun with no reloading.

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Maes said:

A really wacky news item had Sir Clive Sinclair designing a clockless CPU (!) that would have an "equivalent speed of 200 MHz" (compared to Z80s and 68000s). Muuuuch later, I realized they were talking about an Asynchronous CPU, which is still something exotic and out of the reach of the many. Good going, Sire!

Of course, he managed to throw almost all of his credibility in the eyes of the public away when he designed and tried to market the car for the future.



O_O

How on Earth did he think it would be a success?

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Mr. Freeze said:

I just want Virtual Reality to become real.

Imagine VR DooM. This time, you really ARE the demons.

I once had a dream that there was such a thing. Imagine my despair when I finally woke up. Also, the dream took place at the local arcade, which is no longer in existence. :(

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