The atmosphere in the retro gaming room was certainly warm (those games consoles churn out quite some heat) and lively with The Beatles Rock Band being played on stage with a projector and speakers. In one corner was a Sinclair C5 in which you could sit and have your photo taken for £1. As well as the usual old and new Nintendo and Sony consoles and a host of Spectrums and Amigas there were some quirky old machines like the bright orange Nintendo Block Kuzushi (a Japanese bat and ball game with a rotary dial to move the bat) and the Virtual Boy (a console for people who like expensive migraines).
A Panasonic 3DO console caught my eye as there was a copy of Star Fighter available to play. This port from the Archimedes was developed by Krisalis and wasn't something I had ever seen running before. It was possible to compare this souped up version to the original running on an A3010 in the other room. Naturally I had a go - it felt remarkably similar to the Acorn version in terms of how the plane handled and I was happy that I had retained the skills to dock with the mothership despite not playing the game for about 10 years. The main changes were how weapons were selected, the isometric map and a lack of shop. Some more advanced graphical effects like mountains and rippling water were nice but didn't really add to the gameplay.
Over in Acorn World there was a mixture of old and new. In the far corner was a collection of RISC OS computers and emulators including a Risc PC rocket ship fitted with a pizza oven. Sadly this wasn't running but considering the number of BBC Micros emitting noxious fumes elsewhere in the room it seemed sensible to avoid further fire hazards!
Paul Stewart's home-brew laptop was on display again. He's made quite a few enhancements since I saw it at Wakefield last year: there's a larger 15" monitor and a CD drive. The aluminium suitcase has been replaced by a more conventional looking case - glossy black but rather battered around the edges. He mostly uses it just at home but plans to take it out more when it's complete. I asked him about his plans for his new online PDF magazine called Drag and Drop. Work is ongoing and he hopes to get the first issue out in the next month or so. He has no plans for printed copies; he wants to avoid the printing issues which have plagued other RISC OS magazines in the past and he likes to provide clickable links in the content. It will be produced almost entirely on RISC OS.
Nearby was the BBC Domesday machine, ably maintained and demonstrated by Joel Rowbottom. The Domesday system seems to never lose its magic - whenever I see it at these shows it is always surrounded by an eager queue of people wanting to look up their home town. Invariably they find some little treasure of information that would otherwise have been lost. Absolutely captivating. I was sorry to hear that the Domesday 1986 site had gone offline following the untimely death of its author and maintainer, Adrian Pearce. Plans are afoot to make it accessible again, possibly using an online BBC Micro emulator or as a Google Maps mashup. Both of these are very exciting projects - the emulator would really show how early multimedia programs operated, and the Google Maps mashup could provide a whole host of exciting new possibilities. I'm really tempted to write an iPhone app to use it - imagine being able to travel anywhere in the UK and hit a button to see how it looked 25 years ago!
Other nutty delights included an Acorn Electron reimplemented on an FPGA (I'd love somebody to mod their Omega with this!) - apparently the most time consuming step was getting the 6502 processor working (the design was downloaded from the internet). I also saw a BBC Master hosting an ARM 7 processor.
Retro Software were there in force with a range of new titles including The Krystal Connection and Zap which you could actually buy on disk or cassette to run on your BBC! The packaging looked great and it was very reminiscent of the classic Superior Software titles. Speaking of which, you could buy large prints of the artwork for Superior games such as Ravenskull, Codename Droid and Repton 3. Retro are also developing games for the Android mobile platform, handing out free fluffy balls with goggly eyes to promote their new Mole Miner game.
Acorn World shared the room with the presentation theatre. The main presentation of interest to Acorn users on the Saturday was the Q and A session with Kenton Price, Jamie Woodhouse and Matthew Atkinson.
Kenton was infamous for writing a Repton clone called Ripton which I'd not come across until today. He wrote it when he was 16 (and some of the humour in the game shows that!) following delays with the official Repton 3 release. It was submitted to A&B Computing but they rather wisely decided not to publish it. There was great rivalry between A+B and Superior back in the day although looking back now Kenton and Matthew aren't really sure why. Kenton went on to talk about Mole Miner which - quite bizarrely - has 36 sound samples of Nicholas Parsons (who was kind enough to record them especially for the game last month in Edinburgh).
Next up, Jamie Woodhouse talked about releasing Zap - a brand new old title that has been sitting in a disk box for 25 years. He also wrote Qwak which appeared on a Play It Again Sam compilation for the BBC and Electron (I remember playing this game lots when it came out). He later released it for the Game Boy Advance. This was self published after sometimes feeling disgruntled with publishers and wanting more freedom.
Matthew Atkinson was a prolific Acorn game programmer who was responsible for Repton 3 and UIM. When Superior asked him to write Repton 3 he had no idea how successful the series would become. It's amazing that they are still being played today. He described a game based upon the Cadbury's Milk Tray adverts called 'And All Because'. Superior were keen to break into new markets and Cadbury were keen to licence it. Sadly halfway through development the marketing team decided against it as they wanted to head upmarket and not be associated with games.
I had an interesting talk with Jason Fitzpatrick from The Centre of Computing History. He'd been working on the forthcoming Micro Men documentary for BBC Four and had been tasked with finding appropriate computers and magazine advertisements to be shown onscreen. He was on set during filming to ensure that the computers behaved themselves (unfortunately during one take the power supply for BBC Micro blew up resulting in authentic but unwanted black smoke) - the Centre had even modified a Beeb to become a prototype Proton. It was all quite hectic but he hopes they've managed to keep everything looking authentic.
Sunday was quieter around the stands and the real focus was on the presentations. Unfortunately I arrived too late for the first impromptu talk from Mel Pullen, a contractor at Acorn who engineered the Teletext and Prestel adaptors. In the afternoon the second talk was by Robert Sprowson who was representing RISC OS Open Ltd. He began with a brief history of Acorn and RISC OS (not quite managing 31 years in 31 seconds but a good attempt!) leading on to the founding of ROOL and the current state of development. He compared the efforts of 30,000 Microsoft OS programmers to around 100 at Acorn to effectively just one - The Icon Bar's very own Jeffrey Lee - working on the port to the Beagle Board. He also showed us a slide of the Iyonix ROM image - literally a bitmap image made of the raw data - and pointed out the bits that he had worked on. Releasing the source code isn't just a case of uploading a CVS repository to the internet; great care has to be taken to remove commercially sensitive sections and some fruity words in the comments.
He was careful about the situation between ROOL and RISC OS Ltd, understanding that ROL are a commercial (though not for profit) organisation who need to sell products. The general aim to converge APIs is a "lofty goal". Questions were asked about the shared source licence granted by Castle and whether it would discourage developers from contributing. It was also unclear how much Castle would charge per licence if a commercial product was to be released using RISC OS. The cheapest option would be to sell the hardware (such as a Beagle based netbook) and let the end user download and install the ROM image themselves (much as happens with Linux in the desktop world today). Someone from the audience suggested that RISC OS could supplant the terrible Windows Mobile OS, but Rob said that even if RISC OS could be ported to such a device, there would still be a huge amount of work creating all the applications to run on it (such as phone diallers and text messaging).
The final presentation was by Steve Furber; now Professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Manchester, he was famous here for his work on the BBC Micro and ARM processors. His talk was about the heritage of the BBC Micro, and he joked that the audience members - still living in the past - would know or remember more about the topic than he did. Back in the day, Steve worked for the Cambridge Processor Unit who were helping fruit machines make the transition from purely mechanical devices to computerised systems. Acorn started as a trading name (quite possibly chosen because it came before Apple in the telephone directory) but eventually became the company's full name.
Steve talked in detail about some of the engineering challenges they encountered when designing the BBC Micro and the limitations of other processors when looking to build its successor. After disregarding chips like the 32016 and 68000, and encouraged by Herman Hauser's belief that silicon design was crucial to the success of the company, Acorn set about creating their own. The main problem was this: nobody in small companies designed processors because big corporations spent millions getting them wrong. So it was with some surprise that he and Sophie Wilson discovered that the Western Design Centre in California was not a grand building but a small bungalow on the edge of town filled with Apple IIs and populated by students. This gave them the confidence to design their own RISC chip and the rest is history.
Interestingly, the ARM chip was designed and tested on a BBC micro. Steve recently found the ARM reference model - coded in BBC Basic and only 808 lines long - on a disk in his garage. This was deeper than an emulator (which only has to mimic the processor at an instruction level) and it turned out to be important evidence for several ongoing patent defence cases in America. (It also means you won't find it free to download on a web site any time soon). Having no money and no people kept the ARM design simple. Even the power consumption was a happy accident: without being able to accurately measure the power consumption they managed to stay well under the target of 1 watt - by a factor of ten!
There was immense public interest in microcomputers in the early 1980s and the BBC gave Acorn a trustworthy reputation. Similarly when wanting to spin off ARM Ltd as a separate company it was Apple (who wanted the ARM chip for their Newton) who made the company credible. Now all the ARM processors produced to date have more combined computing power than all other processors put together. Steve then talked about his recent projects and plans. He is working on SpinNaker, a multiprocessor computer built using thousands of ARM 9s yet offering only around 1% of the capacity of the human brain.
Overall it was a fascinating weekend. It was sometimes hard to differentiate exhibitors from guests - but maybe that didn't matter; everyone could just get on and chat about what they were interested in. It was obvious that everyone had put a lot of effort in to organising the event (not least carrying all the heavy equipment upstairs!) There was a nice friendly atmosphere and it was great to be able to just go up to any machine and play with it. The crowd seemed quite different from the Wakefield shows - a reasonably younger crowd, perhaps including quite a few people who were probably too young to see all this when it was new. Here's to the next 25 years!
Joel Rowbottom's show report
Group photo taken at the end of the show
Retro Reunited as it happened on Twitter
Acorn World video