Archive for April, 2019

Affordable — unlike the Apple II

April 15th, 2019 9:46 AM
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The Apple II was a turning point in the computer revolution, making spreadsheets and games available in an attractive, accessible fashion to
professionals and students everywhere. Garry Kasparaov called it "the last technological revolution", and many entrepreneurs and innovators have since tried to recapture that magic. But they aim is sometimes off in identifying what made the Apple II special.

Project BLUE is a robotic arm being developed in UC Berkeley’s Robot Learning Lab as part of the answer to the question, "How can AI change the robot design paradigm?"

After a three year effort across a multidisciplinary team of more than 15 researchers, we’ve designed, built, and tested BLUE — the Berkeley robot for Learning in Unstructured Environments. BLUE is a low-cost, high-performance robot that is intrinsically safe, developed from the ground up with ever-increasing Artificial Intelligence capabilities in mind.

MIT Technology Review reported news of BLUE's development, focusing on its affordable, low-cost nature. The headline for that story was "This may be the Apple II of AI-driven robot arms". The headline is derived from UC Berkeley postdoc Stephen McKinley saying, "Without a low-cost platform— an Apple II-type device— experimentation, trial and error, and productive research will continue to move slowly."

But the Apple II was never affordable. When it was first revealed 42 years ago, it cost $1,298 — the equivalent of $5,445 today. Compare that to the Commodore 64, which cost $595 in 1982, or $1,567 today. A consumder could buy almost four Commodore 64 computers for the cost of one Apple II — a leading factor why the Commodore 64 sold 12.5–17 million units, compared to the Apple II's 5–6 million.

Burt Ratan had it more accurate when he compared space tourism to the Apple II: something that affluent early adopters bought into. Whether it's a trip to the space station, a personal computer, or a robotic arm, investment in any early technology will pave the way for more affordable and innovative products. But when shooting to replicate the success of the Apple II, don't pretend that affordability is something your product it has in common.

Another look at the Apple II player piano

April 8th, 2019 6:44 AM
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Filed under Hacks & mods, Software showcase;
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I know some classical musicians who are quite up in arms over virtual orchestras. Why hire a violinist or flautist to interpret your sheet music when you can simply set your composition software to flawlessly perform your digital score?

This is not a new phenomenon: the player piano, invented in 1895, requires no human operator, either. The last time I saw such an instrument was at Hildene, the summer home of Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert. The estate's player organ boasts an extensive collection of vintage music scrolls, most of which are now too brittle to be used. But to keep the organ fed, it has been modified with a USB port through which the scrolls' digital equivalents can be loaded.

This isn't the first time player piano and computer technologies have been integrated. In the 1980s, the Apple II often played a critical role in creating music for these automated performers, as seen in this profile.

The Apple II has only a brief visual cameo and little mention in the narration. But fear not! A more exhaustive look at the Apple II can be seen in a similar video I shared here eight years ago.

Pianos don't need computers to make music; and, with the power of MIDI, computers don't need pianos. But no matter the era, the two together are an inimitable duet.

(Hat tip to rryland on reddit)

Razer's Min-Liang Tan

April 1st, 2019 12:20 PM
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Filed under Game trail, Mainstream coverage;
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Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are well-known developers of game consoles — but some players prefer to interface with those devices with third-party peripherals. When they do, Razer is one of the go-to manufacturers of controllers, keyboards, and mice. Razer is also yet another modern game company that might not exist if not for the Apple II, which got 41-year-old Razer founder Min-Liang Tan hooked on gaming. He waxed eloquent about these classic games in this recent interview with Abacus News.

Tan got his start on Lode Runner and Rescue Raiders, but he specifically called out Ultima IV's virtue system as being groundbreaking. "All of a sudden, it wasn't just about hack and slash and killing everything. You need some kind of a moral code."

I'm not familiar with the Apple II's adoption rate in Tan's native Singapore, but it apparently made its way into Tan's hands when it mattered most. As far as I know, Tan never developed hardware or software for the Apple II, unlike Steve Chiang, the current Executive Vice President of Worldwide Production and Studios at Warner Bros. Games. But that he remembers those classic titles all these decades later and cites them among his favorites is a testament to the influence and staying power of Apple II games.

Maybe we'll see Razer developing new Apple II joysticks next!