Jeri Ellsworth of Tilt Five

October 14th, 2019 8:51 AM
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Sometimes, Apple II users have ambitions bigger than their humble retrocomputers. Steve Chiang went to work at Zynga and Warner Bros. Richard Garriott flew into space.

And now, Jeri Ellsworth is setting out to redefine reality with Tilt Five.

Jeri's mixed reality rig is impressive in its own right. But it's all the cooler due to Jeri being an Apple II rockstar, too… Well, maybe more Commodore 64.

But she was a cover story for Juiced.GS, too!

Jeri Ellsworth on cover of Juiced.GS

Doug Cuff's interview with Jeri opens:

She's a self-confessed hardware nerd, and she has a mission. She wants to rebuild one of the most popular and beloved microcomputers of the 1980s: the Commodore 64.

On the way, she's going to be a big help to the Apple II. But even if she wasn't, you would still want to pay homage to Jeri Ellsworth.

When she was 16, Jeri Ellsworth was playing with her Commodore 64, and she wanted it to have more colors. (Just as with the Apple II, people mentally dismissed the C-64 long before production stopped. The last C-64 rolled off the production line in 1992.)

By the time she had explored the idea of improving on the C-64's hardware, Jeri wanted to create a C-64 on a single chip. She liked the idea of a C-64 palmtop. And she was still being driven by forces that most of us can understand: she wanted to play all her old games, and at the same time, she wanted them to have better graphics.

Jeri is also an alumna of KansasFest, Vintage Computer Festival East, and the JoCoCruise, at all of which our paths have crossed.

Tilt Five's Kickstarter was the latest opportunity for me to intersect with Jeri, as her project was a perfect fit for my monthly gaming podcast, Polygamer. Our hour-long chat (with a few opening and closing remarks about the Apple II) aired last week.

It was a pleasure to catch up with Jeri. It was also completely unsurprising to discovery she is as much an ambitious yet humble geek as ever. I didn't feel like I was talking to someone who had outgrown the Apple II; rather, it was two old friends picking up right where we left off.

Jeri asked that I not air the video of us singing karaoke. In truth, no such video exists —  but there is video of her beating me badly at arm wrestling. So really, even if I did have any dirt on Jeri, I'd be highly incentivized to keep it to myself!

Steve Wozniak interviewed in 1982

October 8th, 2018 10:33 AM
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Steve Wozniak has given many interviews about the old days of inventing the Apple II and working with Steve Jobs. But back when the old days weren't yet old, Woz was interviewed by Michael Harrison, who hosted the Harrison's Mic talk radio show on KMET in Los Angeles, 1975–1986. Harrison has since transitioned from radio to podcast, and he's now re-aired this 1982 interview as an episode of his podcast, The Michael Harrison Interview. The episode is 33 minutes long, with the 1982 interview beginning at 4:49. It's a fascinating opportunity to draw parallels between Woz's observations and predictions, and the culture that eventually arose.

The Michael Harrison Interview on PodcastOne

Woz wastes no time in sharing his insights into how the Apple II created a new generation of entrepreneurs:

It's really amazing to find how many 16-year-olds in high school right now are making more money than even anybody's parents in the schools are making… They've gone and written a program for a personal computer, like a game, a popular game, or a Rubik's cube program, or a chess program, and they'll market it through some of the companies that have sprung up to sell these programs, and good ones sell like hotcake… I don't know a single one that's as old as I. I'm 32. All the very popular names that are coming up, they're almost all 16, 18.

This echoes Tim Enwall at Misty Robotics, who recently attributed the success of the Apple II to this third-party innovation:

Apple didn't create or find VisiCalc. Based on the Apple II providing a relatively affordable, sufficiently powerful, and easily enough programmed platform, VisiCalc found it.

Woz also predicted the ubiquity of personal computers:

Harrison: Do you see that spreading to all of society in 10–20 years, where we're all going to become electronics freaks?

Woz: Oh, no. No. Not at all… We all have TVs. We all have Hi-Fis. And we're not TV freaks or Hi-Fi freaks or car freaks. But there's going to be a lot more exposure to it. It'll be commonplace.

This is the same thing Leigh Alexander meant during GamerGate when she wrote, "'Gamers' don't have to be your audience. 'Gamers' are over." — not that an audience or culture was dead, but that it had become so pervasive as to be meaningless. We can all enjoy a good game, computer, or recipe without being a programmer, engineer, or chef; you don't have to understand what's happening under the hood to appreciate the results.

Speaking of electronic games, Woz expressed some concerns about this emerging medium:

It's great when it's fun and it's a game, but you can get very intense into it, just like some people get into football very intensely and wind up hitting the TV set. When you take a game very seriously, it can be very addicting and result in a lot of negative behavior… We don't have any evidence, but we know it. We know that it's a problem.

I was surprised and disappointed to hear Woz take such a strong stance while admitting there's no evidence to support it. We live in a society that often ignores or contradicts scientific evidence when it contradicts our "common sense". Of course, at the dawn of personal computing, there was little evidence one way or the other; nowadays, I hope any opinion Woz has now was arrived after reviewing the available resources.

Did you learn anything new in this interview? Was the Woz of 1982 much different from the Woz of today? Leave a comment with your reactions below!

(Hat tip to Talkers)

Speech synthesis on the Apple II

July 23rd, 2018 9:16 AM
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Earlier this year, I interviewed Joseph Bein of Out of Sight Games. As a visually impaired gamer, Joseph finds some games more accessible than others; but as a game developer, he encounters other challenges I'd never even considered. Are game development tools themselves accessible? How do we make them so?

Interviewing Joseph made it apparent that computers can cause problems for those seeking easy access to technology and media — but another podcast showcased how they can also solve a lot of problems. The Apple II was one of the pioneers in that department, courtesy the Echo II speech synthesis expansion card. One early beneficiary of the Echo II was Dr. Robert Carter, a podcaster who himself was recently interviewed on the podcast Background Mode, a publication of The Mac Observer.

From the show notes:

Dr. Robert Carter is a Ph.D. Psychologist at Texas A&M, a long-time Apple enthusiast, and the co-host of the Tech Doctor podcast. He's very well versed in assistive technologies, having been blind since birth. Robert tells an amazing story about he's coped with his disability through the years. It started with using a portable typewriter in grade school, discovering the Apple II at age 18 and a speech synthesizer plug-in card, and ultimately using Apple's extraordinary VoiceOver technology on the Mac—and now iPhone.

The Apple II connections in this podcast extend to both sides of the mic: host John Martellaro was the editor and publisher of Peelings II, "The Magazine of Apple Software Evaluation", back in the early 1980s.

I'd love to examine the accessibility features of the Apple II — both historical and modern — in a future issue of Juiced.GS. After listening to this podcast, I'm adding Dr. Carter to my list of primary resources!

Interactive fiction on Polygamer

October 3rd, 2016 10:28 AM
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Last summer, I explored interactive fiction in my biweekly podcast, IndieSider, when I interviewed Apple II user Wade Clarke about his Eamon-turned-Inform game, Leadlight Gamma. I enjoyed our discussion interactive fiction, one of these oldest forms of electronic entertainment, but it was only recently that I finally gave the medium the coverage it deserved on my other podcast, Polygamer.

Polygamer finally turned its focus to interactive fiction with this summer's founding of the non-profit Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation:

The Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF) helps ensure the ongoing maintenance, improvement, and preservation of the tools and services crucial to the creation and distribution of interactive fiction, as well as the development of new projects to foster the continued growth of this art form.

To discuss this important step in the development and preservation of text adventures, I spoke with IFTF co-founder Chris Klimas. That hour-long conversation can be heard in Polygamer #50:

Chris isn't just on the board of the IFTF; he's also the creator of Twine, an open-source storytelling engine. It and Inform are possibly the most popular modern tools for the creation of interactive fiction. Its accessible architecture has made game developers of those who previously considered themselves only storytellers,
removing the gatekeeping that has kept so many narratives from being shared. One of its most notable manifestations came from Zoë Quinn, a game developer who has also been on Polygamer, when she used Twine to create Depression Quest, one of the first entries in the emerging genre of empathy games.

My discussion with Chris ranged over all these topics and more: gatekeeping, education, crowdfunding, and the annual IFComp, which is currently underway. It was one of the most enjoyable episodes of Polygamer I've recorded in awhile, and even if we didn't directly discuss the Apple II, I'm confident that retrocomputing users will find it a fascinating discussion about the complexities and possibilities of a medium our platform helped give birth to.

For more discussion about IF and the IFTF, listen to Retro Computing Roundtable #136:

[Full disclosure: I have donated to the IFTF.]

Plangman on IndieSider

March 14th, 2016 11:03 AM
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Candidates for my biweekly IndieSider podcast can be difficult to come by. The show looks behind the scenes at the development of indie (self-published) computer and video games, of which there are many — the indie tag on software distribution platform Steam currently lists 7,391 titles, with more being added every day.

But I limit IndieSider to games that I like, so as to avoid an awkward conversation with a developer of "Why does your game suck?" I instead look for games that offer original experiences and progressive gameplay in genres that I like: action, adventure, puzzle, narrative. There's then an evaluation period where I test a game to determine if it'll be a good fit for the show.

The latest episode of IndieSider features a game that bypassed that evaluation entirely. No game has hit my sweet spot as neatly as Plangman, which caught my attention in the first two seconds of its trailer:

A platform game with the puzzle elements of Hangman and featuring what appeared to be the runner from Microsoft's Olympic Decathlon as the protagonist? Was this game somehow made for me?!

I was quick to get developer Ehren von Lehe on the phone for episode #39 of IndieSider. Through Facebook and Juiced.GS, I thought I knew almost all the major Apple II players out there. I was pleasantly surprised to discover Ehren's interest in the Apple II is as alive and well as any retrocomputing enthusiast. Plangman was inspired by watching his daughter play with his own Apple II, recently taken out of mothballs. The playable character is based on Captain Goodnight, not the Olympic decathlete. Ehren mentioned an Infocom documentary also played a role. Aha! Another fan of Jason Scott's GET LAMP. When I added that Jason had been the keynote speaker at an annual Apple II convention, Ehren asked, "Is that KansasFest?" It was almost as if Ehren and I had been members of the same community for years and had never met!

The resulting conversation can be heard in this audio podcast:

or this video

It's not unusual for my gaming pursuits to introduce me to people who got their start on the Apple II and who remember the platform fondly. It's unprecedented for me to encounter in that course someone who's actively keeping the Apple II alive through modern software development. If you want a retro aesthetic in a new game, I highly recommend you check out Plangman.

(Hat tip to Javy Gwaltney)

Steve Jobs dances to Jonathan Mann

January 25th, 2016 10:13 AM
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Jonathan Mann has been producing an original song every day for over seven years. That's 2,572 consecutive songs, a streak that's landed him in the book of Guinness World Records.

To create so many songs, Mann draws his inspiration from everywhere, especially pop culture. Apple is a popular source, producing not only one of my favorite songs, "That's Just the Woz", but also more infamously, "The iPhone Antenna Song"

Steve Jobs was never one to take criticism lightly, so you'd think this music video would've landed Mann on Apple's blacklist. Perversely, just the opposite happened: Apple opened their "Antennagate" press conference with Mann's music video.

What was it like when Mann got the call from Apple, seeking permission for this public performance of his critical work? And what could've motivated the mercurial Steve Jobs to own and embrace what he normally would see as a cruel jab?

In episode #7 of the podcast Welcome to Macintosh, host Mark Bramhill interviews Mann himself about his history with Apple products and the Apple community, his experience working with Apple to arrange this performance, and his theories as to why Jobs not only played his music, but danced to it.

Steve Jobs was a vision and a genius, and neither Apple nor the Apple II may ever have existed without him. Yet this genius was marred by incredible cruelty and apathy. In this episode, Mann puts himself in Jobs' shoes and imagines how Apple's co-founder might've felt to have the iPhone lambasted so mercilessly, and how Mann's music video might've reached past that into some human core of Jobs. It was a humanizing and empathetic perspective, and one I appreciated hearing. I recommend you listen to Mann's interview for a more complete picture of Steve Jobs.

(Full disclosure: I back Mann on Patreon)