Friday, March 07, 2008

more retrocomputing: procedural graphics languages!

One of my first online experiences -- and probably the first for a lot of people, came in the form of Prodigy, over dialup, on an old DOS box. At the time, Prodigy wasn't an ISP as such -- it was an insular online community, with its own exclusive content and games and message boards and email. Of course, this model wasn't sustainable forever...

But! The interesting thing about Prodigy was the graphics. It was clear, at the time, that it wasn't downloading "images" as such -- y'know, like raster graphics -- it was drawing in terms of commands that would build pictures out of shapes. This was kind of cool; the dialup link was slow enough that you could see it building the picture, usually bigger background shapes first, then the details would get filled in. It occurs to me now that it must have been somebody's job to work out how to draw pictures like this...

It turns out that Prodigy was using the standard language for this: NAPLPS, the North American Presentation Level Protocol Syntax. And there were several other services that used the same approach -- some of them sent the commands over modems, like Prodigy, but some went over TV, during that mystical vertical blanking interval that broadcast engineers talk about.

Speaking of sending non-raster graphics down the wire: did you know that there's a set of drawing commands understood by some DEC terminals? It's true. It's called ReGIS. At one point, Brett and I got our hands on some old DEC terminals and spent a few afternoons messing around with this on something that must've been a vt340 or vt420. You can find out all sorts of wonderful things about DEC terminals at the super-top-notch These things seem to be indestructable; I held on to the vt220 for years, passing the joy forward sometime in college; it was still chatting amiably over the serial port on my Linux box, and almost as old as I was.

That's all for now. Happy hacking!

1 comment:

samarin said...

Here some example screenshots (straight from the past!):