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Tech journalism time capsule: the wonderful world of 1996 computing

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Memento obsolescere

I write a decent amount about old technology for The Verge, which means wading through reams of newspaper scans, early web pages, and magazine back issues. It also means finding buried articles full of references to controversies I’ve never heard of, products I’ve forgotten about, and once-revolutionary ideas that are now either commonplace or discredited.

There’s something bittersweet about finding these. They remind me that this is the fate of 99 percent of my work, and that's in a best-case scenario. At some point, though, it became the goal to which I actively aspire. I want a holo-blogger from 2035 to mind-type "virtual reality" into the historo-archivenet and understand that there was a five-minute game about standing in one place and throwing bullets at poorly-simulated humans, and that it was made by people who talked to each other on videophones with giant black boxes strapped to their foreheads. And no matter how silly that sounds, it mattered.

Some of my finds go into actual stories, but today I’m just going to throw up a few recently discovered excerpts verbatim, with a few bonus ads. I got these from a dive through the fairly down-to-earth PC Magazine’s archives, so they’re less wildly and vaguely futuristic than, say, The Wall Street Journal comparing VR to drugs. But that’s part of what I like about them — these were practical things for everyday computing. Sort of.

PC Magazine

"For families that want to combine entertainment with computing"

PC Magazine, December 1996

The built-in television tuner included with both machines lets you hook up for full-screen or partial-screen TV. With the latter you can simultaneously watch television and run regular computer applications — totally in conformance with kids' universal belief that you can't do homework without entertainment to keep you in your seat. With this unit, they'll be able to run MTV in a small screen while working on an expository essay or doing research on the Web.

No camera is included in the system price for the Packard Bells, but you can connect your own camcorder to the PC (without a camera, any videoconferencing you do is receive-only), whether you videoconference using VDOnet's VDOPhone over standard phone lines or VocalTec's InternetPhone over the Internet (a 33.6/14.4-Kbps modem is included.) You can use VDOPhone in conjunction with a VCR, so friends can watch the same movie with the signal coming over the telephone or the internet.

This is from a review of the Packard Bell Platinum 60 and Platinum Pro 755 desktops. My memory of ‘90s computing is shaky enough that I keep wondering if playing movies over VoIP was actually a common thing, and a dozen people will email me to talk about their great PC/antenna/VCR/webcam setup. That doesn’t make it easier to imagine friends watching VHS tapes together by — based on my probably imperfect interpretation — streaming them over a phone network using videoconferencing software. (Incidentally, the inflation-adjusted price for the "mid-range" computer here was $3,500.) Maybe living in an age of abundant digital media has just made me soft.

PC Magazine

"VR headsets: ready for prime time?"

PC Magazine, June 1996

Resembling something out of Rollerball, the VFX-1 has a unique flip-up visor that lets you view the real world without removing the headset. Flip the visor down and you are totally immersed in your virtual environment. The visor contains a pair of adjustable color LCD eyepieces. The headset also includes stereo headphones but lacks a volume control.

Installing the VFX-1 was relatively easy, even though this was the only headset that required its own interface card. Once the card is installed, you must attach it to your video and sound cards using the included cables. The VFX-1's setup utility allows you to calibrate the head tracking (which changes your point of view in a game based on your head movements), test the CyberPuck controller (described below), and adjust the optics for optimum viewing. The manual is well-written and contains two pages on how to use the VFX-1 safely.

The ‘90s often gets stereotyped as a time when everyone was amazed by and credulous of virtual reality, but the PC Magazine house style makes its review of the VFX-1 headset (along with the CyberMaxx 2.0 and Virtual i-Glasses) sound delightfully unimpressed. "Yeah, you’re totally immersed, whatever. Let’s talk about cables." It’s what’s not mentioned that feels off, like the weirdness of a gaming accessory needing two pages of unspecified safety instructions. Or the total lack of reference to motion sickness, now accepted as one of VR gaming’s biggest problems. Or the fact that a virtual reality headset gets compared to something out of a science fiction movie, but not only is it neither The Lawnmower Man nor Johnny Mnemonic, it’s a film that has absolutely nothing to do with virtual reality.

PC Magazine

"A guide to robots, spiders, and the other shadowy denizens of the Web"

PC Magazine, July 1996

If you maintain a site on the World Wide Web, have you ever been "hit" repeatedly by a user who downloads tens, perhaps hundreds, of documents in rapid-fire succession? If so, your site may have been visited by a program that savvy surfers refer to as a robot, a spider, a wanderer, a Web walker, or a Web agent.

Robots are automated programs, and spiders are a type of robot that continually crawls the web, jumping from one page to another to gather statistics about the Web itself or build centralized databases indexing the Web's content. Alta Vista, Lycos, OpenText, WebCrawler, and other popular Internet search sites use spiders to build Web indexes. These let users easily locate every Web page containing information about, say, the MD5 Message Digest Algorithm or tourism in the Canary Islands.

The surface-level nostalgia here is that yes, a lot of search engines existed in 1996 that do not exist today. But I feel about this column the way some people must feel about photos from the ‘50s: everything seems so simple. The web is comprehensible enough that you could talk about locating "every" page about a topic. Its "shadowy denizens" are overenthusiastic scraping tools. You coded a website with your own two hands, building a sturdy robots.txt fence to keep the rogue bots out.

Obviously, this is about as accurate as praising the morally upright ‘50s, because the ‘90s web was plenty complicated and shadowy. I just want to feel like there’s some perfect state we could go back to, before the internet got huge and dark, while feeling a little more sophisticated for living in the decadent future. I'll console myself with the probability that in 20 years, someone will think all our writing about memes and chans is adorable.

PC Magazine