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MTBS Interviews Syd Bolton, Personal Computer Museum


Neil Schneider (Left) and Syd Bolton, Curator of the Personal Computer Museum
at: EVOLUTION: 30 Years of Computer Games Exhibit in Toronto



Earlier this summer, I had the privilege of attending the EVOLUTION: 30 Years of Computer Games exhibit put on by Microsoft Games For Windows and The Personal Computer Museum. Syd Bolton joins us today to share information about his museum and some exciting things they are working on!


1. Tell us about the Personal Computer Museum - what got you interested in doing this, and how did you get it started?

I have been interested in computers from the age of 10, and I first experienced the phenomenon known as "computer dumping" when I was around 16 when I saw some people throwing out their first generation personal computers. I rescued them, thinking that at some point people would want to see them again to relive their fondest memories. I’ve now been collecting for over 20 years.


2. How many computers do you have? How did you acquire all this stuff?

It’s a good question, and unfortunately not even I have the answer. I’d estimate it to be between 300 to 400 machines but it’s quite difficult to say. Of course there are duplicates and we are working hard to catalog everything we do have. The computers come from my personal collection over the years, and has steadily been built by people donating their machines to us for inclusion in the museum collection.


3. Do you only keep computers? What other stuff will visitors find?

We have a TON of old software and the majority of what is out on display is boxed, original software from the day that people will remember fondly. We also have an impressive collection of old magazines from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s that is hovering around the 4,000 mark. We also have peripherals like modems, books, and even brochures and ads.


4. Which machines tend to be the biggest draws?

People tend to remember the Amiga, Commodore, and Atari machines the most. It really depends on the visitor though, because many were Radio Shack/Tandy aficionados or maybe they were Apple people. It just really depends!


5. How big is your software collection? Which classic games do attendees want to play most?

The original, boxed collection is reaching into the thousands of titles now - and overall, I would easily estimate we have software approaching or exceeding the tens of thousands. We often put games out since that is what many people did with their computers, so they love playing classics like Tetris and Space Invaders.


6. Out of all the computers, and looking at a historical time line,which machines do you think were the most innovative and marked key milestones in PC history?

The Amiga, by far, was the most impressive computer for its time. It far surpassed anything else on the market in terms of capabilities that it just doesn’t even sit right with other computers from the same time. Of course, the original IBM PC holds a special place because it beat out every other machine to become the grandfather of the most popular computers of today. Sadly, a lot of the innovation in computers is gone today so we don’t see advancements like the Amiga or innovations like the NEXT machine.


7. Just so members can wrap their mind around this, can you compare the processing power of your museum collection to that of a modern computer?

On our website, we have this thing called the "Face off!" that compares the interactive computers in the museum (around 42) and the numbers look like this:

Museum:

Number of Machines: 42
Speed (MHz): 305
Memory (KB): 105453
Mass Storage (MB): 3581

Modern Computer

Dell Dimension XPS 210
Number of Machines: 1
Speed (MHz): 1860
Memory (KB): 1048576
Mass Storage (MB): 320000

It’s quite the joke - we don’t even come close in any of the counts but the biggest difference is in mass storage as you can see!


8. Growing up, did you ever in your distant thoughts think that your favorite computers would be appropriate centerpieces in a museum? Why or why not?

Only when I hit the 16 mark - I declared "I’m going to have as many computers as I am old!" .... of course, I should be VERY old by now!


9. We met each other at the Games for Windows 30 Years of PC Gaming exhibit this summer. I don’t know about you, but I felt REALLY old by the time the night was done. However, I walked away with a sense that the games we grew up with will stand the tests of time - at least in memory - whereas modern video games with all their high quality graphics and immersive experiences don’t have the same staying power. Do you agree with this, why or why not?

I think it has more to do with associative memory than anything. Are the first three Star Wars movies so much better than the newer ones? The reality is that they were the first things we had encountered of that type, that made a bigger impact for that reason. For gaming, we had nothing else to compare it to so the first games that came out were just darn amazing but it’s all we had. They weren’t just good games, they were things that changed the way we thought about televisions and interactivity and ultimately - control. We had control over the images on the TV and that’s not
just something that could be taken lightly at the time, so I think people will really have fonder memories for their first gaming experiences over the ones today. On the flip side, I’m sure kids of today will remember their first games too with a fondness that will be similar. When they reach a certain age, the PS2 or Xbox will be remembered as the greatest thing ever.


10. What were your favorite video games growing up?

Dragon’s Lair sticks out in my mind because it was so amazing for the time. I also spent an awful lot of money on Star Castle and loved the classics like Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga. I also played a lot of Commodore 64 games like China Miner, Miner 2049’er and Choplifter!


11. I understand stereoscopic 3D has a place in your museum too. Can you share some info on some neat 3D devices of the past?

I think one of the most effective "old school" devices is the Sega Master System 3D gaming glasses. With classics like Outrun and Zaxxon that translate really well to 3-D you get quite the effect.


12. What’s your take on modern S-3D gaming - where do you think it will sit in PC or gaming history? Why? Can you compare it to another innovation?

I think it’s one of the better kept secrets in the industry. With the increase in awareness of S-3D gaming I think it will eventually become a more common thing. Even console games like Sly Cooper 3 have gotten into the act with the inclusion of anaglyph glasses, producing some of the games levels in 3-D that don’t require anything special other than the glasses. It gives players a unique perspective (literally) and opens the doors to what else is possible. As for another innovation - it’s kind of like talking about the mouse. Computers today are all faster, bigger and better but it’s technology like S-3D that make things fresh and exciting. I don’t know about you, but more pixels on a screen isn’t too exciting to me. When they leap out at you, however, that’s a completely different story.


13. From what I gather, your museum is more than just a museum - it’s a part of the community too. What help do you get to maintain and upgrade the museum on a regular basis?

Well we’ve got about twenty volunteers and a slew of "regular" visitors that come out. Beyond that, we’re starting to build an online community of people who love old computers as much as we do and are interested in preserving the past. Whether it’s donating hardware and software or working with us to enhance our electronic collection, a lot of people like getting involved and it really helps grow the museum!


14. Your wife has a fascination with 3D. Can you elaborate on what it is she enjoys collecting?

She has one of (if not the) biggest collection of 3D Puzzles out there. She is close to completing a collection of all the 3-D puzzles that Wrebbit has ever made (the company that pioneered the 3D puzzle) and she has a very popular website out there called puzz3d.org. She gets thousands of unique visitors every day!


15. I understand it’s not all fun and games because you have to set aside time for fun and games! ;=). Tell us about game night! What is it and how often is it held?

Three times a year I open up my house and the museum to people to play games all night. It’s become quite a hit and a social gathering unlike any other. Not just a lan party, we game on things current and old - a unique contrast.
Combine it with great food and drink and you’ve got a recipe for a great time.


16. How do you set your gaming parties apart from all the others? Can you name some things you have done to make game night interesting?

Because I have such a collection of machines to draw on - Sega, Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo, arcade machines, pinball, the list goes on - it makes it quite unique and not something you would find at too many places. We also
like taking different controllers and giving them a go. One time we had a 10-player Bomberman game.... we’ve also taking these physical fighting controllers (no wires required to activate the moves) and let people beat the crap out of each other virtually....and still break a mega-sweat.


17. We have a community of members who love to come up with crazy wacky contraptions for better game immersion and experiences. Can you share a story or two about some creative things you have done for game night?

I mentioned a couple in the last question, but some other things we’ve done is take 12 old Commodore monitors that are stacked on top of each other like a wall and connected 12 unique video games to them. Part of the fun is figuring out which screen you are in control of! We’ve also had the first Canadian unveiling of a Guitar Hero clone on the Commodore 64. That was unique and fun as well. Can you imagine - old meets new is perfectly displayed in that game!


18. What special equipment did you demonstrate this year? How was the response?

We actually showed a 22" iZ3D monitor during one of our game nights and there was quite a positive response. I would say the biggest response was "wow, I didn’t know anything like this even existed" which tells me that the community still needs to work hard in spreading the word. I know that is something that we will continue to do as I feel strongly about it. I also felt the inclusion of extra glasses made a big difference because gaming today isn’t always just a solitary experience - it’s nice when others can share it with you.


19. There have been a lot of gaming innovations over the years. More pixels on the screen, color depth, physics, frame rates, etc. Having experienced it firsthand, what makes S-3D so important or desirable compared to these other developments?

Well you have just described the "PC evolution" perfectly - faster, bigger, etc. It makes you wonder - is that all we’ve got? It’s unique gaming experiences like S-3D that make gaming more interesting fun and compelling. It’s more like a paradigm shift such as the mouse. Today, we couldn’t imagine our computer world without one but 30 years ago it was nothing more than a pest in the kitchen.


20. What’s the turn-out like for your parties? Why do you think they keep coming back? What makes it so special?

We’re getting close to 200 people at a time and I think it’s just one of those things that works with a combination of games and good food and most importantly - people. It’s such diversity from hard core gamers to casual,
young and old that you can’t help but have fun laughing at yourself and everyone else you end up meeting.


21. Is it true that you are trying to break a Guinness Book of World Records record with one of your parties? Please explain.



On September 13, 2008 (which happens to be the third anniversary of the Personal Computer Museum) we are attempting to set a new Guinness World Record for the Most Participants in a Tetris Tournament. Visitors will be
able to compete against each other in Tetris to achieve a high score, and the top 8 players will then face off against each other to get down to the best two players. After that- it’s a head on competition to find the best player! It all happens in Brantford, Ontario from 9am-4pm.


22. When is your museum next open for visitors?

We are open on September 13, 2008 and most Monday evenings. If someone is going to be in the area however, please contact us through the website and we’ll try and accommodate your visit by opening up for you!


23. Tragedy has struck and a fire has broken out in your museum. You have time to save just one computer: which one would it be and why? (and don’t say the one with your accounting software installed!)

Thanks for clearing that up! While my favorite computers tend to be Commodore machines, they are pretty popular and fairly easily replaced. I think I’d have to say the IMSAI computer since I’ve never seen another one like it in the wild so it’s probably our rarest machine and would be the one I’d tuck under my arms. Besides, it would work as a great firewall if it had to.



MTBS Caption Contest Image
(Sharky on His Simulator Chair)



24. Thanks for agreeing to judge our caption contest. Who won?

I think I have to go with "This thing shook so hard that the bodywork fell off" from user Tril. I loved the captions that people added with the balloons as well, very good everyone! It was tough coming up with just one that I liked the most.

25. If you added a caption, what would it have been?

Well I did actually have a bathroom comment, but I’m not sure your audience is ready for that. I might have said something like "At this speed, I’ll NEVER get to work"!


Well there we have it! Special thanks go to Syd Bolton of The Personal Computer Museum, and congratulations Tril! You have won yourself a copy of Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. Special thanks go to Games for Windows for making this possible.

Post your thoughts on this interview HERE.