Jay's blog

Vintage Computer Festival Midwest 18

I visited Vintage Computer Festival Midwest today. This is my second year attending.

Last year

When I visited last year, the theme was Commodore 64 as it was the 40th anniversary of the popular micro's release. It was thrilling and a little overwhelming. I spent a fair amount of money on a C64 with all the modern bells and whistles. It needs a little love to strengthen the video signal, but it's in great condition otherwise.

I'm embarrassed to say I haven't found the time to do the necessary repair, so the machine has been sitting atop my printer since I brought it home.

This year

I was a bit more disciplined with my spending this year and managed to only walk out with a commemorative t-shirt. That's not to say I didn't have a ton of fun though. Let me share some of my favorite experiences from this year's festival.

Flipper Slipper on a Spectravideo SV-328

I'd never heard of Spectravideo, nor Flipper Slipper before today. It was found, appropriately, at the "Obscure Computers" exhibit. Flipper Slipper is a Breakout-like game with an aquatic motif. Although the theme and elements were bizarre, the game controlled well and the twist of adding half circle paddles that can cause interesting ball physics was satisfying.

Flipper Slipper was also released for the ColecoVision. Although I can't attest that the ColecoVision version has the same fluent controls, it's probably an easier platform to emulate if you want to give the game a try.

The Emergency Alert System

The "Behind The Screens" table, returning from last year, caters to a niche but interesting subject. Featured were the hardware systems that generate automated cable channels like The Weather Channel and the Prevue Guide Channel, known as the TV Guide Channel on the cable package my parents had while I was growing up.

The part of the exhibit that I had the most fun with was the Emergency Alert System hardware. A camera was pointed at the attendees. It fed into a vintage character generator you could use to overlay text. That was then output on a CRT TV. It's a clever gimmick for people who want to write a custom message on a selfie of themselves on TV.

But within the loop was the EAS hardware. Next to the EAS box was a red telephone and an instruction card. By dialing a particular number, you were would choose a number corresponding to the type of emergency message you'd like to send, and record a voice message to be played during it. I chose "fire warning" and mumbled something about this being a test, just in case. Sure enough, those loud, familiar tone patterns played and an appropriate warning message appeared on the TV. I couldn't hear my message, but I'm sure it played and I just hadn't spoken loudly enough when I recorded it.

It was a thrilling experience to trigger an emergency alert, even if it was just on a single television. In retrospect, I wish I had chosen a different type of message. A storm or tornado warning would be the most relatable. I did spot a choice in the list for a nuclear power plant warning. That sounds dramatic. I didn't get a chance to read the list of types completely, so maybe I missed some interesting options.


Although I didn't linger at the OS/2 exhibit, I was glad to see it return from last year. The first computer my family owned ran OS/2, so it's a real blast of nostalgia for me. I've independently collected a few different OS/2 installation media and other memorabilia including a beautiful enamel pin. Any acknowledgement of OS/2 is enough to put a smile on my face.

A step switch demonstration

You may be surprised to find there's a significant number of telephony wonks at VCF Midwest. Apparently it's tradition to wire up a PBX private phone network that anyone can connect to if they bring a compatible device. Some machines are connected to host BBSes. Some connect automated phone systems, like the phone that was connected to the EAS I talked about earlier. Some people set up little Easter egg systems to encourage attendees to use wardialers to find them. It's a fascinating vintage computing subculture.

The exhibit that hosts the PBX hardware to power the phone system is "Shadytel MidWest Telephone CO", also returning from last year. The PBX system they employ is a vintage system from the 1970s, but it's already completely digital. However, the exhibit includes a two-phone demonstration of an older electro-mechanical step switch telephone exchange system. Here's a video with a very similar demonstration. It's impressively large with satisfying little movements and clicks. It feels very logical and elegant, given the technology available at the time of its creation. Chef's kiss, no notes.

Stuff for sale

Next year

I think VCF Midwest has outgrown its venue. It was a record attendance for the second year in a row. Things were awfully cramped.

I had an idea for more attendee engagement that I'd love if someone stole for next year. I was following the #vcfmw hashtag on Mastodon to see other people's pictures of cool stuff. Why not encourage attendees to use the hashtag with a little signage and hook up a vintage computer to a large monitor or a projector and display people's messages?

DOStodon on a Pentium would be a good choice since it has some image support. There's also a FujiNet Mastodon app that works on the big 3 micros: Apple ][, C64, and Atari 8-bits.

I hope to see you there next year!