Thursday, February 05, 2015

A Deep Dive: the Velocity Manufacturing Simulation

In 1989 I graduated from the College of Wooster and then spent a year as an intern with Academic Computing Services there, writing newsletters and little software tools. In the summer of 1990 I moved to Ann Arbor, without a clear idea what I was going to do next.

I worked for a short while with the Department of Anthropology, but by the end of 1990, I had found a job with the Office of Instructional Technology.

OIT was sort of the University's answer to the MIT Media Lab. It was an organization where instructional designers, programmers, and faculty members could work together on projects to bring technology into classrooms. It was a pretty remarkable workplace, and although it is long gone, I am truly grateful for the varied experiences I had there. It was the early days of computer multimedia, a sort of wild west of platforms and tools, and I learned a lot.

In January of 1993 my girlfriend and her parents visited my two workplaces, OIT headquarters and the Instructional Technology Lab, a site in the Chemistry building. I handed my girlfriend a video camera and proceeded to give a very boring little talk to her, and her extremely patient parents. Wow, I was a geek. I'd like to think my social skills and ability to make eye contact are a lot better now, but I probably haven't changed as much as I imagine that I have. I'm an extraverted geek now: when I am having a conversation with you, I can stare at your shoes.

I have carried the original analog Hi-8 videocassette around through many moves, and life changes, and only today figured out a good way to get it into my computer -- after giving the camcorder heads a very thorough cleaning. I thought the tape was pretty much a lost cause, and was going to try working with my last-ditch backup, a dub to VHS tape, but I'm pleased to learn that the video is still playable, and pleased that I could finally get this made, such as it is.

This project, the Velocity Manufacturing Simulation, was written in Visual BASIC, long before it became VB.NET. I remember that it involved a fair amount of code, although I don't have the source to look at. I remember painstakingly writing code for GUI elements like the animated disclosure triangles. There was some kind of custom controls library we bought separately; the details escape me. There was some kind of ODBC (maybe?) database plug-in that I can barely recall; I think Pete did most of the work on that part. Pete wrote parts of it, and I wrote parts of it. Now it seems almost laughably primitive, but you'll just have to take my word for it that back in the day it seemed pretty cool. It won an award. As far as I know, this is the only video footage of the project.

The code is 147 years old in Internet years. It was almost half my lifetime ago. But at the same time it seems like I just left that office, and somehow if I could figure out where it was, I could still go back and find everyone there in the conference room having lunch, and after lunch settle back into my old office with the vintage, antique computers.

This was only one of several projects I worked on while I worked at OIT. I have some other bits of video for a few of them, but not all. I will get clips up for at least one more. I wish there was more tape, and better tape, even if the only one nostalgic about these projects is me.

Perhaps "enjoy" is the wrong word, but take a moment to remember what instructional multimedia was like, a few months before a group called NCSA released a program called Mosaic and the world started to hear about this exciting new thing called the World Wide Web... but grandpa's tired, kids, and that's a story for a different day.

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