My first computer was a BBC Micro. It could do basic graphics at a resolution of 640×256 – with 8 different colours. Not a typo. Eight! The mono speaker produced bleeps and bloops. It was basic, in all senses of the word.
Eventually, talented hackers found a way for it to do simplistic 3D graphics and even speech synthesis.
Recently, people have worked out a way to perform ray-tracing on it!
Include a 🚀 in your tweet run for 3 HOURS emulation time – 21 billion emulated 6502 cycles – and you'll get a screenshot reply in around a minute.
NB GXR ROM is disabled in this mode pic.twitter.com/XZut4o2RpO
— BBC Micro 🦉 Bot (@bbcmicrobot) November 1, 2020
The next computer our house got was the Sega Megadrive. The first game that console saw was, I think, Alex Kidd. A basic 2D platformer.
Sure, it was streets ahead of the Beeb, but the graphics weren’t amazing.
But, over the years, they got better. By the time the MegaDrive stopped getting new games in 1997, the graphics and audio available were utterly transformed. In eight years, we’d gone from a limited pallet 2D screen to this:
Stunning music, and liquid smooth 2D graphics with parallax and complex transformations.
Some enterprising hackers managed to get Wolfenstein 3D running on hardware which was originally intended for cheap side-scrollers.
And nothing about the console had changed. The tools used to create games had improved. The maths and algorithms had leapt ahead. And the ingenuity of the designers had increased. But the physical hardware was identical.
Once you understand a system – deeply understand – it can do things that its designers never thought possible. You can push hardware beyond its apparent limits.
We’re so spoiled today. Every week a newer, faster processor is released. Hardware gets cheaper and we can just throw more chips at the problem.
What would the world be like if that wasn’t the case? What if our progress in computer speed suddenly came to a stop? I think history shows us that we would be able to work around the restrictions to do things which seem impossible.
Even when machines break down, they can still be made to perform unexpected miracles. A billion-and-a-half kilometres away, the Voyager 2 probe broke down. Software instructions were sent which told the craft to do something it wasn’t intended to do. The craft was instructed to cycle its heating system in order to correct the flow of lubrication. All of a sudden its capabilities were upgraded and it was able to continue its mission for another half-century.
Mars is the only planet in the solar system which is entirely populated by robots from Planet Earth. Those robots aren’t receiving any hardware upgrades any time soon. But their software gets upgraded to allow their hardware to perform new tasks.
We don’t necessarily need faster, better hardware. We need more thoughtful, and more creative humans.