Craig's product in the time he was with Interphase

If you live in Canada, you may have heard of Craig Carmichael. Not necessarily because of his programming skills, but for some of the other things he has done in his life. Bit of a jack-of-all-trades here! Craig happened to email me out of the blue regarding the review of Viking Raider I have on my site, and I took the opportunity of asking him some more questions, especially ones regarding Interphase themselves as, let's face it, they weren't that well known a company.

First of all, a bit about yourself such as location, age (if it's not impolite!), job etc... up to you how much you want to divulge!

Born Jan 1 1955 in Edmonton Alberta, so I must be 50. Family moved to Vancouver Island (Fanny Bay) the week after I finished high school, June 1972. Took electronics at BCIT and specialized in digital electronics. Got one course in assembly language programming in the final quarter - on a 12-bit PDP-8. The 8080 came out just before I graduated in 1975. Worked for federal ministry of transport in communications electronics (air services then coast guard) from 1975 until 1979. Designed and built 3 computers from 1977 to 1982.

The third one was a 6809 (the ultimate 8/16-bit CPU!) with a video display chip. Turned out it was so similar to the Radio Shack "Color Computer" that I adapted Microsoft Color BASIC (hacking a few bytes of object code from the CoCo's ROMs) to run on it! Wrote a "Space Wars" game with 2 ships with thrusters and lasers, orbiting a star in the center. 4-button controllers gave L & R spin, thrust, and laser. Then I did another one with a dragon, a castle and something but I never finished it.

Then I wrote an article on "Software Sprites" for a magazine, "68-Micro journal" and they paid me some money for it! (It was hard earned!) In doing that, I borrowed somebody's CoCo and used their assembler because I figured nobody would be able to figure out the code from my assembler and actually get anything to work on a computer nobody had but me. I got my cassette interface to read and save CoCo format, but it was never my favourite!

Somebody saw my stuff and said if I could write software like that I'd make more money than he ever would! The obvious thing to do was to buy a CoCo. I wrote a game called Planet Conquest or something with a spaceship that had to soft-land on the surface to refuel and things that flew around to shoot at while you were airborne. The CoCo text screen was only 32 characters across, so I wrote a utility to print on a graphics screen (whopping 256 x 192 pixels, mono) and get 42, 51, 64 or 85 characters depending how few pixels wide and how little space if any you wanted between letters.

And I wrote what may have been the first "Paint" program of all time: "TV Graphics Editor". I later did a version 2 with way more features and double-screen-height virtual canvas so you could get a bigger print, but I never sold it. I thought Apple must have copied it when I saw their first "Macpaint" program on the first Macs a year later, but it may be more a case of similar functions having similar solutions.

I sold this trio of programs on cassette by mail through an ad in "Rainbow", a magazine for the CoCo. The ad contract I "inherited" from someone and it just ran 3 months.

I started work on Viking Raider with vector graphics and "paint" for scenery on the CoCo. Then Norm from Interphase saw Planet Conquest in a local store ("Compu-whiz") and asked if I wanted to work for them and do a game for C64. I wasn't very enthusiastic about programming 6502, but after a couple of months I decided to do it. That is covered below in the rest of the questions.

Shortly after Interphase, in fall 1985, I came up with a layout for a much improved typing keyboard. QWERTY was developed in 1872 and the key layout was made to prevent keys from jamming; essentially, the effect was to make the layout awkward and slow the typist down. Of course, keys don't jam or attach to levers at the top any more but computer manufacturers have been anything but innovative. They left it exactly the way it was, even though all the reasons for that were gone!

My keyboard was designed by analysis of letter frequency patterns and such like, and had the most used letters in the home row, SHIFT on the left thumb where you could easily hold it down while typing (with "SHIFT-Latch", where you just tap the shift key and then the next key is SHIFTed), a "TH" key for that super-common letter combo (Shift-Latch for "Th"), cursor move arrows in touch-typing positions, convenient delete just left of left pinkie, RETURN on the index finger in easy reach instead of on a far stretch of the pinkie to give you RSI, and basically made word processing much easier. I started from Dvorak's layout and improved it from there. Many of his letter placements weren't optimal and naturally he hadn't anticipated word processing of course, working in the 1930's, stuck with manual typewriters and with no computers to count letter combos and things, he was at a disadvantage. (The "Maltron" keyboard has very good letter placements, but there's nothing else very good about it no improvements to cursors, backspace, shift, TH, numbers... And expecting to sell it for a top-end price is no way to attract students!)

Craig's prototype version of his keyboard... looks remarkably similar design wise (if not letter placement wise) to a product we can buy today, doesn't it?

I've thought often about this keyboard and used it myself for many years, until my latest computer (ugh, some upgrade!) it has made me somewhat more productive all along in all my typing and programming endeavors. It's also faster to learn: vowel? Left hand home row. Consonant? Look on the right hand, home row for the most common. Some function? (cursor arrows, backspace, return...) check the left hand's periphery. And number locations that make sense to the fingers for touch-typing instead of to the eyes. I feel that it could be marketed by giving one away to each elementary school with a basic instructional booklet, and plug-in USB everywhere now would make it simple. Kids compare and choose for themselves, unbound by adult prejudices and prior training! In a few years, you'd hardly be able to give away a Qwerty keyboard as the improved layout would account for most new sales, though the ones in use would no doubt stay in use for a long time to come. But somehow, I've never materialized this plan. If anybody wants it, it's free! The photo is of probably the most ideal version mock-up.

Then I worked for the Greater Victoria School District and made them a computer to control heating and ventilation systems, outdoor lighting, bells and clocks in schools. That was 1985-89. At the same time, I made the "Aerovoice" computer for a guy that made an award-winning airplane (the Pegassus, 1st place, Oshkosh 1979). It had, you guessed it, 6809, video display for a tiny screen in the cockpit, SP-01 voice synthesizer, and hooked in several aircraft instruments. Worked fine, never went anywhere (except where the plane went!). It kept telling him he had a right magneto problem. Eventually he found there actually was an intermittent weak or missing spark - vindicated!

In January 1990 at work at the school district, I came up with the plan for a new, extensible OS. The original idea was for industrial control, but as I formulated the plans, I saw I had the makings of a much superior OS for general computing use. At first I called it OMEn, the Open Multi-tasking ENvironment, but people didn't seem to like that and I eventually changed it to Oases. By 1995 I had it written and had it running on Atari ST series, Macintosh and PCs using Gemulator Atari emulator. I worked on that one weekend with Derek Mihoka at his house in Seattle, where we gave Oases direct access to the PC hardware and ability to make DOS and BIOS calls. It ran exactly the same Oases software on every system; no different versions of a program were needed for Mac, Atari, PC, Amiga. Summer 1995 I pulled the plug on the school district to go all out on Oases. It was high time: I was mostly just doing computer repairs after 1990.

It was all set to go to beat uSoft Windows in 1996 when I had an extended period of ill health just when it needed to get known by potential supporters. I did more; there were some great apps including ePaper (that I still use), a combo desktop publisher and hyperlinked multi-media presentation software package that you could write live on screen books with, having slideshows, movies, sounds... on each "page". It also had features for quizzing and evaluating students for self-paced learning. There was the promise of being able to turn report cards from letter or percent grades into resumes of topic areas the student had mastered: better students could master more things. It was the magnum opus of my life, but somehow I never got it to go anywhere. I seemed to be my own worst enemy at promoting and marketing my stuff. I often get the impression that people don't take me seriously, and an OS is a hard thing for many to grasp as it sits mainly behind the scenes. The better it is, the more transparent it is and the less anyone actually sees of its operation, and Oases was excellent. You didn't serve the OS: it served you and made everything that could be made easy, easy.

I finally dropped Oases after a last, rather costly, promotional effort in 2002. And I decided that if the world didn't want my best, I wasn't going to work for some outfit writing schlock software for a schlock OS in schlocky C language, so I got out of programming altogether. This was very painful.

September 2003 I made a bore reamer and bought a lathe and began. Since then I have bought and made a lot of tools and invented many minor improvements to some instruments. I'm still working on them, and just now (March 2005) I finally have something worth selling. I feel that the Supercorder[TM] is better by design and is probably the only recorder one could play, for example, in an orchestra in place of a flute or oboe, or many other general musical applications.

In April 2004 I put on a concert of my music. A native Victoria composer, a new type of orchestra, original music. The most important newspaper didn't bother to print my notices like they said they would, and our classical-bent CBC radio, and our "oboy, local events" TV station, who one might hope for some publicity and support from, didn't bother with it either. My choice of a theatre wasn't good either. Nice theatre, but I hadn't counted on Victoria peoples' amazing reluctance to drive 12km to get to an event in a place they weren't used to going. Attendance was thus limited to my friends and relatives; so much for my grand premiere that I thought would be about the most interesting orchestral-style concert anyone could have attended that week! Those few who attended told me they loved it far beyond any call of duty to say "yes, that was nice!"

All in all, I've done a lot of cutting edge things and at 50 have very little to show for it!

What can you tell us about Interphase in general?

Started in 1983 by Norman Dick and Colin Foster. They wanted to write software so they brought in a guy Steven Wilie to be president. It was financed $1,000,000 by a guy called Adi who gave himself a good job in the company doing nothing much. Turned out most of the financing wasn't his own money anyway, but he was the one who brought it in. The "head office" was in Vancouver and the programming office was here in Victoria. Norm and Colin got pissed off because everybody went to the president, Steve, when they contacted the company and they were being left out of proceedings. Duh!

We had about 5-6 guys here (Colin, me, Nick Porcino, Blair, Leon, and someone else). Norm joined us occasionally but basically worked from home. One (can't remember his name) couldn't program well and was let go and another (Blair) must have started using drugs, perhaps because he wasn't doing too well either. Colin wrote Sewer Sam and something else. Norm wrote Blockade Runner. I remember the accountant (in Vancouver) was pretty hopeless. He applied for another job and they gave him a glowing reference to get rid of him!

Then they found the company was about broke! 3 or 4 games were finished including Viking Raider the very week the company ran out of money and the last pay deposits were rescinded from our bank accounts. They managed to keep the Vancouver office open by volunteers to package the games and get them on sale, but there were never any more games developed. After InterPhase the name was changed to Genetron where, Colin, Norm, Steven and Adi got into to doing depth sounders/fish finders. This company flew for a while, went public, then failed. The rest of us never came back after the layoff.

Norman did Blockade Runner and Colin did Sewer Sam for the Intellivision. Someone started on Blockade Runner for the Colecovision, but he couldn't get things going. He was let go and Colin finished it. Norm did Squish'em Sam for the Coleco. Then Norman and Colin did several games: Blockade Runner, Sewer Sam, Squish'em Sam, plus spreadsheet and work processor for a Japanese system called the MSX. It was a universal system made by all the big electronics companies in Japan: Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba (who we worked with) plus a host of others. That system did well for a couple of years until the IBM got popular (I remembers MSX, but didn't and still don't remember Interphase actually writing anything for it! We talked about doing Viking Raider for some Japanese system before I started it on the C64, but I'm not sure it was MSX).

Were you the only C64 programmer in the team, or was there someone else doing C64 stuff?

Everybody was doing C64 while I was there.

Do you have any idea why they decided to base the programming operations in Victoria when the company was essentially being run from Vancouver? Not exactly easy having the team on the island with the main base on the mainland!

The main players Norm and Colin were working for MDI (Mobile Data International) in Vancouver but wanted to get back to Victoria. But an island isn't a good place to operate an international business from, hence the Vancouver office for everything else.

Regarding any pictures, I remember the newspaper (the Times Colonist) was there one day and took a couple of pictures that were printed in the paper (none of me as I was in the downstairs room instead of the main upstairs room. Less distraction there!). If anything on the top (12th) floor of the Harbour Towers hotel can be called "downstairs"! Colin said he'd check with his wife for a copy of the paper, but that was sometime in late 1983 or early 1984 so don't hold your breath!

How easy was it to program on the Coco and then port it across to the C64?

For me, easier than trying to work directly on the 64. CoCo had a good fast floppy drive. I had my structured assembler and any crashes on the C64 didn't affect my source code - I could test things without having to go through the process of saving all my files and re-booting every time I went to run the game. Everybody else struggled away on their Commodores and got a lot less done. I think Nick had some sort of emulator, IIRC, but I don't remember it very well. I also had a cartridge I made to burn the EPROMs for the C64's cartridge port. With the development cartridge, the C64 booted running the interface to download data from the CoCo into memory, then you just hit a key to start Viking Raider, iirc.

Viking Raider came in an unusual pirate-restrictive package of cartridge and disk. For those who have not seen it (most of you reading this no doubt), you needed to plug the cart into the C64 and then load the game off the disk. What code was actually on the cartridge and what code was on the disk? Whose decision was it to do the game in this manner?

The reason it used both the disk and the cartridge was it used memory under the cartridge and on it as well. There weren't 32 bytes free anywhere when it was done. Made it pretty pirate-proof, for better or worse!

Basically, there was no way everything would fit on a cartridge of that day per Interphase's usual plan, and it needed all the memory in the computer plus about 64K plus the cartridge (was that 8K or 16K?), and it switched colour RAM or I/O RAM, plus the cartridge and the RAM memory under it, in and out. A lot of common subroutines and the startup and disk loader were on the ROM. All the map scenes were RLE compressed and decoded into video memory as required. A blank map section (eg ocean) was only 8 bytes or so and they went up from there but even the most detailed were far smaller than uncompressed. Without that saving, it would have been a pretty puny map!

I realized afterwards that I could have got the disk drive to load considerably faster, but by then it was too late to change it. I hadn't counted on the long time it took just to send a couple of extra "housekeeping" commands (which caused no disk activity) per sector to the C64 drive.

Was it an active decision, being in Canada, to have the game running in both English and French, or was it something you decided to implement?

Only the poster/instruction sheet and the box have any French, to be in accordance with Canadian packaging laws brought in in the 1970's by Trudeau.

On the back of the Viking Raider box, it mentions that Sewer Sam and Blockade Runner were being lined up for release on the C64. Do you know how far along either of these were, and who was programming them? However I am almost assuming you may have done them if Interphase had survived.

Iirc, those were the games just finished when the company ran out of money. Not sure about on the C64.

The game Leon did for the C64 was called Vextrailian, but it did only limited sales.

[NB. None of these games have been found so far, not even by Gamebase64. So if you find an Interphase C64 game that isn't Viking Raider out there, let me know!]

In a similar fashion, there is information about Coco and Intellivision games that were never released. These include Aquatron, Player, Smuggler's Cove and Vextralian. Do you know if any of these were started, and if so, who was programming them?

I don't recall any of these for those formats. Vapourware, I guess.

Can you remember just how long you were employed by Interphase and how much you actually earned whilst being with them? It didn't seem a very long time from your earlier account!

A few months, maybe between 6-8. End of 1983 to late spring 1984. The pay was quite decent, but not extravagant.

Do you know what happened to any of the other employees? Nick Porcino ended up doing some work for 3DO years later for example.

Yep. I did some interesting stuff with Nick. An Atari word processor, scalable fonts, graphical appearance for Oases. He gave me a FORTH language he'd written and I got it working in Oases. He tried to get me to come to 3DO at one point. He was in California last I heard 6 or 7 years ago. Disney Studios. Colin Foster is designing mobile phones for VTech in Hong Kong.

There are no online details of you programming any other games, so to set the record straight, what other games did you program over the years?

Viking Raider was the last, and the only really significant one.

Any more memories about Interphase you can remember?

Most fun work I ever did! Norm would like to hear that, he always said, "If you're not having fun, what's the point?"

Any words out there for the millions of Commodore fans who may at one time encountered your game?

Hope you enjoyed it!!